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Flowers from the past

Re-edition of a 1949 book brings back orchids and where they grew

Reproductions from the book Iconografia de Orchidaceas do BrasilLaelia crispaReproductions from the book Iconografia de Orchidaceas do Brasil

For those that who are distressed by the increasingly common traffic jams along the Pinheiros and Tietê riverside avenues in the city of São Paulo, it might serve as consolation to learn that in the past there were lots of orchid-filled woods along there. “In the woods along the banks of the Pinheiros river, we still found in 1917-1922, lots of beautiful tufts of  Cattleya Loddigesii and Bifrenaria Harrisoniae in the bifurcation of some sinuous trees (…). In the dryer woodlands, we saw huge clusters of Miltonia Regnellii and Gomesa crispa; the Stanhopea graveolens could still be found in some trunks that were less accessible in the lower grounds,” wrote botanist Frederico Carlos Hoehne, the founder of the São Paulo Botanical Garden, in the book Iconografia de Orchidaceas do Brasil (gêneros e principais espécies em texto e em pranchas) [Iconography of the Orchids of Brazil (genera and main species in text and pictures)], now re-edited by the São Paulo Botanical Institute.

First published in 1949, the 640-page book is one of Brazil’s botanical classics. It reads like a long letter from Hoehne to orchid collectors to whom he amicably describes how to identify, cultivate, collect, package and transport these plants.

Many stories are added to the botanical part, such as that of a Bletia verecunda, a Central American native, which flowered in England for the first time in 1735, and what he calls a “mental excursion through the country of orchids,”  a stroll through the woods of São Paulo, Santa Catarina, Rio de Janeiro, Pará and Amazonas. Based on his observations during his travels, Hoehne shows orchids while also introducing trees, insects, birds and the occasional snake to his hypothetical travel companions. In Angra dos Reis, on the Rio de Janeiro state coast, he found a Laelia crispa with 86 flowers that were all open at the same time and commented that this orchid species was “unfortunately quite difficult to keep other than on living trees.”

São Paulo garden
The child of Germans, born in 1882 in the town of Juiz de Fora in Minas Gerais state, Hoehne left Rio de Janeiro in 1917 to establish in São Paulo a garden in which to grow medicinal plants. This came to be the core of the São Paulo Botanical Garden, the country’s second oldest one, preceded only by the one in Rio de Janeiro, established in 1808 under the name of Acclimatization Garden, for the cultivation of plants such as nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper, brought from the East Indies and used as seasoning.

The São Paulo Botanical Garden began taking shape in 1928, when an orchid greenhouse was built, becoming one of the areas most sought out by visitors. “On a Sunday afternoon, during flowering season, it is interesting to observe the visitors,”  Hoehne write in the 1950 report of the Botany Institute, which was established in 1942 and of which he was the first director. “The workers double as guards, donning a cap, and have plenty of work keeping some of the visitors from wandering onto the paths and engaging in rather less respectable activities there.”

Hoehne did not allow his fascination with orchids to overcome his sense of reality. “It is likely that the same will happen to the orchids as happened to the gold from our subsoil and to the pines of São Paulo, Paraná, Santa Catarina and the South of Minas,”  he warned in his Iconografia. “It concerns taking repressive measures once they are no longer accessible. This is already occurring in Espírito Santo, where the Catleya labiata Warnerii and C. granulosa used to be so common and generated such a profit margin for those who picked them.”  If he were to walk along the banks of the Tietê and Pinheiros rivers today, he would see that changes can sometimes be radical.