Story of Dendrobium schröderianum (by Frederick Boyle – 1901)

Many who care nothing for our pleasant science recall the chatter and bustle which greeted the reappearance of Dendrobium Schröderianum* in 1891. For they spread far beyond the horticultural circles. Every newspaper in the realm gave some sort of a report, and a multitude of my confrères were summoned to spin out a column, from such stores of ingenuity as they could find, upon a plant which grew on human skulls and travelled under charge of tutelary idols. The scene at Protheroe’s was a renewal of the good old time when every season brought its noble plant, and every plant brought out its noble price—in short, a sensation.

The variety of Dendrobium phalaenopsis* hereafter to bear Baron Schröder’s name was sent to Kew by Forbes about 1857. This single plant remained a special trophy of the Royal Gardens for many years. It throve and multiplied. In course of time Sir Joseph Hooker was able to give a small piece, in exchange for other varieties, to Mr. Day, of Tottenham, to Baron Schröder, and to Messrs. Veitch. The latter sold their specimen to Baron Schröder; Mr. Day’s collection was dispersed, and the same greatest of amateurs bought his fragment. Thus all three plants known to exist in private hands came into Baron Schröder’s possession, and the variety took his name.

This state of things lasted ten years. Mr. Sander then resolved to wait no longer upon chance. He studied the route of Forbes’s travels, consulted the authorities at Kew, and, with their aid, came to a conclusion. In 1890 my friend Mr. Micholitz went out to seek Dendrobium Schröderianum in its native wilds.

The man of sense who finds a treasure does not proclaim the spot till he has filled his pockets, nor even, if it may be, till he has cleared out the hoard. It is universally understood that Micholitz discovered the object of his quest in New Guinea. If that error encouraged the exploration of a most interesting island, as I hear, it has done a public service. And the explorers have not wasted their time. They did not fall in with Dendrobium Schröderianum, because it was not there; but they secured other valuable things. Very shortly now the true habitat will be declared. Meantime I must only say that it is one of the wildest of those many Summer Isles of Eden which stud the Australasian Sea.

Micholitz arrived in a trading-vessel, the captain of which was trusted by the natives. Under that protection the chiefs allowed him to explore, agreeing to furnish men and canoes—for a consideration, naturally. Their power did not stretch beyond a few miles of coast; the neighbours on each side were unfriendly, or at least distrusted; and bitterly hostile tribes lay beyond—hostile, that is, to the people among whom Micholitz landed. All alike are head-hunters, and all charge one another with cannibalism—but falsely in every case, I understand.

The field was narrow, therefore, and uncommonly perilous, for the best-intentioned of these islanders cannot always resist the impulse to crown their trophies with a white man’s head—as the Captain assured Micholitz day by day with an earnestness which became oppressive after a while. But he was very lucky—or rather the probabilities had been studied so thoughtfully before any step was taken that he sailed to the very island. I do not mean that it is wonderful to find an orchid on the first day’s search when once its habitat is known. Dendrobiums cover a great tract of land. It is the nicety of calculation ten thousand miles away which should be admired.

There were no plants, however, just around the little port. After some days spent in making arrangements, Micholitz received an intimation that the chiefs were going to a feast and he might accompany them; there is no lack of interpreters on that coast, whence so many poor wretches are enticed to English or French colonies—some of whom return nowadays. The Captain could not go. In refusing he looked at Micholitz with a quizzical, hesitating air, as though inclined to make a revelation.

Is there any danger? Micholitz asked.

Oh no! not a bit!—not a bit of danger! I answer for that. You’ll be amused, I daresay. They’re rum chaps.

The chance of making a trip beyond the narrow friendly area in safety was welcome, and at daylight he started with the chiefs. It was but a few hours’ paddling—to the next bay. The feast was given, as is usual, to celebrate the launch of a war-prau (e.n. prau or proa is a type of sailing boat originating in Malaysia and Indonesia that may be sailed with either end at the front, typically having a large triangular sail and an outrigger). In martial panoply the guests embarked, paint and feathers, spears and clubs. They were met by their hosts in the same guise upon the beach. After ceremonies probably—but I have no description—all squatted down in a circle, and a personage, assumed to be the priest, howled for a while. Then the warriors began to dance, two by two. It was very wearisome, and besides, very hot. Micholitz asked at length whether he might leave. The interpreter said there was no objection. He walked towards the forest, which stood some distance back, even as a wall, skirting the snowy beach. The grey huts of the village glimmered among palms and fruit-trees on one hand.

A sunken way had been dug from the edge of the surf to a long low building a hundred yards back; within it lay the prau doubtless, ready to be launched. Micholitz skirted this channel. He noticed a curious group of persons sitting apart—an old man, two women, a boy, and a girl. The elders were squatting motionless upon the sand, so bowed that the long wool drooping hid their faces; the children lay with their heads in the women’s laps. None looked up; in passing he observed that these latter were bound.

The boat-house—so to call it—spanning the channel, was a hundred feet long, built of palm thatch, with substantial posts at due distance. As he walked along it, Micholitz became aware of an unpleasant smell. It was not strong. But in turning the further corner he marked a great purple stain upon the sand. Flies clustered thick there. It was blood. And then, upon the wall of thatch above, and the corner post, he traced the stain streaming broadly down. He looked to the other angle. The horrid mark was there also. They could not see him from the beach. Easily he parted the crackling palm leaves, and thrust in his head. At a few feet distance rose the lofty stern-post, carved and painted, with two broad shells glistening like eyes in the twilight. No more could he see, dazzled by the glare outside. That passed. He turned to the right hand-and drew back with a cry. A naked corpse, with head hanging on its chest, was bound to the corner post—the same to left.

Poor Micholitz felt sick. He ran from the cursed spot. So glowing was the sunlight round, so sweet and soft the shadow of the near forest—and those awful things in the midst! The old hymn rang in his ears—

Where every prospect pleases
And only man is vile.

He hurried towards the trees.

An outburst of yells and laughter made him turn. The circle had broken up. A swarm of warriors danced towards the boat-house—tore down the walls; in an instant the posts stood naked—with their burdens. Chiefs climbed aboard the prau and mustered, with tossing feathers, brandishing their arms, shouting and singing, on its deck. Ropes were manned. Scores of brawny savages started at a run, whilst the boys howled with delight and tumbled over one another. The great vessel moved, quickened. Then a party rushed upon that little group, trampling it under foot, snatched up the boy and girl, and sped with them towards the sea. The old man and women lay where they were tossed: there was no help for them in earth or heaven. The prau glided quicker and quicker amidst a roaring tumult. As it neared the sea, those small victims, tossed aloft from either side, fell across its course. Micholitz looked no more.

Let me attend to my business, for God’s sake! he kept repeating.

But when he reached the trees his business was done. Those horrors had so disconcerted him that for an instant he saw long green stems of orchid perched upon the boughs without regarding them. But here was one from the top of which depended a cluster of rosy garlands, four or five, bearing a dozen, or twenty, or thirty great flowers, all open; and there a cluster snow-white—a crimson one beyond, darkening almost to purple. Dendrobium Schröderianum was rediscovered!

Of Micholitz’s emotion it is enough to tell that it drove all else from his mind, or almost. When the interpreter summoned him he sat down and hobnobbed with those murderers and ate their dubious viands. The triumph was startling, so speedy and complete; but so much the heavier were his responsibilities. When, with a chilling shock, he recalled distinctly the dread spectacle, he said again:

Let me attend to my business! I can’t help it!

All went well. So soon as the chiefs understood that this eccentric white man fancied their weeds, they joyously offered them—at a price. The time of year was excellent—early in the dry season. Next day Micholitz returned aboard and the Captain brought his ship round to the bay. But he would not listen to the story. ‘I told you they was rum chaps, didn’t I? Well, you see I told you true.’ In three days, so plentiful was the supply, Micholitz had gathered as many as he thought judicious, and heaped them on deck. They could be dried while the vessel was waiting for cargo elsewhere, and he longed to get away from that ill-omened spot.

Still luck attended him. The Captain ‘filled up’ quickly, and sailed, as by agreement, for a Dutch port, where the orchids would be shipped for England. He arrived in the evening, the ship lay alongside the wharf; next day his precious cases would be transferred to the steamer. In great content Micholitz went to sleep; so did everybody else, the watch included. Towards morning the harbour police raised a cry of Fire! It must have been smouldering for hours. Not a plant could poor Micholitz save!

On arrival, he had telegraphed his success, and joy reigned at St. Albans all day. Foresight and enterprise were justly rewarded for once. What a coup—what a sensation! Let us not speculate upon the language used when a second dispatch came in the morning.

Ship burnt! What do?—Micholitz.

The reply was emphatic: Go back—Sander.

Too late—rainy season.

Go back!

And Micholitz went. His protest, had he insisted upon it, was unanswerable. Hard enough it would be to return among those anti-human wretches when the delights of home had been so near. But there was no chance of regaining the bay—a vessel might not sail thither for months or years. The work must be begun again—the search renewed. And in the rainy season, too!

But the good fellow did not even hesitate. Forthwith he inquired for a ship trading with the island. There was none, and he had no time to wait, for the rain grew heavier daily. A mail steamer was leaving for the nearest settlement. Trusting to the courtesy of nations, Micholitz claimed a passage as a shipwrecked man. It was flatly refused, but at length the Dutch officials yielded to his indignant appeal so far as to make a deduction of 30 per cent. ‘Well,’ he wrote to St. Albans, there is no doubt these are the meanest people on earth. The Captain of the Costa Rica whaling ship agrees with him.

I have no space for the adventures of this second journey now. The Dendrobe was found once more, which is not at all surprising when its habitat had been discovered. At this spot, however, it was growing, not on trees, but on rocks of limestone—most epiphytal orchids love to cling on that rough and porous surface. Especially was it abundant in the graveyard of the clan, a stony waste where for generations they had left their dead—not unmourned, perhaps—beneath the sky. The plants grew and flowered among bones innumerable. To suggest the removal of them under such circumstances was a nervous duty. But in the graveyard they were not only most plentiful, but by far most vigorous. It had to be done, and with all precautions, after displaying a sample of his ‘trade,’ looking-glasses and knives and beads, and so forth, Micholitz did it.

A clamour of indignation broke out. It was swelling into passion when he produced a roll of brass wire; at that spectacle it suddenly calmed down. After debate among themselves the warriors stipulated that two of their most sacred idols should travel with the plants, and be treated with all honour on the way. They would not assist in collecting, but after the distribution of brass wire they helped to pack the cases.

Thus it happened that one of the Dendrobes sold at Protheroe’s on October 16, 1891, was attached to a human skull. As for the idols, they were bought by the Hon. Walter Rothschild, and we are free to hope that they are treated with reverence, as per agreement.

* Synonyms of Den. bigibbum