Twelve Portraits of the Dracula Orchid
The history of the marvelous orchid encompasses fatal and little-known chapters of terrible tragedy dating back to Greek mythology. Back then, Orchis, the son of a nymph and a satyr, encountered the entourage of Dionysios, the son of Zeus and god of ecstatic celebration, in a forest. Suddenly infatuated with a priestess accompanying Dionysios, Orchis lost his head and tried to rape her. She defended herself and ordered wild beasts to kill him. However, as she gazed at the beautiful corpse lying at her feet, she repented her decision and asked the gods to return Orchis to life. The gods, moved by her plea, revived him and transformed him into an orchid flower.
In other cultures over the course of history, the orchid—a symbol of passionate love that is the symbol of aesthetic perfection—also is tied to bloody and brutal events. In southern Asia, orchid petals are the wrinkled dress of a vanquished goddess. In ancient Chinese paintings, serene brushstrokes depict orchids, plums, chrysanthemums and bamboo in silent contemplation of thousands of years of ruthless wars. In pre-Columbian cultures, the prized use of orchids for nutritive, medicinal and religious purposes transformed the orchid, along with other species, into an incentive for the devastating Spanish hordes. As of the latter part of the 19th century, however, the orchid’s misfortune manifested itself with more ferocious intensity. The voracious desire of Victorian Europe for this flower set off an interminable chain of deaths, beginning with that of millions of different orchid species that perished as a result of the dismal condition of the journeys on the way to exile. The disappearance of so many species in the midst of hurricanes and shipwrecks is almost unimaginable, a parallel drama to the heartless slave trade, transversing these same waters, all victims of this cruel market.
Meanwhile, the Andean forests were looted and destroyed to satiate the fever for this exquisite love of the delicate flower. Entire jungles were torn down to obtain the orchids residing within their dense foliage, while others were destroyed by this new type of hunter so that their competitors could not get their hands on certain precious species, making the orchids more valuable for those who had obtained them first. In strange revenge, many of these men paid for the boldness of this mass abduction with their lives, without distinguishing whether their purpose was scientific, commercial or just an irrepressible whim. Almost all of these orchid hunters, caught in the chains of an irresistible and fatal attraction, ended their lives as cadavers among the orchids, in the midst of these exuberant forests that are still being destroyed in a systematic and fierce manner by cutting, cattle-herding, and the indiscriminate aerial bombing of chemical fumigation of extensive areas that are the home of endemic species.
Colombia, the country that has the reputation for having the richest diversity of orchids in the world, also has abundant cases of deaths arising from the pursuit of this beautiful flower. Great figures in the history of botany and anonymous collectors arrived in these jungles, like hypnotized beings, following in a ominous ritual: Aimé Bonpland, a French explorer and botanist who ended his life as an orchid hunter on the Uruguay-Brazil border; Victorian merchant William Arnold, who disappeared in the thunderous torrents of the Orinoco River; David Bowman, victim of dysentery in Bogotá; German consul Friederich Carl Lehmann in Popayan, also a miner and orchid specialist, killed on the Timbiquí River; Albert Millican, collector, painter, photographer and author of the book Travels and Adventures of an Orchids Hunter, whose bones rest since 1899 in the Victoria, Caldas, cemetery after a fierce knifing; and the famed Gustavo Wallis, who perished of yellow fever and malaria in the Andean mountain mists. The list goes on and on. They were not the only victims of this mortal fate; many of the herbaria, collected with great effort, perished in the violence of local conflicts and the European wars, starting with that of José Celestino Mutis, quickly removed from the violence of Bogotá in a rescue effort, but losing part of the material in the twists and turns of the flight. The fabulous herbarium of the celebrated orchid specialist Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach was practically burnt to the ground during World War I. Rudolf Schelchter’s great herbarium in Germany was destroyed in 1943 by bombs. Many of the extensive series of engravings that José Celestino Mutis gave to Alexander von Humboldt, subsequently donated to the city of Berlin, were also destroyed in the bombing. Many of Europe’s botanical gardens suffered the same fate.
Around the middle of the 20th century, the difficult conditions of public order began to keep foreign botanists away from our jungles, and the search for orchids was left in the hands of Colombian collectors. With only a few exceptions, these Colombians have found themselves on the list of those who perished in the search for the exotic flower: José María Guevara, José María Serna, Evelio Segura, Bernardo Tascón, are just a few names among the many unnamed and unknown victims sacrificed in the tragic saga of the Scorpion Flower, a saga that began with the fate of Orchis in that mythical tale of long ago.
Colombian photographer Jorge Mario Múnera was the winner of the 2003 DRCLAS Latin American and Latino Art Forum. He earned first place in Colombia’s National Photography in 1988. His work has been published in Orfebrería y Chamanismo, with text by anthropologist Gerardo Reichel Dolmatoff, as well as in Orquídeas Nativas de Colombia, volumenes 1, 2, 3, 4 with texts by various authors; El tren y sus gentes, with texts by Belisario Betancur et al; Vista Suelta, which won the National Photography Prize; and El Corazón del Pan with text by Antonio Correa. Many of these books have been published by Sirga Publishing. Múnera is currently preparing editions of Memoria de Festejos Populares and La arena y los sueños. Contact: