We know that the interest in and cultivation of orchids stretches back many thousands of years and has always existed alongside other forms of horticulture. However, the selective breeding of plants and an understanding of hybridizing only began in the 18th century.
In the early Victorian times, at the height of orchid mania, various experts were wondering what would happen if hybridization was attempted between different species that they had in their collections. The firm of Veitch & Sons in Exeter, England, one of the largest nurseries in the world at that time, employed collectors on every continent to send back new plants, seeds and bulbs to their nursery. Here they had a large collection of orchids and the head grower was a local man, John Dominy. In the late 1840s John Dominy was working with a surgeon called John Harris, who was also a botanist and studied the anatomy of orchid flowers in great depth. With his help, Dominy set about pollinating various orchid flowers, and by experimenting with closely related species and cross-pollinating them, some of their results were successful and some failed. They soon learned that if the cross succeeded and produced a large seed capsule, it would contain many thousands of seeds. The orchid seed, being extremely fine, was difficult to grow without a complete understanding of its requirements. Unfortunately, John Dominy did not keep exact records of his early attempts, but we may assume that he crossed many different orchids to decide which would produce seed.
The most attractive were the large, colourful cattleyas from South America and it was these that they first tried to cross-pollinate. The resulting seedlings proved very slow to grow and were to take many years before they finally flowered. While waiting for them to grow, they continued pollinating other flowers, among which were some of the evergreen calanthes. These proved to be very fertile and gave large quantities of seed which, when sown, were quicker to reach maturity and flower. These seedlings overtook those of the cattleyas that had been raised earlier and so it was that in 1856 the first calanthes flowered. They caused a great sensation in the orchid world when the first hybrid, a cross between Calanthe furcata and C. masuca, was named in honour of John Dominy, Calanthe Dominii.
Dominy’s successor at Veitch & Sons was a man called John Seden who was to carry on the successful line of breeding with more genera.
To their great surprise, the early Victorians discovered that it was possible to continue breeding from their hybrids into a second and third generation. They were also able to make extremely wide crosses, interbreeding different genera successfully, a practice not possible with many other types of plant.