This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V20", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
It is evident that there is an increasing interest in Orchid culture in this country, and I find that any reliable information on their habits is eagerly sought after. Their wonderful manner of growth, added to their beauty, and the delightful odor of many species, have made them subjects of interest from their first discovery, but it is only within the last twenty years that their culture has been successfully carried out in Europe. Some few persons in this country have also fine collections, but their popular culture is only a thing of a very few years. Want of information, the high price of the microscopic plants usually sent from Europe, and want of patience in the growers, have tended to make them, if not unpopular, at least not much sought after. The opinion that a damp, hot and shady place was essential to their cultivation, has been found to be erroneous. In fact no Orchid would present a healthy appearance if subjected to such treatment for a long time. Orchids, as far as my personal experience goes, and I have spent a considerable part of my early life in South America and the West Indies, do not grow in dense forests, but on trees on the edge of forests, or overhanging streams, or swamps, where they have plenty of air and light; and whilst they are subjected to much heat and moisture in their growing season, at times they are subjected to great droughts, and the shriveled appearance of newly imported bulbs is not caused so much by the length of time they have been gathered as to the prolonged drought in their own habitats.
If any one wishes to prove the correctness of this, let them cut off a sound, plump pseudo-bulb from any Cattleya, Oncid, or other bulbous Orchid, weigh it carefully and then put it away in a close, dry box, but away from the greenhouse. I have seen them after three months as plump as when cut, and they will be found to have diminished but little in weight. And if Orchids are gathered when they are dormant, and not packed too close, there is no telling how long they will retain their vitality. I have some Dendrobes now starting into growth, that I have had nearly a year without showing any sign of vegetation. In purchasing newly imported Orchids, it is of paramount importance to see that the eyes at the base of the bulbs have not been rotted out, either by being packed too moist, or at an improper season. Aerides and such Orchids as have no pseudo-bulbs, having no great supply of elaborate sap, of course cannot be kept so long without moisture.
The increased taste for Orchids in this country, will no doubt induce collectors to send plants here for sale, and our nearness to many of the Orchid producing countries, and increasing steam navigation, should soon make us independent of Europe, for our supply of South American and Mexican and Central American varieties, and East India kinds could be brought here via San Fran-ciso, in less time than to Europe. Quite a number of importations of Orchids have been sold by Young & Elliott, New York, and good plants, re-reliably named, seem to have brought good prices. In the main they have been in good condition, and I do not think that I have lost five per cent., and these may have been lost by my ignorance in handling them. As no doubt more will be imported, it is desirable for those who are not conversant with handling them, to know how it should be done. Suppose for instance in the Spring, which is the best time to import Orchids, you have a lot of Cattleyas, Oncids, Odontoglos-sum, etc. Take your Orchids, cut off all rotten bulbs and leaves, and then wash them carefully, using precaution not to bruise the eyes at the base of the bulbs.
Lay them in a shady place to dry oft". Some persons then put them in a warm, shady place, on some moss, until the}" show signs of growth, which will not be long if the bulbs are in good condition. I prefer however, to pot them as soon as they are clean and dry. Many kinds emit roots before they do their leaves, which roots are extremely tender, and apt to be broken off in potting. I use clean new pots, and only large enough to hold the bulbs. I never try to start two or more in the same pot, as they may turn out different varieties. If specimens are wanted, it is better to put the plants in a large pot or basket after they have been estab. lished a year or so. These small pots only need a little drainage, and fresh sphagnum moss is the best material to use for Orchids, that I have found in this country. After they are potted, the first requisite to start them into growth is heat. Heat is the first motor in all vegetation. If your fires are still going, they should be put near the heat, and slightly moistened with a fine syringe. It is good to throw a newspaper or some light covering over the plants, when the sun shines on them, as it dries up the moisture too fast. A little moisture is beneficial. After they are started and the young roots begin to come, they need constant care.
A good supply of sphagnum moss should always be on hand, and if the roots make their appearance outside of the pots, they should be covered carefully with clean, fresh moss. If you do not, snails, sow-bugs, roaches and even mice will be quick to discover and eat the young roots. There may be houses where none of these torments exist, but I have never seen one. As the plants grow they will require more water, which should be given with a small pot, in place of the syringe, as the latter is apt to leave water in the young growth, which will rot some kinds very quickly. After they have made their growth they should be placed near the glass, and where they can get some air and sunlight, this will mature the growth and help the bulbs to ripen. Some varieties make two growths with me in a year. This will be learned by practice. Many that are called cool Orchids, or intermediate, if kept in the hot-house in the winter, with an average temperature of 65° will make a second growth, and make good bulbs if kept within eighteen inches or so of the glass. This is a good way to hurry up the growth of small plants.
When your plants get too strong for the small pots in which they were first placed, and you wish to re-pot, if you find that they will not knock out very easily, you may be sure the roots have taken hold of the inside of the pot. Break the pot gently, with a small hammer, and let the pieces of crockery that the roots have fastened on, go into the other pot. The pot only costs two or three cents.
All pots and crocks should be perfectly clean, and if old pots are used, they should be washed and either placed on a warm flue, or in the sun to dry, otherwise the germs of the Litchens, etc, will come into growth, as soon as placed in a damp house. In potting I use the hardest burnt pots that I can get, even if they are a little black I prefer them. They do not generate filth as fast as the soft yellow pots. At one time I used pots with holes in the sides. I find that the holes only serve as hiding places for slugs, sow-bugs, etc. Noticing that one of my finest Cattle-yas, was doing badly, I concluded to re-pot it. It was in an eight-inch perforated pot. On knocking it out, I found a colony of slugs in the drainage, and every root eaten off. The plant has not recovered, though this was more than a year ago. I think there cannot be too many holes in the bottom of Orchid pots, and the bottoms should be concave. The moss about Orchids should be allowed to get dry, once every day or two. In the Summer I water late in the afternoon, which keeps the plants moist until 9 to 10, A. M., next day, at which time I thoroughly wet the floors. In Winter I water early in the morning, so as to dry up a little by night, and never water indiscriminately.
If a plant appears moist I do not give it any water. I grow small Ferns, Selaginellas, Achimenes, with the Orchids. They will always show need of water by flagging, long before the Orchids can possibly suffer. As Orchids out of bloom are not generally very attractive small Ferns add to their appearance. You can always cut off the strong fronds. Achimenes bulbs will remain dormant in the moss all the Winter, at the very time that most Orchids are resting. When the culture of Orchids in this country is better understood, I think they will become great favorites with amateurs who do not keep a gardener. Next to Cacti, which are the donkeys of the vegetable world, I think Orchids need less care after they are well established than any class of plants that I have cultivated.
The thermometer has been as low as 34° often, and once to 28°. I do not give it water oftener than once in two weeks. From November 1st to April 1st, it never fails to give me plenty of blooms; had eighty blooms open at one time by actual count. Alongside of it hangs a good strong plant of C. Loddigesii, has this day about thirty blooms open, and more coming. This has been in the same place two years. These very low temperatures are of course not desirable, and too low for Camellias. But many Orchids from South Brazil, and some Dendrobes will winter very well with a maxinum of 50° and minimum of 38°, but the bulbs must be sound, and the house just moist enough to keep the bulbs plump without too much water. D. nobile seems to me to bloom far better if it is rested two or three months in a temperature such as I have above stated. I think with our bright Fall months we have a great advantage over European Orchid growers, and especially those of England, where they have so much cloudy weather.
And our winters have a much larger proportion of sunny days than either England, North of France, Belgium or Germany. "We have much to encourage us in the cultivation of Orchids in this country, and when we get to importing them direct from their homes, we will grow specimens that would do credit in any exhibition. It may be that we of the Middle and Southern States may find trouble with such as Disa, Masdevallias and others that come from a fog enveloped country; but Dendrobes, Oncids, Cattleya, Laelias, Aerides, etc, should and will be grown far more successfully than in Europe. We have better sunlight and sunheat, and moisture and air as needed. I think also that we will yet grow many kinds in the open air in the months of June, July, August to the middle of September. That it can be done. I know from experience. At the time of the Vienna Exposition, a friend of mine, the late Mr. A. Hack, of Baltimore, went to the Exposition, leaving his plants in care of a colored man. I promised him to look in about once a week and see how things got on. In his collection was a small lot of very choice Orchids, Aerides, Vandas, Dendrobes, Cattleyas, etc.
Finding that they were doing badly in the hot dry house, and getting the thrips, I took them out of the house and placed them on tables on the north side of the house, in a place where the sun only shone about one to two hours in the morning. I improvised an awning to keep off very heavy showers of rain. They were watered every morning, and syringed in the evening, as I was desirous of getting rid of the thrips. They all grew finely, made dark strong leaves and bulbs. And I did not lose over a, dozen out of over one hundred and fifty plants, and those lost were almost gone when brought out. They were out at least ten weeks, and the thermometer ranged from 60° to 94°. It is my intention to put up a place in an open piece of woods, and try my Mexican and Brazilian Orchids in the open air. I cannot see why a temperature of from 60° to 90° should not grow Orchids as well in the United States, as in Brazil. I have seen the temperature on the Organ Mountains, where so many fine Orchids grow, 400 at day-light and 95° at 2 P. M., I would not advise anyone to try Orchids in the open air, without having the place so arranged that they could be sheltered from heavy rains.
I have grown Sobralia macran-tha, Epidendrum cinnabarinum, E. crassifolium and several other common varieties very finely in the open air, but I have been a little fearful of trying experiments, as my stock is not too strong. My experiment with Mr. Hack's plants was forced on me, as I found that they would be lost if kept in the house. If nothing happens I shall certainly try some of many varieties in the open air next Summer. If I lose them I will only add one more to the list of martyrs to science.