This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
THERE cannot be a doubt as to which family of tropical plants is the most popular at the present time. Orchid-culture has extended by "leaps and bounds" during the last decade or two, and their star is still in the ascendant. Amateurs who cultivate plants for recreation, and who enjoy the labour of tending them with their own hands, have taken to Orchid-culture in no inconsiderable numbers. In a great many villa-gardens of comparatively small extent, Orchids have become a specialty. They are imported by almost, if not quite, the million, and find a ready sale at what must be remunerative prices, - and the cry is, still they come, and still they sell. One large nursery establishment, we are assured, could not make their general plant trade pay, apart from its house-upon-house full of Orchids. Another nurseryman tells us he can sell Orchids very often when he cannot sell anything else, and rarely ever sends an Orchid in bloom to an exhibition that he does not sell there and then. When any large and valuable collection of Orchids is brought to the hammer on account of the decease of its owner, or from any other cause, fanciers come from nearly all parts of the country to pick up good plants or good varieties at very high prices.
We hear of a Vanda being bought for 100 guineas, a Lycaste for somewhere about 50, and an Angraecum at a similar price; a Masdevallia for 30, and a morsel of a fine Vanda caerulea at 10 guineas, and so forth.
Can this state of things be indicative of good taste, and, as in the case of superb paintings, a taste that is likely to be lasting 1 In plants, as in most things, there is no doubt something in fashion, and often it carries its devotees beyond the limits of good taste. If a love for that which is interesting, singular, and curious in form and life, of the most exquisite blendings and tintings, strikingly distinct and brilliant in colouring, be good taste, then assuredly no family of plants can gratify and whet it more than that of Orchids. It must be admitted that many of its members when not in bloom are not graceful, but ungainly and rustic - not much better at times than a bundle of bare stems - as, for instance, the large genus of Dendrobiums; yet some of these bear among the most beautiful of flowers, compensating at one season for their rather uncouth aspect at another. To the lovers of the curious and interesting in form, what other family can provide so much gratification as is to be found in a great number of the Orchid family - such, for instance, as Peristeria elata, Angraecum sesquipedale, Anguloa Clowesii, Cypripedium caudatum, not to enumerate dozens more? What can excel or equal, both in interesting formation and exquisite colouring, such as Cattleya oxoniensis (if not the most splendid of all Orchids, certainly one of the most splendid of Orchids, and very fragrant), Cattleya labiata and its varieties, and Dendrobiums too numerous to name? Then there are the delicate tints and Mendings in the Aerides and Saccolabiums, the elegance and colouring combined in the best types of Odontoglossum Alexandra?,, O. pescatorei, 0. cirrhosum, the massive size and delicacy of colour of O. vexillarium, the purity of the grand old Coelogyne cristata, not to mention Phalae, nopsis and many others as celebrated for their lively colouring as for their remarkable formation.
A pretty good case could surely be made out for a taste that revels in such plants, and its growth and extension is a matter to be desired; and such is likely to be the case, seeing that our swift steam-vessels and the short cuts now available make it possible to land Orchids on our shores in much finer and fresher condition than was possible at one time not very far distant. As a whole, Orchids can now, no doubt, be purchased at lower prices than fifteen or twenty years ago. Still superb varieties of popular genera never were higher priced, simply because the number of buyers of "crack" varieties are now more numerous; and considering the wealth of the country now, few things offer a better investment from a commercial point of view than first-rate varieties of Orchids.
A circumstance which has to a considerable extent of late induced many to begin their culture, is the fact that some of the very finest tropical Orchids have been grown under much cooler treatment than was at one time dreamed of. Many of the most beautiful hail from the high lands of the Americas, and not only thrive, but thrive by far the best, in a temperature not much above what is necessary for a mixed collection of greenhouse plants. Thus their beauty can be much more enjoyed by all, and by many who cannot for many minutes put up with a roasting tropical heat.
Looked at from what may be considered a utilitarian point of view - namely, the supply of cut-flowers for various purposes - some Orchids stand unrivalled. Few if any blooms last so long in rooms after they are detached from the plants. Apart altogether from their beauty, this is a most important recommendation. Given a glass-house, what can be grown in it that will yield a more plentiful crop of flowers at a season when they are scarce, and valued, than such as Dendrobium nobile, Coelogyne cristata, Laelia anceps, Lycaste Skinneri, Odontoglos-sum Alexandras, O. pescatorei, Cypripedium insignis, Phaius grandi-flora, Calanthe Veitchii, C. vestita oculata rubra, Zygopetalum Mackayii, Pleiones, not to mention many others, none of which rank among the very high-priced? Moreover, they can all be grown in the same house - in a most enjoyable temperature - by keeping those of them which hail from the warmest latitudes at the warmest end of the house, and those which are from higher and cooler quarters at the coolest end. None of them require a high temperature to grow them perfectly well.
Neither are any of them ranked among those which are difficult or troublesome to manage; and we have no hesitation in affirming that, at the dead of winter, there is no other plants that are so useful for cut-flowers, or more interesting in all respects. Most of those named above last a long time in an ordinary sitting-room. Calanthes remain fresh, opening their unexpanded blooms, for six weeks, and the Coelogyne for a month. Any one who has half-a-dozen good plants of Dendrobium nobile can afford to cut an entire bloom-stem, and does not need much besides a few sprigs of Fern to make a vase or glass look charming for a considerable time. They have also the merit of packing and carrying well; and no box or case of cut-flowers can be considered complete without a few Orchids.