This section is from the book "The Gardener V2", 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.
MR WILLIAMS, in his admirable work on Orchid-culture, goes so far as to say that these lovely mountain Orchids are somewhat neglected by gardeners and Orchid cultivators generally. They are so beautiful, and flower in autumn at such a welcome time, that they are not at all deserving of neglect, - indeed, on the other hand, worthy of the most assiduous culture. Even where but "a few Orchids" are grown, they should find a place on account of their distinct habit of growth, and, by comparison with their own bulb and leaf growth, enormous flowers. If you take the largest-blossomed Lycaste known, and measure it and the smallest-flowered Pleione, bulb for bulb and leaf for leaf, you will find that the Pleione has flowers three times larger in proportion ! I am just reminded of these upland gems by the sight of my own little collection of them just sprouting up into growth like young Palms from their mossy beds of sphagnum, which, being seen betwixt the eye and the light, is of the loveliest green tint imaginable. I am the more particularly interested in them because all my stock is or has been the gifts of kind Orchid-growing friends. As it is now the fashion to boast of one's presents in the horticultural press, I suppose I must boast of mine also.
Well, about six weeks ago I received from a kind friend on the north side of the great "saumon river" a long shallow box, the look and probable contents of which was at first somewhat of a puzzle to me. On opening it, however, and removing the layers of soft paper and cotton wool, there lay exposed to view three rows of splendidly grown bulbs of Pleione lagenaria twelve in a row - and all large, and plump, and fresh, and as much alike as thirty-six bullets all cast in the same mould. It was a sight to charm the heart of any one who can distinguish an Orchid bulb from an Onion, and the care and delight with which they were unpacked and placed in those mossy-surfaced pans before alluded to would have pleased the kind donor exceedingly. The plant, either in growth or flower, will always be to us a living and beautiful souvenir. This is so, indeed, with a large proportion of our plants, especially the Orchids. That morsel of Coelogyne Lemoniana, for example, with its plump pseudo-bulbs, rivalling hens' eggs in size and smoothness, is to us a reminder of one of nature's born gardeners, and one of the most genial of men - a Christian who lives his Christianity instead of talking of it.
Cypripedium Maulei, just opening out its wonderfully spotted upper sepal, is another souvenir to us - a souvenir of one whom we can respect by reputation as well as by name. Look wherever we may, these kind gifts of brother gardeners present themselves to our notice, and enliven our daily duties with thoughts of others rather than of ourselves. But I must stay this preachment, and return to the Pleiones. I have chosen the present time to write of these plants because now is the time they require especial attention; and if they are not in the possession of those desirous of having them, now is a good time to obtain them.
In nearly all collections they will have been repotted some weeks ago : if it has been overlooked, however, now is the time to repot or top-dress such as require it. As a compost we use fibrous peat, chopped living sphagnum, and about a fourth of fibrous loam. Some growers rub up dried horse-droppings or cow-manure in the compost, but in the case of Pleiones we prefer to give any essential manurial stimulant at the time it is most needed, - that is, about May or June, when light is abundant, and the leaves and roots are in full action. As a liquid stimulant for these and other sub-terrestrial Orchids, we use a weak and clear solution of cow-manure and soot, so made that the water is but slightly discoloured. Just "whusky an' water" colour, as an observant friend once told me on seeing it used.
At the present time the rootlets are being protruded from the warty base of the young growths, and neither manure nor over-much root moisture is good for them - indeed, on the contrary, likely to be hurtful. A temperature of 50° at night to 65° in the day-time, with plenty of air, suits them admirably; and our own practice is to grow them in shallow Orchid-pans suspended beneath the roof of an intermediate house. A Cattleya-house suits them well, - so also an ordinary plant - stove, if not kept too close and hot, or too much overshadowed by creepers on the roof. A vinery, where forcing is being commenced, and which is not lower than 50° at night, will be an admirable place for them; or failing these, even a shelf near the light in a warm greenhouse or conservatory may be utilised for them. As I have before remarked, they require very careful watering until the roots gain strength with the lengthening. On the judicious starting of Pleiones and Calanthes much of the success of after-culture depends. This much is true of most other things, but I think it applies with more than ordinary force to these, since no amount of careful after - culture can with them make up for a bad start.
Instead of using the watering-pot, just now, we rather trust to sprinkling the mossy surface once or twice daily with a fine-rosed syringe, not using sufficient water to risk its settling down into the heart of the young growth, and so causing rotting. On very dull or wet days we omit syringing altogether, and no doubt this may generally be done with advantage. As growth commences to strengthen, however, and the roots to form a network amongst the moss, and the sun becomes hotter and the days longer, not only may the water-pot be freely used overhead with advantage, but it will often become necessary to dip the pans entirely in tank or cistern to make sure of the earth being moist throughout. The greatest care must ever be exercised in keeping thrips, green-fly, and red-spider at bay; and syringing morning and evening, with plenty of air on by night as well as by day all through the summer months, is the best safeguard against insect enemies. As the foliage turns brown at the tips, do not be tempted to withhold water too suddenly. Syringe as usual, but do not soak the compost too much with the water-pot. Keep the compost moist, and no more.
If this is judiciously done, the brown tips will extend down the foliage towards the bulbs very slowly, and this is very essential, as the bulbs are now "plumping up" or fattening themselves out so as to be able to take a few weeks' rest, and then push up their lovely Crocus-like flowers. On careful and timely starting and judicious resting the whole success in Pleione - culture rests, and the other routine culture is of easy management, being simply that of other stove or warm greenhouse plants, - careful watering, syringing, and general cleanliness.
A word as to the kinds grown may be of service. P. lagenaria is the strongest grower, and the most generally useful of the whole group. It is to Pleiones what "nobile" is to Dendrobiums. Then P. praecox, or as it is otherwise called P. Wallichiana, is a good free grower, and very effective. P. maculata, being mostly white, is useful for cut, or rather pulled flowers; for I must not forget to say that Pleione flowers are best if pulled gently from the plants, being careful to pull in the line of upward growth. The flowers come out of their sheathing bracts - just like Lily of the Valley spikes when pulled instead of cut - and the result is longer and more useful stems. P. humilis is a pretty pink-flowered kind, and P. Reichenbachiana, P. Hookeriana, P. Arthuriana, P. tricolor, and one or two others, are as yet too rare and expensive for any but the most zealous of Orchid-growers and amateur cultivators.
Any one who will give the first three kinds a fair trial as above recommended will, I am sure, not care to be without Pleiones as autumn flowers for a long time to come.