Highlights from Orchids (James O’Brien)

From our journey through random or quality (or random quality) books, here are some highlights from James O’Brien’s Orchids (1911).

Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and our own edits, though marked, may be broad. Important: By sharing these highlights we neither endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that we know little of the authors, and that we have nuanced views on the matter—as with all our book recommendations.


[…] common sense is one of the most important factors in cultivation[.]

[…] “practice makes master.” 

The first tropical Orchid to flower in the British Isles appears to have been Bletia verecunda (Helleborine americana), figured in Historia Plantorum Rariorum, 1728–1735.

[At the end of the eighteenth century it] was thought that a great success had been attained if a plant bloomed once before it died. 

The year 1800 may be said to be the real starting-point of rational Orchid culture […].

[…] no class of plants can be so readily crossed under artificial conditions. 

In the early days of Orchid culture […] the great mortality among cultivated Orchids was caused by excessive heat and drought. 

[…] 4-inch piping should be used, the radiation of heat from that size being much more gentle and equal than from smaller pipes. 

One of the most important matters in Orchid cultivation is to see that a lower temperature is maintained at night than in the day. Nothing is more injurious to the plants than to be kept in a high temperature at night, nor is anything more contrary to natural conditions. […] cool conditions at night are absolutely necessary for the well-being of the plants […]. […] it must be urged that at night the temperature must be from 5° to 10° Fahrenheit lower than the day temperatures. 

The higher day temperature should be obtained by sun-heat when possible. 

[Blinds] must never be down except when required for protection against the sun’s rays, and they must be drawn up during dull intervals. 

Experienced growers […] are engaged in potting operations all the year round, potting each section as it requires it. 

As a general rule, it may be said that the best time to perform the operation is soon after the flowering season has passed, and that no plant should be repotted unless it really requires it; but any plant which has become in a bad condition in the pot by being in unsuitable material should be repotted at once, no matter what season it may be. 

Care should be taken to use the pots and crocks in a thoroughly clean condition. 

Sand and crushed crocks or potsherds are used by many for mixing with the potting material, but they may easily be dispensed with, or used only in very small quantities. 

It is desirable that an Orchid grower should endeavour to find out the best methods for his own circumstances […]. The operation of potting or basketing Orchids is very simple, and can be readily learned by observation. The aim should be to avoid injuring the living roots but to leave the plant firm in the pot. 

The great trouble with suspended Orchids, and one which precludes the cultivator employing this culture for so many plants as he could wish, is the drip they cause to the plants on the stages. No Orchid should have another plant suspended above it […].

Metal, especially galvanised iron wire, which is most commonly used, is very injurious to any portion of an Orchid which is allowed to come in contact with it. Such pegs are unnecessary, for the plants can be fixed with the potting material, and later on the new roots will effectually secure them. 

Where leaves too closely approach the wire suspenders during their growth, the wire should be bent to avoid contact, or have a small shred of cotton-wool or other material bound round it at the point of contact, if the leaf cannot be drawn aside. 

For staking Orchids, bamboo canes are preferable to common deal-wood sticks. 

[…] a stock-book, in which the name of each plant is entered as it is acquired, together with the source from which it was obtained, and any other particulars that may be required when the plant flowers. This entry need only be brief, and generally one, or at most two lines will suffice for each plant. 

[…] in all collections of Orchids the old leaves, even of the evergreen species, do not pass off naturally as they do in their native habitats, where they have the natural seasons with their climatic changes to cause the leaves to fall naturally. 

[…] a joint will be seen where the leaf-blades join the basal stems; all damaged leaves should be cut off just above that joint, and it will be found that some of the plants will be benefited, both in appearance and condition, by having from one-third to one-half the number of their old and damaged leaves removed. 

[…] remove old pseudo-bulbs behind the last three or four leading ones, and, if it is desired to retain all leading portions of a large mass in one pot or pan to form a specimen, they should be potted together, when it will be found that, given reasonable treatment, they will make better specimens than if left in a mass. 

Potting time is a very convenient season to give special attention to the removal of useless leaves and pseudo-bulbs […].

All useless parts removed should be taken out of the house and burnt. 

[…] it may be said that plants are never in better health than when they are divided at reasonable intervals. 

Success or failure with any class of Orchids depends largely on the exercise of discretion in watering. 

Rain-water is the only suitable water for Orchids […].

Nothing is more misleading than to pour a little water each day on the surface of the material in which the plant is potted. This is often considered to be careful watering, but it results in a large number of the plants never getting thoroughly moist at the root […]. […] where a thoroughly dry plant is found at a season when it should be moist, it is better to plunge the pot or basket in water until it is perfectly soaked. In the case of a plant which is too wet with stagnant moisture, it should either be repotted after the wet potting material has been removed, or placed on a shelf to remain without water until it is again in a proper condition to receive it. 

[…] the Phaius, Zygopetalums, Cymbidiums, Cypripediums, and many others of evergreen habit, which require much care to be exercised in the matter of withholding water during the resting season, otherwise the plants will decline in vigour. 

[…] they should never be allowed to suffer by being thoroughly dried. 

For Zygopetalums and other Orchids which it is customary to place in a rather drier atmosphere during the time they are in flower, such an interval would be sufficient rest. 

[…] in the case of true epiphytes, there is no need for manures[.]

The chief difficulty in recommending the use of manures for any class of plants, Orchids especially, is in the fact that, once the practice is commenced, even those cultivators who begin cautiously frequently lose discretion in the course of time and ruin their plants by excessive applications. 

[…] even where artificial manures are used, the time of application and its discontinuance has more to do with success or failure than the nature of the manure itself. 

[…] the operator must not lose sight of the fact that he is “playing with edged tools.” 

A large tub with liquid manure made of cow-dung, and in which a coarse bag of soot has been sunk, is a safe manure for any plant, and if properly diluted can do no harm to plants requiring such a stimulant. 

Seedling Orchids, as a rule, require little or no resting season until after their first flowering, 

As a rule, the plants themselves give the best indication when the resting season has arrived, and, in the case of those which lose their leaves, they show how much rest is necessary. The starting of the new growth indicates when growing conditions should be restored. 

In respect to the very small-growing species, and especially evergreen kinds, it is much better to ignore the resting season rather than to lower the vitality of the plants by a severe drying off. 

[…] it is a good plan to arrange a batch of [rare and valuable specimens] together in the most suitable part of the house, or to place each on an inverted flower-pot at intervals along the staging, thus bringing them into prominence and facilitating the inspection of each at all times. […] In the case of any plant not making satisfactory growth it is often beneficial to place it on an inverted pot to bring it more prominently under notice. 

There is very much in the old-time advice, “Grow your plants clean,” for a very large proportion of Orchid diseases and insect pests are due to errors in cultivation, more especially in the regulation of the temperature and the ventilation. 

Propagation, by freeing the recently made parts of the plants from the old and worn-out back portions, which are not furnished with the roots necessary to support themselves is one of the best means of preventing Orchid diseases […].

Plants are also benefited greatly by having their position in the houses changed, and that is one of the great advantages of the periodical inspection […].

The first of these insects to be noticed should be the signal for the laying of poison. Search should be made for the breeding quarters, which are often in the stoke-hole, or in some hot, dry corner of the house. 

Cleanliness in everything around Orchids is one of the most important aids to successful culture, and, during the periodical inspections, plants which are not clean should be cleansed, their pots where it is required washed, and the staging and any part of the house requiring it thoroughly cleansed before the plants are rearranged. 

A change of position in the house is beneficial, even where the plants are not crowded; but in collections where the plants are closely arranged, to change their positions frequently, goes far to mitigate the evil arising from want of space. 

These means of applying artificial heat should be used as little as possible, and only to prevent the temperature falling below 45° [Fahrenheit], for in confined spaces and with such means of heating, the atmosphere is better for the plants without the use of artificial heat, whenever the house can be kept from getting too cold without it. 

A large proportion of the flowers of Orchids used for decorative purposes are in a great degree wasted by being cut in an immature state soon after the buds have expanded. Such flowers last but a very short time […]. Orchid flowers should not be cut until they are fully mature and their tissues hardened. They last longer even if they are cut after they are past their best, than they do if cut too soon after expanding. When mature, the flowers require less support from moisture passing up the stem than most flowers, but if cut in an undeveloped state sufficient moisture cannot be obtained through the stems, even if well supplied with water, to continue the development, and the petals droop and the flowers soon wither. 

When Orchid flowers are to be used for decorative purposes, no matter in what stage of development they may be, it adds greatly to their durability if they are placed head downward, thoroughly immersed in clean water (rain-water for preference), and kept so immersed until an hour or so before they are set up, gently shaking the water from them, and placing them on a cloth or some dry, cool surface until wanted. Treated in this way, Orchid flowers will last for weeks instead of days. […] Have ready a large earthenware pan filled with water, and in it immerse the Orchid flowers, leaving them immersed until shortly before they are required to be set up again next day, repeating the same treatment every night. 

Flowers received by post should always be treated to the bath for some hours, and, during immersion, any defects which are reparable will be made good and the duration of the flowers ensured, especially if the immersion be repeated as before recommended. 

Orchids should be gathered and forwarded during their resting season, and with a sufficient time between their being sent off and their natural growing season to allow of the period of their transit being made before their resting season expires. 

Freshly collected plants, in whatever stage they may be, are the best, the ideal conditions being to take the plants at mid-resting season, to have the case to receive them beneath the trees on which they are growing, to pack them off at once to a shipping agent at the port of embarkation, to catch a steamer previously timed, and to consign the case or cases to a reliable shipping agent […].

Another cause of mortality in Orchids during transit arises from the mistaken notion that the plants require to be prepared by drying before packing […].

No such preparation is needed; the plants should be packed at once after collecting […].

The collector should be careful to write the name of every specimen on an imperishable label, or, better still, send each under a number and forward a numbered list with the names corresponding to the numbers on each kind sent. 

[…] good results [with imported, just received orchids], and a quicker establishment may be secured, if the plants are recoverable by immersing them for five minutes in a rain-water tank immediately on arrival, suspending them head downwards from the roof of the house afterwards, and repeating the dipping two or three times a week. This method has the advantage at least that those which were not recoverable are quickly discovered, while the sound plants soon plump up. 

The odours of Orchid flowers may generally be likened to well-known perfumes. 

[…] some Orchids have different odours at different times in the day. It is not safe, therefore, to declare a plant scentless unless it has been tested repeatedly at different times. 

[…] the first process in the production of seeds is to fertilise the flower intended to bear the seed capsule with the pollen of the other parent selected. This is readily accomplished by lifting the pollen masses beneath the anther-cap with a thin pencil or sharpened stick and placing them on the stigmatic surface of the seed-bearing parent.
Flowers which are intended to be fertilised for seed-bearing should have their own pollen carefully removed before the pollen taken from the other plant is introduced, the pollen removed being used to effect the reverse cross, or to fertilise another species if desired. 

A number of the seeds of all seed capsules should be sown as soon as they are ready, the remainder being carefully stored for sowing later if required […].

[…] the line of demarcation between failure and success in the matter of raising seedling Orchids is very narrow[.]

The Sphagnum-moss on the surface should be clipped very short, the plant thoroughly watered with rain water, and allowed to drain for a few hours. The seeds should be sown a few at a time, on the point of a knife or thin strip of hard wood or ivory, and carefully and evenly distributed over the surface of the material in which the selected plant is growing. […] Once the seeds are sown, the plants fostering them should never be allowed to get dry. 

The maintenance of a continual and even amount of moisture after sowing, and until the seedling plants send forth roots, is of the highest importance. […] some resort to the practice of dipping[.] Spraying with rain-water is an excellent means of securing uniform moisture, although it requires more care and attention than dipping. 

Too much heat is very harmful. Odontoglossums proved difficult to raise at first, and this was mainly because the seedlings were kept too warm and close. 

[…] when Orchid seeds germinate freely they provide for losses when sown on a large scale. 

Nothing is gained by removing the little seedlings from the seed pot or basket too early. If thriving, they should be left until they are large enough to be handled safely. 

In the matter of growth from the seedling stage to the flowering plant, there is but little need of a resting season […]. In most cases, a thorough drying, even if it does not destroy a seedling, causes the flowering season to be delayed by a year, or even longer. 

Very young plants do best in a subdued light, and until they are quite strong plants they should not be exposed to direct sunlight. 

The best varieties procurable should always be selected for hybridising […].

There seems to be no certain limit to the possibility of crossing […].

We do not recommend leaf-soil or leaf-mould […].

Aërides.—A large genus of evergreen Orchids with distichously arranged, leathery, green leaves, the stem producing air-roots freely. Natives of India, the Malay Archipelago, and other parts of that region, extending to Japan. 

Cattleya.—One of the largest, most varied, and florally beautiful genera of Orchids. 

Cypripedium.—This is one of the largest, most useful, and most prolific genera […].

Dendrobium.—One of the largest and most decorative genera of epiphytal Orchids […].

Odontoglossum.—The Odontoglossums are deservedly the most extensively grown genus of cool-house Orchids […].

Vanda.—The genus is one of the largest and most interesting, and, like the other large genera, it may be divided into several sections. 

Brassavola Digbyana has been one of the most satisfactory parents, crossing readily with Cattleya and Lælia, and imparting to the hybrids its large flowers and fringed lip. 

Read the whole book: Orchids.