Several years ago I bought a moth orchid (Phalaenopsis) on sale at a local shop. I brought it home, put it on a shelf and watered it regularly, just as I do with all my thriving house-plants.
But my orchid didn’t thrive, which was entirely my own fault. Even an orchid as accommodating as the moth orchid still has more specialised needs than the average spider plant. So about a year ago I decided to give my moth orchid a little TLC.
Repotted in a special orchid mix, moved to a better location, and watered fortnightly with a special orchid food, which was allowed to drain away once it had soaked into the potting mix (many orchids, including the moth orchid, are epiphytes and hate having ‘wet feet’) it began to put forth new leaves, then a flower stem. About a week ago it unfurled the first of its large, beautiful, glossy white and pink flowers. I was delighted.
I was even more delighted when I found another orchid for just $5 at my local market. A Dendrobium, I was told, with no further information forthcoming. This was rather inconvenient, as according to Wikipedia the Dendrobium genus contains about 1,200 species. However with a bit of googling I narrowed it down to Dendrobium kingianum, the Australian Pink Rock Orchid, recently reassigned to a new genus and now going by the name Thelychiton kingianus.
As you may have gathered, all orchids are picky about the kind of care they receive. This is because every orchid has evolved to specialise in a particular environmental niche. And there are thousands of different orchids. Anywhere between 22,000 and 26,000 distinct species, divided among 880 genera, making up an estimated 6%-11% of all seed plants (although when it comes to getting those seeds to germinate, trust me, you don’t want to go there), and found on every continent except Antarctica.
In the glory days of the British Empire, a craze for exotic orchids swept through the wealthy elite of the British population, and, to a lesser extent, the Continent. Great glass houses were built to provide them with the optimal environment. Intrepid explorers made their fortune seeking out previously-unseen plants and bringing them back to Britain by the thousands. The middle classes, keen to get in on the act, began purchasing some of the hardier, cooler-climate, varieties (like my Phalaenopsis and Thelychiton kingianus).
By the mid-1800s people had begun to crossbreed orchids to develop new hybrid species. But getting the seeds to germinate was still difficult (okay, I’ll go there: once an orchid is fertilised it will, eventually, release tiny seeds which are really more like spores. They have no endosperm, the usual food reserve of a seed, so will only germinate if they manage to form a symbiotic relationship with a fungus, which feeds them. No fungus, no flower). Then in 1922 a plant physiologist, Dr. Lewis Knudson, made a breakthrough. He developed a special growing medium in which orchid seeds could be germinated.
Although the main orchid craze died down in the 20th century, even today many towns have clubs for orchid fanciers, and orchid shows are still common. My best friend attended one in Auckland last weekend. Next weekend there’s one here in Whanganui which I’m planning on heading along to. As it includes plant sales, I may be following in the footsteps of those early collectors soon.