Sunday, June 27, 2010

About Orchids: a Chat by Frederick Boyle

"If every human being should do what he can to promote the general happiness, it would be downright wicked to leave one's fellow-men under the influence of hallucinations that debar them from the most charming of quiet pleasures."

The quiet pleasure, that is, of growing orchids. The "hallucination" to be cured is that they are difficult to grow. I could have sworn, somewhere in the very early pages of this book, that the author assured his readers he would give them simple basic instructions in how to do this. But in clicking back through it -- on my Kindle, which is becoming usual with me -- I find no such promises. Instead, I find Mr. Boyle gently telling us "I do not give detailed instructions for culture." He instantly adds, "No one could be more firmly convinced that a treatise on that subject is needed, for no one assuredly has learned, by more varied and disastrous experience, to see the omissions of the text-books."

In other words, circa 1893 he has learned to grow orchids on his own, and he wants to share the delight of the hobby but wants also (we must presume) to let his reader and future orchid fancier achieve those delights in exactly the style he did. And after all he may be right. No expert writing any treatise can replicate the conditions of your home, greenhouse, or garden, nor foresee or command the amount of effort and time you are willing to put into your little hobby. Mr. Boyle wants you to happily run that middle ground between chore and failure, wherein after eight or ten years of trial and error and as much success as you want, you play host to a true orchid expert, and watch him gawp at your treasures and then bask when he turns to you in wonder and exclaims, " 'Sir -- we do not call this an amateur's collection. We do not call this an amateur's collection.' "

The most Mr. Boyle will say about orchid growing is that the plants are far easier to keep alive than people think, but that they do need a tremendous amount of humidity. If you can lay sand on the floor of your orchid house and make sure it is saturated, that would be best. He also specifies how to pollinate them for hybridization purposes, and recounts with pride how a young girl had success at it after he taught her. For the rest of his book -- which is a collection of his articles, published over many years in a variety of prestigious English garden-and-country-life magazines -- he delves into more than a century's history of orchid hunting and orchid mania among the rich, and he sketchily classifies the various species of "cool," "warm," and "hot" orchids, and all their colors, Latin names, temperature requirements, flowering habits, and sizes. We are glad to learn that collectors in the wild used to chop down jungle trees to harvest the orchids growing forty feet up in their branches, and then pack the flowers in shipments of as many as twenty thousand for the voyage to England; in the early years, two specimens might survive, or none. Yet throughout, he still never specifically says 'do this at home, and then the next day do that.' Rest assured, he breathes, actual orchid culture will prove no mystery, and anyway "the reader will take my hint" as need be. A hint like, "not everyone indeed is anxious to grow plants which need a minimum night heat of 60 F in winter, 70 F in summer ...." These would be the "hot" varieties. We remember that we are reading about the ultimate rain forest houseplant in an English climate before central heating.

So, lacking precise instructions, all of About Orchids' weight of sheer botanical information does become a bit wearisome, possibly even to the interested gardener. Lacking the revelations and memories of Frederick Boyle's own experience, you may find yourself skipping pages on odontoglossum and phalaenopsis. What does intrigue, though, is the impression that orchid growing must have been more popular in Boyle's day than ours. More than once he tosses off casual pronouncements such as "Everybody knows Dendrobium nobile so well that it is not to be discussed in prose..." -- although we do remember he was writing for an audience that read gardening magazines. Anyway possibly the hobby was relatively cheaper then than now, too. He writes of orchids being common enough to cost the average person pence or shillings, rather than of such rarity as to draw -- as they once did, even in his lifetime -- pursefuls of guineas from a Rothschild. It may also be that a hundred years ago, orchids' popularity still benefited from their novelty, and from what people knew about their exotic origins and the dangers men had faced, for decades, to bring them to auctions in foggy, grimy London. Here is the tail end of a passage recounting just a little of the 19th century's passionate hunt for any and all orchidaceae:

"Then Osmers traced the whole coast-line of the Brazils from north to south, employing five years in the work. Finally, Digance undertook the search, and died this year. To these men we owe grand discoveries beyond counting. To name but the grandest, Arnold found Cattleya Percevaliana ...."

Today, we have forgotten the heroics of the plant-hunters. Orchids do appear for sale in big home furnishings stores and garden centers, but to my budget they seem fairly expensive again, between $20 and $25 for one specimen. Perhaps things have come full circle, and orchid mania is once more for the better-to-do. Anyway when plant shopping I have also passed orchids by, hitherto, because most of the time the same big, flamboyant species seems to be available. It's all ruffles and white or sugary pink in color, and I regret to say I don't find it much more beautiful than many another flower. I am also put off by the plant's need to have its blooming spike attached to a supportive stake with many, little, actual women's hair clips. (There is a reason for this: tree-growing orchids of necessity stand sideways in their pots, with the flower, which would normally hang down gracefully from a branch, fighting its way up and against gravity and its own habit. Hence the drooping, the stake, and the clips.) I'm accustomed to my garden of native midwestern perennials, my goldenrod and coneflowers, which, though granted they can be rather sorry-looking in the heat or after a storm, nonetheless like Lazarus rise again and walk each spring without my doing a thing about it. To an indoor flower in need of such cosseting, I say righteously, no matter how fabulous it is let it be left alone to droop and sprawl in its natural habitat. Venezuela, or "the Brazils" I take it.

So then, why orchids, ever? Why the mania of a hundred or more years ago, why the expense today, why do orchids still vaguely conjure up ideas of mystery, of fantastic beauty and of some sort of intellectual seduction akin to sex, drugs, rubies and sapphires, religion and espionage all rolled into one?

Frederick Boyle doesn't descend much into pedestrian scientific facts that really are remarkable. You must consult modern books and websites for that. The plant family is among the oldest and most widespread in nature, boasting something like 25,000 species and 100,000 man-developed hybrids. Their looks and reproduction needs can be about equally gloriously bizarre -- Charles Darwin was able to predict the existence of a previously unknown tropical insect, simply by looking at an orchid and understanding what it would take to pollinate it -- but it is not for these inner satisfactions that Boyle encourages the "quiet pleasure." For him, orchid growing is the last interest which can really rouse the blood of a civilized man. In the fight against boredom it eclipses even art.

A picture, a statue, a piece of china, any work of art, is eternally the same, however charming. The most one can do is to set it in different positions, in different lights. ... The littera scripta manet -- the stroke of the brush is everlasting. Painters lay the canvas aside, and presently come to it, as they say, with a new eye; but a purchaser once seized with this desperate malady has no such refuge. After putting aside his treasure for years, at the first glance all his satiety returns. ... For such men orchids are a blessed relief. Fancy has not conceived such loveliness, complete all round, as theirs -- form, colour, grace, distribution, detail, and broad effect.

The ease of their cultivation then adds to their seduction. So much so that our author and orchid writer paradoxically complains of fielding queries from well meaning, excited people on "how to do it"! "My articles," he says, "brought upon me a flood of questions almost as embarrassing as flattering to a busy journalist."

The burden of them was curiously like. Three ladies or gentlemen in four wrote thus: "I love orchids. I had not the least suspicion that they may be cultivated so easily and so cheaply. I am going to begin. Will you please inform me" -- here diversity set in with a vengeance! From temperature to flower-pots ....

To which the reader, either today or in 1893, feels bound to reply, Well dammit man, what did you expect? So they are easy and sublime; so talk.

Granted, he did, quite a lot, albeit none of his talking can take the place of, say, an actual Ghost Orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, blooming and filling a nighttime room with its "intoxicating scent." With which brilliant observation, I am sure he would agree.

I don't know if Mr. Boyle occupies some special place in the orchid lovers' hall of fame, if perhaps he is some sort of late Victorian Moses for the industry. He seems to have no easily clickable cyber-biography. Google his name, and you encounter him only where I did, at Project Gutenberg. He is the author of their The Woodlands Orchids also, published in 1901, when he was sixty. Gutenberg gives no date of death for him. Perhaps, mysterious and prophet like, he is still alive, and puttering about in one of his wondrous amateur "houses."


  1. Personally, I am obsessed by the ghost orchid. Until my birthday in 2007, I didn't know such an exquisite flower existed. I was on my daily walk on the boardwalk of Blair Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and there was quite a stir about this magnificent, gossamer, flower dancing high above in the the cypress canopy, the only ghost orchid seen in Corkscrew in many years. It was discovered by accident, hikers searching for owls. I was mesmerized as it danced away from its host in the swamp breeze and I stalked it every day for the three months each summer it graced me with its beauty, always on my birthday. As many as 20 flowers were seen in one season, as many as 13 at one time, highly unusual for a plant that receives gratitude for one bloom.

    As an author, I was inspired to write a story that became a mystery, love, lies and redemption wrapped in this very mystical ghost orchid floating above it all. This ghost orchid can be seen by all and doesn't require a slog through inhospitable Everglades or Cuban jungles, the only habitat of this ghost orchid species. My little novel is intended to inspire others to appreciate the need to preserve habitat, not only for the beauty of the flora and fauna but for the serenity found in few other places.

    NPR reviews praised Ghost Orchid for the beauty of the Everglades that shines through on every page, the ghost orchid the heart and soul of the story. Yes, the story itself is fiction, but the ghost is very real, the cool breeze just before its location felt by any wandering along its boardwalk. Ghost Orchid is found at the Corkscrew Sanctuary gift shop, all southwest Florida B&N stores and all online print and ebook sellers.

  2. Wow ... that's quite a story in itself. I'm glad you stopped by, and I hope other readers will investigate your writing.