Cultivation of plants has always been one of my hobbies. By the time I was nine years old, I was shown by our head-gardener how to graft roses and fruit trees. But these gardening activities had to be interrupted for many years with my entering a cadet school and later the Marine Corps in St. Petersburg. The Russian revolution of 1917 caught up with me while I was on a cruise in the Far East, and with the loss of everything that followed, I managed, in 1921, to find asylum in my late father's country, Holland, from where I came to South Africa in 1923. Being engaged in entomological work, and working for my academic degrees, I was prevented from doing much gardening at that time.
However, I became interested in orchids during a brief visit overseas in 1934, and brought back with me a few dozen plants received in exchange for seeds of succulents. Having soon realised that "green fingers" alone are not quite enough where orchids are concerned, I endeavoured to obtain some books dealing with the cultivation of orchids. Through my late friend, Mr. F. Postma, of Pretoria, I managed to acquire Constantin's Atlas des Orchidées cultivées. With the aid of that book, I made my first pollinations of Cypripediums in 1940, and a year later got my first thrill when I saw the first tiny seedlings appear in flasks with sterilized sphagnum-moss, inoculated with pieces of Cypripedium roots harbouring the fungus without which no orchids can germinate under natural conditions. This encouraged me, and when one of my Cattleyas produced two very nice and large blooms, I decided to try my luck with them. Mr. Postma let me have the pollinia of two of his best Cattleyas, and in a short while I had two fine pods set on my plant. Fourteen months later the pods started to burst, and I had enough seed to fill all the glass-houses in the world ... if I only could germinate them.
I tried the old Cypripedium method, and managed to get about one in a hundred seeds to germinate, which I thought was not good enough for me ! So without further delay, I decided to try out the so-called asymbiotic method (that is, the method in which the symbiotic fungus is omitted), the formula for which I got from Constantin's book. The snag of this method lies in the necessity to handle things aseptically, that is, without letting into the sterilized flasks a single spore of a fungus, or a single bacteria, otherwise the whole culture will be lost in the end. After several unsuccessful attempts, I finally succeeded to reduce the number of contaminated flasks to about one or two out of ten. This was, of course, quite sufficient to raise far greater quantities of seedlings than I could possibly attend to. However, when a year or so later the time came to open the flasks and start pricking out the contents, I soon found out that a large number of seedlings were inevitably lost to various enemies, damp-off, slugs, snails, cockroaches, etc. Ways and means had to be devised to protect the little plants. When these were large enough to be potted up singly, I found that, in the absence at the time of thumb pots, short sections of old reeds served the purpose very well, and being light, allowed one to group about 50 or more together in a tomato-box, suspended from wires stretched across the glass-house. The latter was erected as soon as it became obvious that the little conservatory would be hopelessly inadequate to house even a small portion of the raised seedlings.
The potting medium used by me at the time was chopped-up osmunda-fibre, as recommended by most books, which was "gingered-up" by some old fibre taken from well-growing plants, in order to introduce the beneficial root-fungus. Since it became obvious that we can grow orchids from seeds as well as anybody else overseas, I offered the Superintendent of the Port Elizabeth Parks to raise, or try to raise, any orchid seed they would be willing to produce. The efforts of Mr. F. J. Cook and Mr. Burbridge were rewarded by a good measure of success, as the article in the April number of Park Administration has shown. I think it is right to mention here that it was largely due to the foresight and initiative of our Editor, Mr. F. R. Long, that these achievements were made possible.
Now that the tale is told, there remains a little to be said concerning more recent advances in orchid culture.
Firstly, the formula used in the germination of seeds is not a secret at all, in fact there exist several formulas which can be successfully used. The main ingredients are as follows ;