This article was finally published in ORCHIDS South Africa, 37: 94-99, 2006


The Late Brian Till, Professional Horticulturist and Cymbidium hobbyist, collected a vast amount of sundry orchid literature during his all-too-short life. His widow, Noreen, generously handed this aladdin's cave of words over to me after his death. Amongst the items was a yellowed, six page, foolscap, roneoed document entitled "THE CULTIVATION OF ORCHIDS IN SOUTH AFRICA. by G. van Son, M.Sc." On reading this, I realised that Georges van Son was a man who knew a considerable amount about orchid growing and orchids, in a period I had always thought was virtually the prehistory of South African orchid culture. So I set about finding more about this Orchid man and his life, and it has been a joy to unravel the little bit that I could find out about this incredible man.
Dr. van Son was best known as an Entomologist who worked on the butterflies of Southern Africa at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria from 1925 until his death in 1967. During this period he wrote many papers on butterflies and other insects, but the main product of his life's work was the 4 volume The Butterflies of Southern Africa, three volumes of which were published before his death. These volumes can be seen in the reference section of large public libraries in South Africa; I have consulted them for information regarding the Disa-pollinating Aeropetes tulbaghia at the Bellville Library.
Georges van Son was born in the Russian town or city of Orel, about 200 km south of Moscow on the 1st October 1898; the child of a Dutch diplomat and a Russian Countess, Comtesse Kamarowsky. His mother-tongue was French and he was schooled by private tutor. He spent much of his childhood observing and studying nature on his family's estate. His father was a keen amateur entomologist. At a young age Georges had learnt from the estate head gardener how to graft roses and fruit trees, but was unable to pursue his interest in gardening while enrolled at Cadet School, followed by a period with the Marine Corp at St Petersburg. During this time, in the service of the Imperial Russian Navy, he visited China and Japan.
While on cruise, the Russian Revolution of 1917 began; this altered the course of his life forever. His father was shot by a Bolshevik sniper and the family estate was laid to ruin. Georges, together with his mother and sister were imprisoned; but he was released to play the piano for a (Bolshevik?) butcher's wife! With great hardship, and some help from the Dutch Embassy (who apparently altered some details on Georges' father's diplomatic passport), Georges fled Russia in 1921 with his mother and sister to France and then on to Holland, to his father's family. (The Internet's ability to delve into deep, dark corners has allowed me to determine that in 1919, there was an apologist for the Orel Prison service with the name of H. S. van Son. Whether and how he may have been related to Georges, I am unable to determine.
See the Dutch page:
In Holland he found employment at institutes of biological study including the Rijksmuseum in Leiden. It was from here that he was recruited by Dr. A. J. T. Janse of Pretoria, as a personal assistant to work with Janse's private entomological collection, and came out to South Africa at the end of 1923. In 1925 he was appointed entomologist at the Transvaal Museum. Having no formal education, he studied as an extramural student through the University of Pretoria, gaining a B.Sc., M.Sc. and ultimately a D.Sc. in 1948. Some of his great attributes were his generosity, enthusiasm, excellent memory, an encyclopaedic knowledge of insects, his love of field work and his mastery of six languages; he often acted as translator for other museum staff, and all of this done with love and joy.
In 1936 he married Elfrieda Marion Saunders, and they honeymooned on a field trip to the northern Transvaal. They had three sons. Georges van Son became a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, President of the South African Entomological Association and he was also President of the South African Biological Association. This latter organisation was an interesting Pretoria-based society comprising, on average, 120 of the foremost natural history scientists based in Pretoria, coming from such institutions as the Transvaal Museum, University of Pretoria, Botanical Research Institute and especially the Veterinary Research Institute and Faculty at Onderstepoort. It was founded in 1907, one of its founders having been Sir Arnold Theiler, the "father" of Onderstepoort; and appears to have fizzled out in about 1978.
The Biological Association was truly a society of its times - erudite lectures were presented by the cream of the biological intelligentsia on a wide range of subjects. In the early twentieth century, it was still possible to be a natural history polymath, something that the rapid advance in our knowledge has now all but precluded. Increasing specialisation and a lack of the time necessary to delve into a wider study of biology was probably the death knell of this remarkable society. Georges van Son joined the Association in 1927, automatically becoming a life member 25 years later in 1952. He was President of the society in 1951; his Presidential Address being entitled Systematics and Nature. In this Address, he discussed butterflies and succulents, but unfortunately not orchids.
His interest in botany, rekindled after his arrival in South Africa, was expressed in collections of succulents and orchids. The succulent interest derived from his participation in the Vernay-Lang Kalahari Expedition of 1932. He was both entomologist and botanist to the Expedition. In 1934 he made a trip to Europe where he swopped succulent seed for orchid plants which he brought home to Pretoria to cultivate. He seems to have been the first South African to have made and raised orchid hybrids. From Sander's List we get the following entries in his name:

Paphiopedilum Glaucolowii   (P. glaucophyllum x lowii) 1952
Paphiopedilum Glaucopar   (P. glaucophyllum x parishii) 1952
Paphiopedilum Lowiedgar
The above three hybrids registered as
Cypripediums, as it was done in those days.
  (P. lowii x Edgar) 1953
BrassoIaeliocattleya Comtesse Kamarowsky   (Blc. Viscountess x Bc. Corrientes)
Named by van Son for his mother.
Laeliocattleya Elfrieda   (C. Dupreana x Lc. Cowrata)
Named for his wife.
Laeliocattleya Mossiella   (C. mossiae x Lc. Hassanella) 1953
Brassocattleya Corwar   (Bc. Corrientes x C. warneri) 1956
Laeliocattleya Pink Moonlight   (C. labiata x Lc. Sunburst) (St. Geo. Pk.) 1956

Ted Schelpe mentioned these hybrids in a note published in the S. A. Orchid Journal (December 1979, 10 (4):115-116) called "Orchid hybrids made by G. van Son during 1952-56". It would appear that Schelpe was under the impression that these were all raised symbiotically. Whereas this may be true of the paphiopedilum hybrids, the cattleya hybrids were definitely raised asymbiotically.
From a historical point of view, it would be wonderful to find out that someone has been cherishing some of these plants in their collection for the last 50-odd years.
With regard to orchid publications, I have been able to trace a few items written by van Son. The paper mentioned at the beginning of this article has been appended here. It dates from 1944. I have also been able to find the paper published in Pamphlet 12 of the S. A. Biological Association (1944, pp. 25 - 33) which he mentions in the appended paper. An article was also published in Park Administration in 1952, as a sequel to one called Hybridising of Orchids at Port Elizabeth, a reprint from the Eastern Province Herald. There are also one or two other notes. All this can be seen on this Website.
If anyone has any other notes, cuttings. photographs or references to Georges van Son - Orchid Grower, please let me know, there is always room on the Website to add or change information, so this study into one aspect of S.A. Orchid History need never be closed.
I was most excited to discover that Film Services, which I assume must have been a S. A. Government Department, made an educational film on the Orchid work of Georges van Son in about 1957. What a historic find that would be, if it still exists.
Georges died on the morning of the 29th of May 1967, at his home in Pretoria North, after a long period of ill-health.
He has been commemorated in the names of a large number of organisms; there are species or subspecies with the name vansoni in nine genera of butterflies, at least four genera of beetles, a wormlion fly, another fly, a lacewing, a leaf miner, a grasshopper, a spider and a solifuge. Van Son's Thick-toed Gecko and a subspecies of Yellow-fronted Canary are also named vansoni. Amongst the plants, there is a grass, a stapeliad (now sunk into Orbeopsis lutea) and the fascinating Cryptostephanus vansonii, a bulbous plant that seems to be somewhere between an agapanthus and a clivia, which is covered in a recent article in Veld & Flora (vol. 88 (1), p. 18, March 2002). Vansonia was a genus of pipistrelle bats which has not survived taxonomic scrutiny.
Orchids, being the amazing plants they are, somehow attract the attention of some of the most amazing people - and here, surely, we have a fine example.

Bibliography: Basically this involves seven biographies and obituaries published in various journals and books of Biography, the various publications of the S.A. Biological Association, Parks Administration of the S.A. Institute of Park and Recreation Administration and Sander's Lists. For a more complete Bibliography click HERE.
Thanks: My deepest thanks go to the Librarians at Kommetjie, Fish Hoek and the National Library in Cape Town, and Sysser Waspe for help with the Hybrid List.

© 2004 Greig Russell

This paper appears to have been delivered at a meeting of the Institute of Parks Administration (S.A.) in 1944. It reveals the depth of Georges van Son's knowledge of the cultivation of orchids as well as some interesting historical trivia:

by G. van Son, M.Sc.

      A paper dealing with this subject has been read by me some time ago at a meeting of the South African Biological Society, and is now being published in the last Bulletin of that Society, now in the Press.
      That paper was mainly written for the benefit of those amateurs and nurserymen who knew very little about orchids and their culture. On the present occasion, however, I want to approach, the subject from a different angle as I feel that many of those present have at least some knowledge of orchids, particularly those who had the advantage of oversea training, especially in England or Holland where Orchids are successfully grown on a large scale.
      Our local conditions differ considerably from overseas in several respects and this must be taken into consideration when dealing with Orchids. Our disadvantages lie in the first place, in the dry atmospheric conditions prevailing in the greater part of the interior of S. Africa; the coastal areas and the mist belt localities along the great eastern escarpment are far more favourable in this respect. Another disadvantage is the necessity of depending to a large extent on native labour, particularly in larger establishments where the use of more skilled white labour is at present prohibitive because of insufficient funds. It is to be hoped that after the war the position may improve and an opportunity may be given to some returned soldiers to receive employment in our Parks.
      On the other hand, we have a distinct advantage over the overseas growers which lies in the longer summer, bright sunshine and generally higher temperatures. The latter may in certain exceptional cases be regarded as a disadvantage when attempting to grow cool-house orchids such as Odontoglossums and some Cymbidiums, but effect an enormous saving on the costs of heating during the winter. My recent observations seem to indicate that the former failures with coolness-loving species were chiefly due to cultural mistakes, and in the first place to the use of potting methods suitable to conditions in England or Western Europe, but unsuitable to our local conditions.
      The classical overseas method of potting epiphytic orchids such as Cattleyas, Dendrobiums, Oncidiums etc., in a rather shallow layer of chopped up fern-fibre mixed with Sphagnum, overlying a high layer of drainage consisting of pot-crocks, may give satisfactory results under skilled supervision, but only too often results in either too dry or too soggy condition, either of which is detrimental. Fern-fibre if used pure, dries out very rapidly at the surface and invites frequent waterings, resulting in too much water and too little nourishment; if mixed with sphagnum, it is less porous and often remains wet at the surface while the deeper parts remain quite dry. In England or Holland, live sphagnum is used, which as long as it remains alive, does not produce any sourness; even so, it has to be renewed frequently, particularly on the surface.
      A few months ago I had the good fortune of meeting an old orchid enthusiast, Mr. Racks of Pretoria, who was kind enough to supply me with a compost formula which meets all requirements and on which he used to grow and flower such things as Odontoglossum crispum right here in Pretoria. Circumstances forced him to sell his collection many years ago, but he has not lost interest in Orchids and advised me to try his compost, which I did with most gratifying results. The compost consists of an even mixture of cut-up fibre (fern or coconut fibre), broken brick and charcoal, in the proportion 5 : 1 : 1. When potting, only the very bottom of the pot is occupied with pure drainage, all the rest being compost as described above.
      The following are the advantages of this compost:-
1. It can be easily poured in among the roots during potting, and shaken down, without any necessity of ramming down - a practice usually followed by orchid-growers and which often results in damage to roots.
2. It retains moisture without impeding drainage.
3. It keeps sweet and free from sourness or sogginess.
I have tried this compost on all epiphytic orchids in my collection, including the small native species of Angraecum and Mystacidium which never responded well on old-fashioned composts, and find that it is as near to the ideal as can be. Orchids which formerly showed their dislike of the old compost by sending their roots over the rim of the pot, or growing rather rapidly towards the edge, have rooted most profusely within the pot and are showing a more compact habit of growth.
      A very important point to mention in connection with the new compost is that there is no danger in using large pots which were formerly avoided to prevent sourness setting in: this means that provision can be made for at least 5 or 4 years of growth without necessity to transplant, thereby reducing root-damage to the minimum and saving much labour.
Moreover, the plants can make full use of the nourishment which is not confined to the upper inch or two, as was formerly the case but is provided throughout the volume of the pot.
      Although I have only had a few months experience with Mr. Racks' compost, I did not hesitate to adopt its use throughout my collection, and have abandoned the old method completely. The results have been most encouraging and I may give here some details of the results obtained. All the plants, including young seedlings have acquired a healthy bright green colour and have rapidly become sturdier and harder in texture. Numerous new roots have appeared in Cattleyas very soon after planting, and not only from the last growths, but also from the base of older ones, which never happened before. A plant of Dendrobium thyrsiflorum which last year made a single new growth, was put in a shallow basket with the new compost and made now four new growths. All my plants of Dendrobium phalaenopsis which had rather declined during the last two years, have started growing vigorously once more and are rooting very profusely without any tendency to throw roots outside the pots.
      A plant of Oncidium papilio which was thought to have gone in, rooted at once and threw out a strong now shoot. I could give many more examples but I think it can be safely stated that the compost is doing all one can desire.
      The exact size of the pieces of broken brick and charcoal as well as the length of chopped fibre can be somewhat varied according to the size of the pots. For seedling pots, rather fine chopping is required and the bits of brick and charcoal should be ¼" or less; in larger pots ½" pieces are best and in very large pots or baskets the drainage can contain large lumps of charcoal, but not larger than about 1½", as too large lumps may in the long run become too moist and soggy.
      With regard to watering, the most important point to remember is that while a plant is in active growth, it cannot be easily overwatered provided the compost is right, of course, and drainage is perfect. In nature, Cattleyas, for instance, are subject to heavy showers every day during the summer, often twice a day, and some Phalaenopsis and Vandas receive even more water. But of course, in nature the plants grow in plenty of fresh air, and their roots are not enclosed in pots; we must therefore make due allowance for this difference. Whenever the outside temperature allows, ample ventilation must be provided and if the outside air is dry, plenty of spraying is required of the floor, walls and stages around the pots.
      Another point with regard to watering is also worth mentioning: it is often thought that as long as the compost is moist, everything is alright during the growth-period; consequently, a few overhead sprayings are often regarded as sufficient to keep up the moisture in the compost. Now, this is not always right. It is essential that every now watering should, be done so as to allow the water to run freely through and out of the pot and take out with it any stagnant bits which remained from the previous watering. Roughly speaking, two thorough soakings a week are sufficient during the growth season for larger pots, but small pots 3" or less, may require a soaking every second day if the weather is hot and ventilation ample. In cold or moist weather much less watering is required.
      During the rest-period which in most cases is in the winter, great care must be exercised with regard to watering as overwatering at this stage may easily result in root-rot. At the same time, very few orchids in nature are subject to extreme drought conditions and a certain amount of moisture should be present. Still, during the resting stage it is safer to err on the dry side than the other way round, particularly if the watering or spraying is left to the native's care. The safest way is to have the floors, walls and stages sprayed before noon, and a light overhead spray given to the plants if the weather is warm, but no watering should be done without special instructions of the foreman or head gardener and no spraying should be done at all in the afternoon.
      Regarding the water used for orchids, rainwater is of course the best. No manures should be applied except perhaps cowdung in very minute quantities, but even this is actually unnecessary except in the case of certain ground-orchids such as Calanthe, Cymbidium. and Sobralia. Small amounts of sugar are beneficial, but not more than about half a teaspoon in a gallon of water and only once in a while. A few banana skins placed in the water will provide an extremely weak concentration of carbohydrates beneficial to the growth of epiphytic orchids, especially if the nutrient parts of the compost have been exhausted but these devices should not be overdone and must not be applied to recently transplanted orchids, as they may give too much encouragement to many different types of moulds or other organisms in the compost, which may interfere with the Rhizoctonia, or root-fungus of the orchid. The latter is present in the roots and compost of every healthy and robust orchid plant but may be lacking in propagations from rootless cuttings and therefore it is useful to always add some compost from a healthy plant to that of such cuttings, remembering that not all orchids have the same root-fungus and thus using compost from Cattleya for Cattleya-cuttings, but not for Vandas, and vice versa.
      In conclusion, may I express the hope that these short notes may be of some use to you and also my sincere thanks for the privilege of being allowed to present this paper.