Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Orchids or air plants

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It is not easy at all times to say where vegetable life ends, and animal life begins; and were we required to determine the line of separation between merely organic and sentient life, by the distinctive forms of each, the recently discovered forms of vegetable life would greatly increase the difficulty. Resemblances to external forms of animal life exist in several portions of the vegetable world, but they abound in Orchidaceous plants, the latest, rarest, richest, and most beautiful addition to our floral treasures. No poet’s dream ever pictured a more perfect metamorphosis than many of the flowers of this rich and brilliant order of plants exhibit. Science teaches us that in the order in which the world we inhabit was furnished, the vegetable preceded the animal occupants; and if a metamorphosis in nature, such as that adverted to, could be allowed, and the forms of animal life appeared first in the vegetable world, very intelligible vestiges of creation might be presented, and the development theory might be set forth as a more simple and natural process than it has hitherto appeared. But leaving these and other recondite suppositions, it is sufficient for our present purpose to contemplate these singular and beautiful plants where we find them, constituting the most gorgeous and wonderful ornaments with which our world is adorned.

Although the greatest curiosities in the whole range of the vegetable kingdom, and described in terms of glowing rapture by some of the early writers on the floral productions of India and the Western world, Orchids were until recently little known, and less appreciated, in England. These flowers had “adorned the brow of royal Indian maidens; flourished in the palaces and perfumed the luxurious air of Peruvian courts; they were the love messengers of noble Mexican youths; they lay a mournful tribute of affection on the grave of a departed friend; and hung their fantastic garlands along the gold-glowing walls of Mexican temples.” Yet till within the present century they scarcely found a place among the collections of Europe. But no sooner were the lovers of flowers in England made acquainted, chiefly through the labours of Dr. Lindley, with their transcendent claims, than they were sought with energy and determination. Collectors were sent to all the rich and prolific tropical regions: one ship, at least, came to England freighted entirely with orchids, and it is supposed that in England alone, at the present time, not fewer than 2000 species are under cultivation.

Though orchids are not confined to countries lying within the tropics, these realms of exuberant vegetation are their genial home. Their organisation is peculiar and distinct among other orders of plants. A few live on the ground, but the greater proportion of them are epiphytes, and grow on the trunks or branches of trees, often on the topmost boughs, and are nourished entirely by the atmosphere. The species found in the East Indies differ in several remarkable particulars from those found on the continent of South America and in the West Indies, and require for their successful culture separate treatment and a different temperature. The accompanying engraving exhibits an orchid of each kind, a terrestrial plant and an epiphyte, both natives of the Western world.

The terrestrial orchid is a remarkable plant, from Panama, whence it was brought to England in 1826. It is a bulbous-looking plant. The smooth pseudo bulbs growing above the surface of the ground, are oval in shape, of a bright green colour, and covered with deciduous scales, each bulb being five or six inches in length, and three inches in diameter. From the point or summit of the pseudo bulbs rise three or more leaves, lance-shaped and ribbed, four or five feet in length, and five or six inches wide. From the base of the bulb a pale green, almost white, articulated flower-spike shoots up along the side of the bulb, and rises to the height of four or five feet, the upper portion forming a raceme of pure white waxy flowers, sometimes as many as twenty in number. Each flower, waxy and pure white, is nearly circular, about two inches in diameter, in the centre of this flower, the column, pollen masses, with erect wings, are so beautifully combined as to bear a remarkable resemblance to a dove of purest ivory, having the wings faintly spotted with lilac. The botanical name of the genus, Peristeria, designates this distinctive characteristic of the flower, as does also Dove flower, the English name for the genus. In the country where it was discovered, it is called El Spirito Santo, and regarded with superstitious reverence as a religious symbol, at which no one who has ever seen the flower will feel the least surprise. The portion of the raceme in the centre of the illustration shows the singularly elegant form of the flowers, while the plant, comprising pseudo bulbs, leaves, and raceme of flowers, is shown at the side. There are two varieties of Peristeria elata, but the chief difference consists in the periods of their flowering, one blossoming in the summer, the other during the winter season; the former being also perhaps rather larger than the latter. The mode of treatment which the plants require is now so well understood, that no difficulty is experienced in their successful cultivation; and there are few collections of orchids in which they are not included.

alt = Peristeria elata and Psychopsis papilio
alt = Peristeria elata and Psychopsis papilio

Three years earlier than we became acquainted with the charming Peristeria elata the butterfly flower, Oncidium papilio, was introduced to England from the verdant island of Trinidad. This is an epiphyte, or true air plant, growing on the trunks or branches of trees, to the outer bark of which it attaches itself with great firmness by a network of fibrous and threadlike roots. These roots neither penetrate the substance of the bark, nor derive any nutriment from the bark itself or the wood which it covers, being nourished entirely by the atmosphere. The pseudo bulbs of Oncidium papilio, smooth and brown in colour, are roundish and flattened, varying from one to two inches in diameter. At the summit of each pseudo bulb arises a single elliptical or lance-shaped leaf, six or seven inches long, of a reddish-brown colour, marbled with spots of green. From the base of each bulb springs a small leafless articulated or jointed stalk, stiff, and frequently four feet long, with small deciduous scales attached to the joints of the stalk. At the end of each stalk a small green peduncle supports a single flower bearing a singular and striking resemblance to a butterfly on the wing, not only in general outline, but in some of the details, both of form and colour. The centre of the flower seems a mimicry of the body of the insect, the sepals, long, narrow, and slightly curved, represent in a wonderful manner in shape and position the antennæ of the butterfly, while the petals represent the wings, and the labellum or lip the expanded body of the insect. Each stalk produces but one terminal flower at a time, but instead of decaying when the flower has withered and fallen, as occurs in most other orchids, the stalk retains its vitality, a now terminal bud forms and develops into another flower, and by the continuance of this process each stalk produces a number of flowers in succession. On one of the stalks of a large plant growing on a block of wood, fourteen apparent articulations or projections, covered by as many deciduous scales, seemed to indicate the number of flowers this single stalk had borne. There are fifteen stalks on this plant, eight of which at the present time are adorned by brightly coloured terminal flowers. The flowers are imperfect and produce no seeds, but the plant is increased by the formation of new pseudo bulbs. The tints vary in different plants, but only in the shades of the two invariable colours, yellow and brown. In some flowers the yellow is clear and bright, shading off through successive plants to a deep orange, while the brown is at times mingled with red; both colours are rich and glowing. The petals which represent the wings are brown barred with yellow, while the labellum is yellow encircled with brown. The sepals, which substitute the antennae of the insect, are four or five inches long—one on the plant already named measured 4 inches in length. The petals or wings of the same flower being three inches in length, made the flower nearly six inches across. The striking and wonderful form of this flower, the brilliancy of its colours, the position of each flower, at the end of a long leafless neutral-tinted elastic wirelike stem, when seen moving, we might almost say fluttering, like an insect with every current of air, remote and apparently unconnected with any root or bulb, it requires no very vigorous exercise of the imagination to believe it to be, not a flower, but a gaily coloured butterfly flitting among surrounding leaves and flowers. The plant, comprising bulbs, leaves, stalks, and flowers, exhibiting its habit of growth, was copied from a living specimen. The larger flower at the bottom shows more distinctively the several parts of this wonderful flower, which is of easy culture, and still remains a general favourite. E. W.