Specialisation

In earlier chapters 1 have mentioned some of the favourite flowering plants that often capture the whole attention of amateurs. Perpetual flowering carnations, chrysanthemums, fuchsias and the various pelargoniums are all attractive plants with long flowering seasons that respond well to skilled cultivation. Each one of them can become an absorbing hobby. Many people find it more satisfying to know a great deal about a limited subject than to have a smattering of knowledge over a wide field.

One way of specialising is in groups of related plants. The gesneriads are an interesting family that have become more freely available in recent years. The saintpaulia or African violet started the craze, as it is so widely grown as a house plant. It needs a warm greenhouse to be happy, as do CoJumnca. Episceo, Hypocyrta and Smithiantha. Strepiocorpus has free flowering and relatively tolerant hybrids seen both in the cool greenhouse and on the window sill and there are also strange and interesting species. Some gesneriads have underground storage organs that are dormant in winter and can be grown in any greenhouse in summer. Achimenes, gloxinia (Sinningio), KohJerio and Rechsiein-eria are the best known.

Most people either love or hate the cactus family, but enough are interested to support a very active national society and countless local groups. Today there is no need or excuse for growing plants imported from native habitats, many of which have been devastated by commercial exploitation. Specialist growers in Britain and elsewhere can supply an infinite variety of nursery-grown plants, while enthusiasts also exchange seed and plants amongst themselves.

Those who decide to specialise in cacti, rare succulents, or the wild species of orchids should be particularly vigilant about the sources of their plants and the need not to decimate their original habitat. Although the individual can do little to safeguard a threatened species, every person who unthinkingly buys plants collected in the wild is encouraging this destructive trade.

Orchids are a specialisation that should be considered before the greenhouse is built, as one can greatly improve the chances of success by a suitable choice of structure. Adequate ridge ventilation, box ventilators low down and specially designed staging to aid humidity are also helpful, while a high degree of atmospheric humidity and proper shading are essentia}. Orchids are very long-lived and extremely interesting plants worthy of study, I believe their greater appeal to men than to women is partly because men are less concerned with the general decorative effect in a greenhouse and more intrigued by the strange, the rare and the scented.

Orchids are particular rather than delicate. They will survive poor handling, but fail to flower unless the nature of their invididual seasonal growth is understood. This cannot happen without experience. Orchids are not an expensive hobby if one has the patience to wait for young plants to reach the flowering stage. It is, however, necessary to have a minimum winter temperature of at least 10°C (50°F) to start a collection, and 13°C (55°F) is needed for many of the more interesting orchids. Although the traditional orchid composts, based on osmunda fibre, have almost disappeared owing to their cost today, there are simpler modern counterparts thai make potting very much easier. Many orchids are epiphytic (see p. 32) and cling to trees and rocks in nature, which is the main reason why special composts are necessary. Nurserymen selling orchids recognize the need for starting off beginners on the right lines, and they usually both sell and explain Ihe use of the various materials needed.

Bromeliads are another group of epiphytic plants enjoying similar conditions to orchids but they are much less demanding. Some are sold as house plants and enjoy warmth and shade, while others endure much cooler and drier conditions than orchids. Many can be grown without soil fixed to artificial trees or other objects, and regularly sprayed with water and weak feeds. They have a wide variety of strange and long-lasting flowers.

I believe that everyone specialising in one plant or one group of plants needs either to join a specialist society or to find at least one friend or neighbour with the same interest. Quite apart from the fact that new friends are often made through a shared interest, seeds, plants and cuttings are exchanged, together with much practical knowledge that cannot easily be found in books. One needs, too, the inspiration of seeing other collections.

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