THE PLEASURES AND PERILS OF BUYING ORCHIDS
by Brian Milligan
Nothing to it, you say? Just choose an orchid that appeals and pay your money with a smile! But choosing an orchid that will also grow under your conditions and getting value for money are not quite so easy.
Where are the best places to buy your orchids? There are various options, ranging from the sales bench at orchid society shows and local, country or interstate nurseries to auctions of deceased estates and even overseas nurseries (provided you have an import permit, a CITES certificate in the case of species orchids and access to quarantine facilities). Some growers also sell divisions of their orchids privately, if you ask them nicely! Which is best? All have advantages and disadvantages.
Beginners are advised to buy only where they can receive expert, unbiased advice as to whether the orchid is easy or difficult to grow and whether it will grow under their conditions. It is pointless to buy an orchid that requires heat unless you have a heated glasshouse, no matter how attractive its flowers. While it may grow indoors on a windowsill where it receives good indirect light, it will seldom grow as well as in a heated glass-house. Before a flood of protest letters begin to pour in, I should acknowledge that many hobbyists grow and flower warm-growing phalaenopsis orchids indoors and are quite satisfied with the results. In general, though, such plants grown indoors seldom carry as many or such large flowers as those grown in a heated, humid glass-house. Indoor culture of phalaenopsis is fine if your aim is to enjoy the flowers in your own home but don't expect them to win the Judges' Vote at a Society meeting.
Of course, the first thing to look for before buying an orchid is its condition. Never buy an orchid that is not firmly secure in its pot (as it may have no live roots) or which has 'suspicious' leaf markings that might indicate viral infection. Also look for insect pests such as scale, mealy bug or aphids, which could infest the rest of your collection. Some growers spray their newly acquired orchids with an insecticide before introducing them to their collections, whether they can detect the presence of pests or not.
Many growers, including me, tend to buy orchids on impulse after seeing a spectacular example in flower. That's fine, but only if you are sure that the orchid will grow well under your conditions. It's a good idea to carry a book or two in the car when you go orchid shopping, so that you can look up the orchid and its requirements before you buy. I confess to browsing through the orchid books at Collector's Corner sometimes before making a purchase. Bear in mind, though, that many orchid books, especially those written by European or American growers in cold areas, recommend intermediate conditions for most orchids. Experience here tells us that some of these orchids will happily grow and flower in a shade house in Melbourne. All the same, ask an experienced, unbiased local grower before you buy.
While it's obviously more satisfactory to buy orchids that you can see and handle at a nursery or orchid show sales bench, that's not usually possible in the case of distant nurseries in country Victoria or interstate. In that case you have to rely on the descriptions in their catalogues. When my wife and I were accumulating our orchid collection, we would often order orchids from the catalogues of nurseries in NSW or Queensland. There was great excitement as we unwrapped the bare-rooted plants, sometimes followed by disappointment, but generally with great satisfaction. Of course, one has the added expense of packing and postage but usually that's counterbalanced by a lower cost per plant than those available locally (most interstate nurseries have lower expenses than local ones because of their lower heating costs). The quality of the plants from some nurseries did not match that from others but we soon learnt by experience the best nurseries to patronise.
Orchid journals, such as The Australian Orchid Review and Orchids Australia, carry advertisements from many Australian orchid nurseries, whose proprietors will send you their catalogue either free of charge or for the cost of postage. Unfortunately, the days are gone when nurseries such as Adelaide Orchids and Valley Orchids in South Australia produced elaborate colour catalogues featuring their cymbidium mericlones. Although colour photographs show you what to expect, they can be misleading. An illustration of a flower of perfect shape and colour is seldom accompanied by a statement that the plant has a dreadful spike habit or that it flowers well only every second year!!
Buying orchids at auction is one of the riskiest ways to increase your collection, unless you very carefully examine the lots for which you intend to bid. The society conducting the auction will do its best to ensure that the plants on offer are disease-free and in good condition but can't and usually won't guarantee that this is true, so it's a matter of 'let the buyer beware'. Sometimes you can pick up a bargain at auction, especially if there are a more divisions of a particular plant on offer than there are buyers. But be prepared to encounter some stiff opposition from your peers if only one plant of a closely held show winner is to be auctioned. Take care not to be drawn into a bidding duel unless you are quite sure of an orchid's real value. Top growers often find it hard to buy orchids at a reasonable price at auction, because newer growers reckon those particular orchids must be special and enter into a spirited bidding duel. In situations like this, a top grower of my acquaintance always concealed his interest by asking a new grower to bid for him!
So you see, there is more to buying an orchid than you first thought! Be resigned to that the fact that not all of the orchids you buy will live up to expectations. But take heart from the possibility that, by the law of averages and provided you grow it to its full potential, one eventually will turn out to be a show winner.