ORCHIDS at RIPPONLEA by Brian Milligan

George Knight, City Surveyor at Sandhurst (Bendigo) during the late nineteenth century, was one of the first to grow orchids in Australia on a large scale. He accumulated a large collection of orchids in Bendigo during the period 1884-1920, while at the same time establishing several commercial plant nurseries, vineyards and orchards.

However, Knight was not the first to grow orchids in Victoria. That honour belongs to Sir Frederick Sargood, original owner of the grand estate of Ripponlea, situated in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick. Sargood acquired his first orchids during an extended trip to England with his nine children in 1880 (his wife had recently died). He really caught the orchid ‘bug’ badly during his stay in Europe, because he returned to Melbourne in 1882, not only with a large consignment of orchids, but also with two gardeners to care for them, and the essential components needed to construct a large conservatory and six glasshouses (Helen Botham, Australian Garden History, 2002, 14, 5-9).

Sargood’s orchids included numerous species in the genera Cattleya, Cypripedium (now Paphiopedilum), Dendrobium, Odontoglossum and Lycaste. By 1884 the orchids occupied two glasshouses that were maintained at different temperatures, one being “for those requiring great heat, the other for resting and cool house species”. Adam Anderson, the head gardener, won many prizes at the South Suburban Horticultural Society, at least one of them for Lycaste skinneri delicatissima. The gardens and glasshouses were occasionally opened to the public to raise funds for charity.

When Sir Frederick Sargood died in 1903, the contents of the house and conservatories were sold at auction. A syndicate headed by Sir Thomas Bent, purchased the estate, sub-divided it and sold 72 residential building blocks before Bent died in 1909. Fortunately Benjamin Nathan then purchased the remainder of the property, and proceeded to restore the house, gardens and orchid collection to their former glory under the care of a well-known gardener, James Dearing.

In 1914 Nathan employed Arthur Stanley Orchard, a knowledgeable orchid grower who had acquired his experience in the noted orchid collection of Mr. R.H. Measures at Streatham in England. Two years later Nathan built a large conservatory in which to display the best of the orchid specimens grown in the other glasshouses. It cost the tidy sum of £3000, and was opened to the public to raise funds for the war effort. By 1931 Ripponlea boasted 2000 orchids, and in 1935, shortly before Nathan’s death, the Home Gardener reported that the gardens covered 25 acres, included 21 glasshouses and 2500 orchids, and required a staff of 28 gardeners.

Nathan’s daughter, Mrs. Louisa Jones, inherited the properly in 1935 but the gardens and glasshouses gradually deteriorated during World War 2, due to rising costs and lack of fuel and manpower to care for the plants. In 1950 the late Bob Hodgins, a commercial nurseryman (of Hodgins Orchids), sold the orchids on Mrs. Jones’ behalf, most of them to orchid growers in Sydney.

Two of the glasshouses were purchased by Alexander Kirkbright (Kirksley Orchids, Cooloongatta Road, Camberwell), and still remain there on the properly (in very dilapidated condition), now under the ownership of Kirkbright’s daughter, Marjorie, who served as secretary to the Australian Orchid Foundation for a number of years.