From Our Archives: The Finest Collection of Orchids in California

REPRINTED FROM THE SAN FRANCISCO CALL, SUNDAY, APRIL 28, 1895: There is a conservatory in Alameda where a man has for his private education a finer collection of orchids than can be boasted of by any other single owner on this coast. The nian is J. C. Siegfried, and he spends money like water and time as though life was eternity—and all over orchids. Fortunately he is wealthy enough to gratify his fad, and as business takes him frequently to far Eastern shores he looks up new and brilliant varieties of the parasites that grow, crimson-throated and purple-dyed, on great trees under moist East Indian suns.

The Siegfrieds have kept no account of the thousands of dollars that they have poured into their orchid-house. Some rare specimens, brought from the very heart of deepest jungles, cost several hundred dollars apiece; but so long as the orchid was new and not numbered among the Siegfried pets the sahib from America paid the price ungrudgingly. And so the Siegfried conservatory has come to be acknowledged as the repository of the finest orchids on the coast, with a greater variety than Golden Gate Park can boast.

There are Cypripediums and Stnartianas without number in the conservatories. There are strange, wild blooms, spotted like the skins of the tigers in their own country. There are blossoms with darkred stains, like spots of blood, and the Holy Ghost orchid, with a milk-white dove inits heart. In general, the ugliness of an orchid is indirect proportion to its rarity. But, like most generalities, this rule has important exceptions, and one of them is in glorious pink and white bloom in the Siegfried glasshouses these April days. There are just 1100 blossoms of the rare Phalaenopsis in one fragrant corner of the hothouse this week. ‘That is the family name, clumsy Phalaenopsis, though the Christian name, Schilleriana, is not quite such a mouthful. But the ugly orchid name gives no suggestion of the exquisitely fragile and dainty orchid blossoms, quivering at the end of long, palegreen stems. So delicately poised are they that the heavy, scented air in the close conservatory keeps them all atremble, so that the camera has to blink at them suddenly and swiftly, or else carry away no impression bat a velvety, white The thousand blossoms of Phalanopsis Schilleriana are worth, at wholesale, to put a commercial estimate on them, about 15 cents apiece, if there were a market for them here, and if any amount of money could prevail on the Siegfrieds to cut them.

They are the brilliant harvest of plants that came from Manila. Their hideous Latin cognomen is the family name they were born to, but the Schilleriana was foisted upon them by the German traveler who first discovered them. The Phalanopsis flowers are in two colors. One is an exquisite shade of pinkish lilac and the other a delicate ivory white. They are as laree as carnations and bloom with seven flowers on one stem. They show the familiar bird form and have a faint and delicate perfume, like that in the heart of a hyacinth.

These particular plants from Manila have been drinking water and hot air in the Siegfried conservatories for six years. They are such thirsty plants that water has to stand inches deep on the floors and beds in order to satisfy them. The air has to be hot and heavy like the atmosphere of their own home in Manila, else they are not satisfied. You can positively see the moisture rise in clouds from the wetfloors and cling in beads to the wide green leaves of the orchids. There is a fog in the air that dims your eyes and settles like a mantle in your lungs, until the AngloSaxon, no matter how great a lover of beauty and the quaint and queer in flowers, longs for the door and breathing room.

If this is Manila atmosphere, decidedly it must be an unpleasant place to live. These Manila orchids have a house all their own. They require more moisture and more heat than any of their cousins, and for six years the temperature has not been allowed to vary six degrees. By day there is the sun to do it,for he loves to linger on the roof of the glass house, and when there is a pillar of cloud by day there are the steam-pipes that warm the orchids at night to see that the temperature is kept even. And the German gardener, who knows all the Latin orchid names by heart, sees that the fires never go out.

These particular orchids, also, are very susceptible to onslaughts of insects. The German gardener has to look very carefully on the leaves to see that no ugly thing, bred in this atmosphere, is allowed to suck the life fluid from these greenveined leaves. This is the sort of care these plants have had for six years. In preceding springs there have been a few scattering blossoms, but this year the Manila orchids decided that Alameda was not a half-bad place to live, and as they had come to stay, they might as well make the best of it and bloom a little. And so it happens that there are 1100 exquisitely perfect Phalaenopsis flowers in one corner of the Siegfried conservatory, mixed with pink dendrobiums hanging from the ceiling in orchid baskets, and that all the countryside, the flower laymen, are coming to see and admire, as well as the men whose trained eyes see beauties in what to other people are merely ugly green flowers with brown spots.

There is a worship of orchids, similar to the Japanese feast of the fruit blossoms, that is the fad in Alameda just now.

orchid collection