By Courtney Barnes
The Wall Street Journal
Each year, around this time, orchids have a moment. Botanical gardens from New York to Atlanta to London fill their glass houses with exotically speckled and striated blooms that ignore unpleasant realities such as polar vortexes, and blithely evoke tropical climes. These annual displays offer winter-weary visitors a chance to see the sort of opulent species that rarely show up at their local nurseries.
In Victorian England, however, when plant hunters first brought orchids back from South America or Asia, any variety was literally an otherworldly sight—and dangerously out of its element. “Precious as a moon rock, it needed an entirely new type of container to stay alive,” said Susan Tamulevich, director of the Custom House Maritime Museum in Connecticut and curator of “A Place to Take Root,” an exhibition of historical flower pots that toured the U.S. in 2005.
As the story goes, said Ms. Tamulevich, after years of trial and error, Sir Joseph Banks, one of those Victorian plant hunters, tried housing his flowers in clay pots whose sides were peppered with holes. He was onto something. Explained Becky Brinkman, manager of the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Fuqua Orchid Center: “Most tropical orchids are epiphytes that grow perched in the branches of trees where they receive tremendous air circulation. In cultivation, they have happier, longer lives if given more air around the roots than conventional pots provide.” Today, experts still favor riffs on such pierced, airy vessels.
Twenty-first-century styles range from the neo-primitive to the Deco-inspired. In Terrain’s Gothic Arch Bowl, strips of rough white cement form a loose web of leaflike shapes, while quirky latticework gives Campania International’s glazed ceramic Gwyneth planter a casual beauty. Repotme’s green hexagon ceramic pot, featuring teardrop cutouts, would have looked at home in a 1930s Hollywood villa.
For some orchid enthusiasts, though, the charms of legitimately old and more purely utilitarian pots are unparalleled. Abbie Zabar—a New York-based gardener, artist and collector of antique terra-cotta—owns a couple of the coveted vintage holey orchid pots.
“They are hefty, dark and divine,” she said, “with bottoms like an old bottle of Burgundy wine and the stamp of the maker—Sanders, Orchid Pots and Pans—still visible.”
Though she hasn’t been able to date them precisely, an 1899 horticultural journal cites Sanders as the best source of orchid pots. “If you come across any antique pot and can afford it,” she said, “buy it because you may never find one again.” Ms. Zabar is currently collaborating with Siebert & Rice, the Short Hills, N.J., purveyors of Impruneta terra-cotta, on a contemporary twist on vintage English pots.
Los Angeles interior designer Suzanne Rheinstein also loves the older pots but suggested Wolff Pottery’s American-made versions—featuring classical, round side holes—as a less elusive alternative. In a similar but more weathered vein, mossy pots from L.A.’s Inner Gardens look as if “Downton Abbey”’s Dowager Countess of Grantham’s gardener just pulled them from a greenhouse shelf.
Whatever planter you use, be sure the orchids have adequate drainage, advised Ms. Brinkman, and are potted not in soil but in a chunky, commercially available “orchid mix.”
Anyone with a thumb sufficiently green to keep multiple plants thriving might want to emulate legendary orchid grower Enid Annenberg Haupt, for whom the New York Botanical Garden’s Victorian-style conservatory is named: In her Park Avenue apartment, Ms. Haupt decked a staircase with the exotic plants, one orchid for every step, whether it was February or not.