The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory
March 5, 1866
Today is the birthday of Anna Scripps Whitcomb.
Anna was born to James and Harriet Scripps. Anna's father was an entrepreneur; he founded the Detroit News and helped found the Detroit Museum of Art.
In 1891, Anna married Edgar Whitcomb and together they raised two children. The couple lived on a beautiful estate in Gross Pointe and along the way, Anna nurtured her passion for orchids. The Whitcomb property boasted two large greenhouses which were largely devoted to orchids.
During the first half of the 1900s, Orchids were still very challenging to grow and they had a very poor germination rate. Anna’s success with orchids was in large part thanks to her longtime gardener and propagator William Crichton who worked for Anna for almost 30 years. William often had the help of a small staff of gardeners and the team worked together to show many of Anna’s orchids at the Detroit Flower Show.
A charming article about Anna’s orchids highlighted William’s expertise this way,
“With a fine brush, [William] transferred the pollen of one gorgeous flower to another. The seed pod of the fertilized flower would contain a quarter million seeds, a few hundred thousand of which would be planted and half of them would bloom nine years after spring.
Because the modern orchid grower studies the ancestry of his plants... [William] can predict their possible forms and colorings and qualities. But exactly what will happen, [William] must wait nine years to learn.
Until recently the orchid breeder could count upon no more than five percent of selected seeds surviving to germinate. Now the famous Cornell University method has raised the life expectancy of orchid seeds to 50 percent. With this method seeds are sown in a propagating jelly, which looks like library paste. It is composed of chemicals, salts and nutrients made from seaweed.
[Each year, William] will cross but one, possibly two, pair. [William] will save perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 seeds and plant half of them…
Five flasks filled with the Cornell agar jelly [are] sufficient to fill a small orchid house with bloom.
[And] Each flask [is corked with cotton and covered with a glass and] hold[s] [between] 500 to 1,000 seeds, fine as star dust,
In ten months flecks of green appear on the thick, white gelatine within the flask. Minute seedlings are ready for the outside world, where, for eight or nine years more, they must face the hazards of life. Drafts, germs, insects, diseases, changes in temperature, careless hands would destroy them.
Little pots filled with a special orchid moss, known as Osmunda fiber, are prepared, perhaps 10 or a dozen, for the benches of the private orchid house. The grower transfers the bits of green, washing off the jelly, scattering the thousands of seedlings, like chopped parsley, over the smooth, spongy surface of the moss.
Years pass. The infant plants are moved from the nursery to less crowded quarters. Weak individuals are discarded. Finally, each survivor stands alone in a pot, guarded, sprayed, scrubbed with soap, watered and fed, by day and by night, in controlled degrees of heat and humidity.”
Before Anna died, she made arrangements for her orchid collection in the event of her death.
And in April of 1953, Anna’s entire orchid collection - all 600 of them - to the Belle Isle Conservatory owned by the city of Detroit. Built in 1904, the domed conservatory had gradually deteriorated. Without Anna’s gift and the commitment of 450,000 to renovate and improve the wooden structure with aluminum beams, the 50-year-old glass-domed building would have likely met its end. The very month Anna’s orchids were gifted, the conservatory was renamed as The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory.
Today the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory is the oldest continually-running conservatory in the United States - and people just refer to it as the Belle Isle Conservatory.