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Orchid Overkill

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

I woke up early Sunday morning with my heart racing. Christmas morning doesn't make my heart race anymore. No, Christmas morning makes me lie there in the dark thinking, "Do I have everything ready? Will the kids like their presents? Did I get enough for Bill? Did I remember everybody?"
But looking forward to going to an orchid show with Shila is entirely different. It's pure hedonism. The tableau above may not raise your pulse rate, but it does mine. They're all gorgeous, they're all healthy, and they're all FOR SALE.
I've noticed an evolution of my tastes as the orchid-collecting hook sinks deeper and deeper. At first, I'd only look at the genus Phalaenopsis, because I knew I could get them to bloom and thrive on my windowsills. These display plants bordered on ridiculous. The big pink one was a plant no bigger than some of mine, but I couldn't count the blossoms on it. Phalaenopsis are great plants. But there are many degrees of success where orchids are concerned. I think I'm doing well to get nine flowers to a spike. I wonder what they feed this thing?

Beyond Phalaenopsis, the rest of the orchids were scary and mysterious to me. But slowly, I branched out, to Doritaenopsis (an intergeneric cross between Phalaenopsis and Doritis), and those did fine. Dendrobiums bloomed freely for me. So I got a couple of tiny orchids in the Cattleya alliance. (Orchid freaks group a number of genera into loose alliances based on their ancestry, and this also gives us a clue how to care for them.) I remember when I bought my first miniature from the Cattleya alliance, I asked the vendor how to care for it. "Like a Cattleya," he replied, and Shila and I looked at each other, wondering, "Well, what does that mean?" We nodded knowingly, and then scurried away to laugh at ourselves. So we hit the books and found out that a Cattleya needs more light and less water than the orchids we were more familiar with.
Potinara "Burana Beauty" is a Cattleya type, and I blame it for getting me in big trouble at the last show. For color and fragrance and exotic form, this plant really does it for me. I bought it three years ago. It had three flowers on it. The first time it rebloomed for me, it had 14 flowers. And I thought, "I can DO this!" And that's when the fever set in. The challenge lies in venturing farther afield from one's horticultural comfort zone. The reward lies in delicate, fragrant, utterly exotic blossoms and thriving plants that would seem to have no business living on your bedroom windowsill. And there's really nothing to it. You just get the light, medium, food and water right and stand back. Talk about bragging rights.
Encyclia cordigera, the orchid I fell hopelessly in love with in Guatemala, was there in the form of a prizewinning display plant, draped in blue ribbons. I was standing at one of the vendor booths, lamenting to Dave Brigner that nobody seemed to have it for sale, when he pointed just to my right. "Well, there it is!" he said. He had recognized it from its leaves and buds. This was the first orchid Dave ever grew--when he was 14. Needless to say, I snapped that baby up. When those buds open, the first thing they'll see is my smiling face.
When I was a little girl, I used haunt three of our neighbors on our suburban Richmond street. I would just show up and follow them around their houses and yards, by the hour. Dr. William Stepka was a plant pathologist with a penchant for azaleas and rhododendrons. Mrs. Edna Hunter grew orchids in two little greenhouses in her backyard. And Dick and JoAnn Cook grew orchids on a sunporch. Of the four horticultural mentors, only Mrs. Hunter is still alive. They were all so kind to me, the plant-obsessed Dennis the Menace, the thing that wouldn't leave. I wish they could all know what a gift they gave me, by letting me follow them around and ask them endless questions. It seems to me that no kindness extended to a child is ever wasted. It took years for me to build up the courage to grow orchids, but I realize that all the while I was shadowing my neighbors, I was soaking in the experience that would lead me to one day try it myself. Thank you, Bill, Edna, Dick and JoAnn.


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