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I'm Expecting. It's a...Flower!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

OK. Nature. Nature. Enough on the navel-gazing, enough on the local rokkers. I'm a nature blogger. Right. Look around room, since it's 18 degrees and snowing again, and the kids are home for yet another snow day. Ah. Orchids: Exotic plants that do exotic things right on your windowsill.

February is a time of anticipation for orchidkeepers. February is when a lot of plants decide, through the stimulation of lengthening days and intensifying light, to put out bloom spikes. Nine of my plants are cooking up something wonderful as I write. Like most orchid collectors, I count quite a few seedlings and new starts among my 50-odd plants. I also have some old soldiers.

One of the oldest is a Dendrobium phalaenopsis var. alba (which simply means, auf Latin, a Dendrobium that has a bloom that looks like a Phalaenopsis bloom, and happens to be white). It lived for about three years at the Bird Watcher's Digest office, where it bloomed reliably and delighted everyone. And then it died. I took it home, snapped the living shoots or keikis off the top, rooted them, and put the corpse of the mother plant in sick bay for a year. You see, orchids rarely really die. They're incredibly long-lived plants, lasting for decades, even centuries. And they are tough, tough, tough.

The mother plant threw out some new shoots and even came into bloom on my birthday the following year. I gave it back to the BWD office, freshly repotted, growing, blooming. It hung on for about another year, and then it died. Again. I brought it home and put it in sick bay once more. It sulked for a year and a half. I don't blame it. I'd sulk if I'd died twice, too.
At this point it wasn't the most gorgeous plant, but I thought it deserved a third crack at life. I promised it that it had finally found a Forever Home. It thanked me by throwing out a ridiculous shoot atop an old cane (the one that starts level with the top of the Acoma pot) and blooming, all 2 1/2 ungainly feet of it. You gotta love a plant like that. The big lush leaves at the base belong to another plant. The old girl probably has only six leaves to her name.

I think it looks fabulous, flowering there next to my Acoma pots and my jaguar mask from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. That's the mask that came with its own wood-boring beetle larvae that made a strange grinding sound in the night. Science Chimp found frass on the dresser top, put two and two together, did not want to be the person who introduced the next Emerald Ash Borer to our fair country. So Science Chimp put the mask in the freezer for a week. No more grinding, no more frass.

Part of being a true orchid lover is appreciating the plants' resilience. Part of it is being willing to put up with topheavy, dopey-looking canes and straggly air roots; even finding a certain beauty in them. Part of it is respecting the plant and listening to it when it asks you for help. And most of it is not giving up on them.

When I visited my friend Cindy in New Hampshire in mid-October 2007, I fell in love with a miniature Dendrobium that was blooming wildly in her airy, well-lit studio. The fragrance got me, a perfume to die for. I asked if I might cut a shoot off the plant to root at home. I took the only shoot that wasn't blooming, and did a bad job of cutting it off. I carried it home in my backpack and dipped it in rooting powder and put it in moist medium. It shuddered and dropped its leaves. Not a good sign. I kept watering it. It withered and shriveled. And then it put out a bloom spike. No. This little four-inch-long withered cane, severed from the mother plant four months ago, with no roots or leaves, blooming?

Yes, and not only is it blooming, but it's putting out the same heavenly perfume I smelled last October. It's drawing all the resources for this superbotanical feat from its shriveled little stem. I do not deserve this plant. You see, it thinks it's dying, and so it's trying to throw some seeds out into the world before that happens. It may well be dying, but I'm not going to give up on it until it turns brown and snaps like a twig. I owe it that much.

Shila and I go to an orchid show at the Franklin Park Conservatory every spring. Well, we're planning NOT to go this spring, because we're completely out of room in our respective houses, and we cannot look at a beautiful orchid and not buy it. It's a real problem. It's like going to the pound and looking into a puppy's eyes and saying, "Nope, sorry, I'm not in the market for a dog." The answer, if you don't want a dog, is to stay the heck away from the pound, right? Right. So we're not going this year. Right. So that's settled.
Not going...But LAST year I bought a little seedling of an orchid called Psychopsis Mendenhall "Hildos." I was buying a bunch of other plants in full bloom from a really cool couple from Broadview Heights near Cleveland who call themselves Windswept in Time Orchids. Kimberley leaned over and said, "Psst. I have a couple of Psychopsis seedlings here if you're interested." Having just seen one taking all kinds of blue ribbons for beauty and weirdness in the show in the next hall, my antennae went up. "It doesn't look like much, and it may take a few years for it to bloom, but you will not be sorry."

$25.00 for two little leaves. Hmmm. I looked at the red marbling on the leaves, tough as split steerhide. And bought the plant. The picture above is how it looks now. Last summer, it threw out the two bigger leaves.

The other day I was washing my plants and trays. Several times a year, I put them all under a lukewarm shower, wash their leaves, check for bug infestations, spray them with pyrethrins, and scrub the humidity trays (which get disgustingly eccchy with this green gloopy algae that smells like, of all things, patchouli). Feh! As you might imagine, with 50 orchids and more than a dozen humidity trays, this is the job of an entire Saturday morning. As I was washing my Psychopsis --no jokes, please--I found THIS:Which can only lead to THIS:
a crazy little Spanish flamenco dancing lobster. At least that's what it looks like to me. Upon looking closer, I expect to see THIS:
and you will be the first to know when I do. Aggggh! Much hooting and happy dancing, excited phone call to Shila, who also bought a Psychopsis that day. I just spoke to the grower, who told me that, although a Psychopsis plant will put out only one bloom at a time, the SAME SPIKE may throw flowers consecutively for six or seven years. At the same time, other parts of the plant will throw out more flower spikes, so the reward just gets better the longer you tend the plant. It's like finding out you're pregnant and you're going to have a beautiful FLOWER!!

Thanks to Ed Merkle for these terrific photos, cribbed from his web site.


I cannot wait to see this lovely flamenco dancing lobster. My current house would never support orchids. Darn! We just have a less than modern home with some temperature variables.

Now, time for the ignorant-I-have-a- liberal-arts=degree question...

Do you know that the "old girl," white orchid is a girl? Are there male orchids or only male orchid parts? Does that even make sense?

You have definitely convinced me to buy an orchid. I will be out there is weekend and get me one.

About that orchid that kept trying to die at the WBU office - you know it was homesick, don't you...

I'm fascinated now. Just need to find the perfect place for my resilient addition.

Ooops. I meant to say BWD office :o/

Great question, Trix! orchids are weird enough that I had to hit the books on this one. Some are monoecious, meaning that one flower has both male and female parts. And some are dioecious (meaning that there are male plants and female plants, like mulberries or hollies). Among the dioecious species are the Malabar orchid, and the Catasetum from Costa Rica seems to be. Thanks for teaching me something tonight. And to answer your question: my Dendrobium is monoecious. So I was taking poetic license in describing it as an "old girl."

Very cool! We are all so much smarter now. ;-0

Thanks for answering that. I thought orchids might be gender benders, but I wasn't sure.

Alright, now you've got me interested in orchids... We move house so often (husby's in the military) it might be hard to keep, but someday... (about the time I get my Boston terrier, I suspect.)

I love your orchid posts. That Psychopsis is something! Pretty neat that its flower spikes last so long, too. Every time I go into the Home Depot or pass the grocery store flower section I oogle the orchids and other plants. I've been firmly told that I'm not to bring any more plants home, however (it's true that we're completely out of space to put them).

A couple years ago, my boyfriend surprised me by bringing me home a dark purple ladyslipper. It thrilled me by blooming again this past fall. We also have a cymbidium, but the flowers all died a few days after we brought it home, presumably from the shock of the move, and although it's continued to put out new leaves, it hasn't been inclined to bloom since. I could use one of those greenhouses like you have!

I like houseplants but have long resisted the impulse into orchids... SO QUIT TEMMMMMPTING ME you nefarious blogger!! (it's the sort of hobby where one is NEVER enough).

Seabrooke, I've got the Paphiopedalum bug, too. They seem so easy compared to others. I adore the checkered leaves and the bizarre blossoms, that last for four months or more! Just can't go wrong with those beauties. I got one of the so-called "black Paphs" at the last show--multiple blossoms, too. Waiting with bated breath.

You know about the cold tempering that Cymbidiums need, right? Lots of people leave them outside until pretty late in the fall and then get blossoms when they bring them into the warm house.

When I worked in the PA Dpt of Health, one of my co-workers grew orchids as a hobby. He had a computer controlled greenhouse etc. And he went to orchid shows & won prizes all the time.
When people bought orchids from him, they would invariably come back to him after the orchid "died"--their term. He would kindly offer to take it back. Now I understand why--of course those plants weren't dead--and he was being crazy like a fox!

What a wonderful story, KGM!
I have been known to abduct orchids that were finished blooming and consigned to eternal neglect by their owners, sitting in dark halls or corners.

"This one isn't doing too well, is it?"
"Oh, you should have seen it when I got it! It was so beautiful!"
"Yeah. It's not too happy now. Want me to see what I can do with it?"
"Oh, please take it."

sometimes I forget to give them back...oops.

It's really tough for someone who loves orchids to go into one of those dopey home-improvement stores and find entire skids of once-lovely orchids dried to a crisp, blossoms blasted by cold and dessication. I can hear them crying when I walk in. How do the employees walk by them as they're dying? And I have been known to take a couple of watering cans, find a tap, and march back, sloshing all the way, to show them how it's done. Just watered some crispies in our local grocery store on Monday, and brought the prettiest (and luckiest) Doritaenopsis home. Make that 51...

What an informative post. I really like the orchid with the spotted leaves. At least one would have something unusual to look at most of time without the blooms. Can't wait to see the flaminco dancer...Ole.

What a timely post Julie! I was just going to write you, and may yet, with photos, to ask about my little Nobby's Amy. I am thinking it needs repotting. It has been happy in my windowsill and now has two beautiful new leaves, but I've not seen the bloom shoot since the other was spent and I trimmed it last fall. So February is the magic month? I think it gets too cold in my window too, but can't think of where else to put it. Oh heck... I'll send you the details for a sidewalk consultation. :c)

Such a treat for a wintry day...expectations of beautiful flowers!


You'll find that orchids generally alternate putting out leaves and blooms. If your Phal. has just put out two new leaves, that's probably where most of its energy went. It may not bloom this spring. And then again, it may surprise us both.
February isn't a hard and fast month for bloom spikes, but a lot of orchids wake up then. Some wake up in January; some wait until May, and it's not really predictable in my experience.
Orchids are generally pushed to bloom for the market, and sometimes they need to rest after the big push.
A man watched my dad planting an apple tree and commented, "I wouldn't plant a tree like that. I wouldn't want to wait that long for the fruit."
Dad said, "You're waiting anyway."

(the other Mary) What beautiful plants! That flamenco dancing lobster one is gorgeous! They all are! I just found your blog through Northwest Nature Nut and want to tell you that I'm reading "Out of the Woods" right now and my favorite part is your illustrations! Coincidence! I'm glad I found your blog to tell you how great they are.

We did things a little backwards when we bought our orchids; we brought it home from the grocery store and then looked up its care (as first-time orchid-owners it may have been prudent to look up care first in the interest of picking an easier group to start with). So I was happy to see that the Paphs were classified as one of the easiest groups, but disappointed that the Cymbidiums were less so, and required that cold exposure to bloom. We're in a yard-less, balcony-less apartment, and although I have high hopes of moving this spring (if not before), we don't really have an outdoor spot to put the plant in the meantime. We tried leaving it near one of the open windows in the fall, but then I got concerned that it might be more drafty than cold, and brought it away again. Hopefully I'll be able to give it a try this year. It was just simple golden yellow flowers, but still very lovely. Fortunately the Paph has been less picky about its growing conditions and seems to be happily thriving where it is.

I enjoyed KGM's story. I tried offering the grocery store $5 for a spent orchid once, but the section manager actually seemed to know his plants, and declined because "someone who knew what they were doing could easily revive it". Darn. Well, was worth a shot.

Love your orchids. I now have TWO orchids sitting in my kitchen window. One blooming (new one) and one that I got last year and it bloomed and I followed your directions and hopefully it'll bloom again. Fingers crossed.

Also, I love your Acoma pots -- we have one too. Acoma is one of our favorite places.

Love that psycho dancing lobster!

In reading this post, it just struck me that between your kids (including Baker), the orphaned animals you take in, and your plants, you seem to have an over- abundance of that nuturing gene.

Having lost several well loved orchids over the years I am aware that they require a fair amount of humidity and water but is there an optimum temperature that the thermostat has to be set on? Can they withstand house temperature flucuations? With a working wood stove my house goes from 70 during the day to 62 at night. Could this be the orchid killer?

I've been one of those orchid rescuers from the home improvement stores where sometimes I can find a few of those poor plants for next to nothing.
I've only had luck with the phaleonopsis orchids though, the dendrobiums refuse to bloom for me.
I also have a very rare orchid, given to me about 5 years ago by an orchid-loving aquaintence, but it has never once bloomed for me. I'll bet you could get it to bloom though, with your green thumb.

The current issue of Birds & Blooms arrives with an article on how growing orchids isn't as hard as one thinks. Then I see your blog entry. Must be a sign.

Jane, my orchids endure easily that big a swing between day and night. I'm sure the ones closest to the windowsill get down to the upper 50's without ill effects. Where woodstoves are concerned, I'd guess that low humidity is the culprit. It's essential to have them on humidity trays in any house in winter; you can relax about that in summer.

Dorothy, is there a tag on the rare orchid? Knowing what it is is Job 1! since all orchid species require some slight variation on the basic care plan. I'd be happy to look at a photo of it if it's a mystery.

Seabrooke, shame on that grocery store manager. Caring people deserve needy orchids. Good luck with your cymbidiums. I've got a couple of garden friends who offer me cymbidiums, but their growth potential frightens me. I've got no room for giant pots, and most of the plants I am attracted to are more compact. As orchids mature, they can become alarmingly big (even paphs!) I've got some 6-year-old Phalaenopsis with leaves 15" long and spikes reaching 2 feet high or more. Kittens do grow into cats!

To all those who are considering a first orchid, go with a Phalaenopsis or a Paphiopedalum to start with, cruise the Web for care instructions, and best of luck. I'm always here for quick consultations.

Clearly, you've struck a nerve with this post. Here's my story: like cyberthrush, love houseplants, scared of orchids. Last month my friend sent a baby home with me. It's labeled Zygo. Titanic x John Banks. I haven't a clue. It's lost a few leaves, but has at least two new shoots coming, so I'm hopeful (as a first-time orchid mom).

DGMS on supermarkets and Home Depot tho-- do these people have no feelings? "How do the employees walk by them as they're dying?" For me, it's Amaryllis, cycads and palms... everything! Why don't people realize these are living things?

Thanks for an inspiring post, Julie!

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