Amazing Orchids

Ted Kreiter

Entering their world is as simple as stepping through the door of an orchid greenhouse–but watch out! While there you may catch the orchid bug, and once you have it, those entrancing flowers can become an all-consuming passion.

Gertrude Stein wrote, “A rose, is a rose, is a rose.” The famous author and self-styled genius could not have said the same about orchids, however. These bizarre and beautiful flowers that seem to grow in infinite variety are the largest family of flowering plants on earth. Their diverseness defies simple description.

Charles Darwin called them his “beloved orchids.” He penned a thick book about them in 1862. Darwin predicted the existence of a specialized moth that would be needed to pollinate an orchid with a foot-long flower found growing in Madagascar. After his death, the moth was discovered, and the Father of Evolution was proved correct.

Although orchids are thought of as tropical plants, they actually grow on every continent except Antarctica, and many can be found in such unexotic places as the American Midwest.

Orchids aren’t just for looking at, either. Millions unknowingly enjoy the fruits of the orchid almost daily, whenever they savor a tasty treat flavored with real vanilla, which is obtained from the tropical orchid Vanilla planifolia.

Slow-growing, tempermental, and pricey, orchids remained hothouse plants for years until the advent of plant cloning. Now everyone can have orchids in their homes. Recently, orchids surpassed chrysanthemums as America’s second best-selling potted flower.

Orchids still maintain their special aura, however.

“I don’t know what it is about them,” says Andy Easton, director of education for the American Orchid Society, “but people feel an obligation to keep an orchid growing.” Instead of tossing them out, as often occurs after other plants flower, people will try to coax them into blooming again, he says. Some succeed, and when they do, they often catch the orchid bug and end up as full-blown orchid hobbyists.

Easton, a native of New Zealand, got hooked on orchids at the age of ten. He’d just won a pile of money at a horse race, and then attended a flower show where he saw some orchids.

“I spent the good share of my winnings buying them,” he recalls, much to his parents’ dismay. “Forty years later, I’m still crazy about orchids,” he says. “It’s a sickness.”

The American Orchid Society puts it this way: “Orchids are like salted peanuts. It’s almost impossible to stop with just one.”

“We’re just starting to see a big increase in people getting interested in orchids,” Easton says. Today’s new orchid fanciers fall into two basic groups, he explains. There is an older group entering or in retirement who got into orchids late, perhaps in their 60s. These people are more likely to join orchid societies as a hobby and for companionship. There is also a younger group who buys plants and exchanges information over the Internet, which has exploded with worldwide orchid sites.

“Today, people just stroll through the orchid Web sites looking for things that catch their fancy,” Easton says. One popular Web site in Santa Barbara, California, even features the “orchid of the day” such as the Masdevallia coccinea `Bethke’, an intense fuchsia-colored orchid from the high Andes. The price is $25 plus $12.50 shipping. With nearly 35,000 known orchid species in the world and 105,000 artificially created orchid hybrids, orchid fanciers won’t be running out of new orchids to collect anytime soon.

There also is a class of orchid owners who don’t grow their orchids at all. For a monthly fee of two to six dollars, depending on where they live, they leave their orchids at an orchid greenhouse to be coddled until the plants are ready to bloom again. Some avid orchidists (including Easton), however, find this form of orchid ownership unappealing. These owners, they say, are missing out on all the fun.

“In some cases, they never even take the plants out,” Easton says. “It’s almost like having a kid in an orphanage; they don’t even take them out for their birthday. It’s terrible.”

Easton travels widely to keep up with the fast pace of innovation in the orchid world. The place he visits most often is Holland. “Most people don’t realize it,” he says, “but Holland is the world’s biggest supplier of orchids. They grow 60 to 70 percent of all commercial orchids in the world.” Advances in Holland, he says, will lead to more orchid species adaptable for growing in the home.

“There’s a lot of work going on now to produce more durable orchids like the cymbidium, which is very popular, but at the moment, it’s difficult to grow [these orchids] outside of somewhere like California, where you have cool night temperatures,” Easton says. “So hybridizers are busy working on a warmth-tolerant strain that they can grow in Florida or Texas and flower there and put into the mass market.”

Another one starting to take off is the Slipper orchid, which grows in cool and warm climates, Easton says. It may soon add variety to the orchids now vying for your attention at the local nursery.

For those who want to give orchids as gifts, Easton suggests that orchids may not have quite the same meaning as roses. “You don’t give a bouquet of roses just to say, `I like you’ or `Let’s be friends’,” he notes. On the other hand, a gift of a potted orchid, which costs the same as a dozen roses, will certainly last much longer. Roses die after a few days, but a phalaenopsis orchid can bloom for months. If cared for properly, it will bloom every year and even outlast its owner. Some orchids more than 150 years old are still growing and blooming in greenhouses. Perhaps in terms of longevity, one can say that an orchid, is an orchid, is an orchid.

Caring for an Orchid

What you really want is benign neglect.

Orchids make excellent houseplants. Under the right conditions, they will bloom yearly for several months or longer, and if cared for properly, they can live virtually forever, long outlasting their owners.

Although orchids are susceptible to many plant pests and diseases, their greatest enemy is often well-meaning owners who give them too much tender. loving care, especially by overwatering.

“There are two ways you can kill these plants easily, and they both have to do with water,” says Leon Glicenstein, Ph.D., orchid grower and breeder at The Hoosier Orchid Company in Indianapolis. “You can overwater and rot the roots. Or you can get water in the crown, and if it stays there a long time, it will rot the center.”

Orchids don’t need much water because they are epiphites, he explains. “They grow on tree trunks in the wild, and their roots are exposed. They dry out pretty rapidly, and they don’t want to stay advises watering orchids only when their potting mix has dried out completely. To test for moisture, place a plastic, paper, or wooden stick in the side of the pot, extending all the way to’ the bottom. Before watering, pull out the stick and touch it to your lower lip. If it feels dry, the mixture is dry. Wait another day or two, and then water.

The best potting medium for orchids is a bark mixture. Glicenstein says. because it retains little water. Bark mix is comprised of bark. charcoal, perlite, and tree fern. It decomposes slowly and requires replacing only once every year and a half to two years.

Although orchids don’t like their roots in water, they do like lots of humidity, which you can provide, he says, by placing them over a tray of water filled with pebbles or gravel.

Orchids don’t want brilliant sunlight. Glicenstein says. The best place lot an orchid in your house is in an east window. A west window will also do as long as the light there is dappled.

Orchids need only a fraction of the fertilizer that is beneficial for most houseplants. When fertilizing an orchid. Glicenstein recommends applying an average fertilizer such as 20.20.20 or 5.10.5 at quarter strength. A quarter teaspoon to a gallon of water will do. Do not fertilize when the plant is flowering, he says, or you may shorten the life of the flowers.

Orchids may flower for much longer than you think. Glicenstein adds. “We’ve had customers who come in saying. I’ve had my plant in flower for eight months already. Is there something wrong?’ `No.’ I tell them. `There’s nothing wrong. These flowers last!’ They’re wonderful houseplants, given the minor things you have to do for them.”

COPYRIGHT 2001 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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