Twenty six years ago, when I first ventured into Waldor Orchids, the lush greenhouses a few miles away, to find one perfect white phalaenopsis, Bill Off, the owner fixed a practiced eye upon me and pronounced, “You are going to become an orchid junkie!” “Now, how do you know that?” I asked. “This is the first orchid I have ever bought. I don’t even know how to grow them.” His answer reminded me of what Justice Potter Stewart said when he was asked for his definition of pornography. Bill just smiled and said, “I know one when I see one.” And that was that. Of course, he was right.
Today, Bill and I are close buddies. I’m in the greenhouses on a regular basis. And the orchids are taking over our house. I certainly have not become an expert, but I have learned a lot about the growing and care of the amazingly hardy plants. And I’ve discovered a new dimension of nurturance and creativity along the way.
First, let me share that the first orchid, the one I call my “oldest living baby” is alive and well, putting forth seven to eleven exquisite flowers every year on a single, long graceful stem. Each identical white bloom has a dark purple center and lasts for up to six or seven months, delicate and ephemeral in appearance, yet actually strong and hardy requiring very little care. Bill had given me a culture sheet that spelled out the optimal conditions of light, shade, water and food that a particular variety need. Two hours attention a week take care of the twenty plus plants we now have.
Maybe it was luck that my first orchid plant did so well. Or maybe it was that walking into that greenhouse was for me what the Greek poet Kazantzakis meant about having one’s “brush and colors and painting Paradise.” In I went and what an aesthetic treat it has been. Most of my orchids live on the floor in the family room next to the sliding glass doors in full southern light. Some of the most popular varieties require 4 to 6 hours of sunlight, and our indoor garden is three rows deep to catch the best light. Never mind that we cannot reach or open those doors. A small casualty for the cause. We can reach the deck through the sliding doors in the adjacent kitchen.
Other orchid varieties reside on tables next to northern and western windows in the living room, southern windows in the dining room and arrayed around the Jacuzzi tub in the master bathroom. Where there’s space and light, there’s room for a new baby. My husband has been very cooperative and I’ve steered clear of his office.
So, why do all this? And what does “requires very little care” mean? Most orchids need water and food only once a week. Different species thrive with different light, temperature and humidity, all detailed on the culture sheet. Food is a liquid mixed with water at the sink in a large plastic pitcher. Thursday is usually Orchid Day at our house, taking about two hours. All the plants are brought into the kitchen where they sit in plastic drain dishes on the counters. Each is then taken to the sink to water, feed if necessary with Grow or Bloom depending on their progress in a yearly cycle, and thoroughly drain. Water should be tepid and added until it runs out of the hole in the bottom of the plastic or terra cotta pot. All reside in lovely decorator pots during the week.
Wow! Sounds like real work. Yes, but nothing compared to the rewards. Each Thursday, I may spot the beginning of a spike or efflorescence on at least one plant , just a tiny green nub pushing its way out at the base of the leaves or between bulbs. I call my husband and he oohs and aahs with me. The next week, I check to see the extent of growth of the stem that has already grown two to four inches. Over the months that follow, buds will emerge on the lengthening stem and develop into flowers. Once they are ready, a flower may open overnight. One can almost watch the petals unfold. Thus, each stage of the yearly cycle has its pleasures for the grower. Very different from buying an orchid plant from a florist with flowers in full bloom.
Bill says I should consider a small greenhouse attached to the house on the back deck . I told him I’m not ready for that kind of commitment yet. This love affair with the oncidiums ‘Dancing Dolls’ , exquisite yellow flowers, and ‘Shary Baby” , tiny lavender blooms with the aroma of chocolate, has to be kept under control. But when ‘Kaleidoscope‘, the spectacular phalaenopsis whose petals are coral with fuschia stripes, and ’Golden Elf’ a yellow cimbidium with a lemon scent bloom at the same time, I know I may be weakening.
Meanwhile, I’ll just drive over to the greenhouses to walk around and enjoy the hundreds of gorgeous orchids in bloom. Chat with Bill a little. He always takes time. Maybe, bring one new baby home. There’s always space for one more on the family room floor. It’s a beautiful sunny day. Why not?