In bleak midwinter, a fellow’s fancy turns to finding an orchid

“It isn’t easy to pass down the aisles of those three rooms without stopping, even in an emergency, but that time I stopped only once, where a group of Miltonia roezlis were sporting more than fifty racemes on four feet of bench. It was the best crop of Miltonias that Wolfe (and Theodore) had ever had.” 

– Rex Stout, “Counterfeit for Murder,” 1962.

Valentine’s Day is near, I notice, and so it’s time for me to go shopping for Sallie at Home Depot or possibly Cub Foods, depending on who has the best selection this year.

A nice pair of rubber gloves, you ask? A fresh whiskbroom-and-dustpan set?

No. As always the objective is a fine new orchid, and while orchids are available from plenty of flower shops and specialty growers, Home Depot has been lucky for us year after year; prize winners have been found among its offerings.

And now I see that in Stillwater, at least, Cub Foods is seizing a competitive opportunity.

All of which adds to the evidence, I think, of how these unearthly blooms are continuing to colonize mainstream American homes as relentlessly as they have colonized all of Earth’s continents except Antarctica, their image evolving from fragile greenhouse specialty to leather-tough houseplant well suited to ordinary indoor habitats.

Even if, like me, you don’t much care for indoor flowering plants you may still find it as difficult to breeze by a typical Depot orchid array as Archie Goodwin found it to rush through Nero Wolfe’s Miltonias.

Orchids can do that to you.

* * *

“[O]rchids are not simply beautiful.  Many are strange-looking or bizarre, and all of them are ugly when they aren’t flowering. They are ancient, intricate living things that have adapted to every environment on earth. They have outlived dinosaurs; they might outlive human beings. … They are at once architectural and fanciful and tough and dainty, a  jewel of a flower in a haystack of the plant.”  

— Susan Orlean, “The Orchid Thief,” 1998

I should say right off that you’re unlikely to find a Miltonia at a big-box retailer, but if you know what a Miltonia is you surely know that too.

Phalaenopsis is the genus that will comprise at least 90 percent of the offerings, with the occasional Dendrobiumor Oncidium thrown in. But unless you’re a serious collector, so what?

It’s a curiosity of orchids that species within a genus, like Phalaenopsis or Paphiopedilum, produce blossoms in so many different colors, sizes and shapes that you might wonder how they were ever grouped together in the first place. (Another quirk is that, unlike other house and garden plants, orchids have resisted the application of nicknames in place of the Latin; fanciers may talk of “phals” or “paphs” or “dendros,” but that’s about as informal as it gets.)

Thanks, I guess, to DNA examination, some of these long-established classifications are being gradually though radically rewritten. Highly lookalike varieties are being assigned to separate groupings based on their genes; other varieties that could hardly look less related are joining the same genera.

A couple of weekends ago, at the Orchid Society of Minnesota’s annual Winter Carnival show, I discussed this point with a society representative standing beside a display of prize-winning Oncidiums.

He explained that the old genus assignments were made partly on the basis of blossom shape and color, partly on foliage, partly on native growing locale – and, often, partly on classifier whim or other factors that in retrospect seem equally random.

Pointing to a handy, tiny-blossomed specimen, he gave another listener the introductory lesson on What Makes an Orchid an Orchid: a blossom structure consisting of three sepals radiating from a common center, like the spokes in the Mercedes-Benz emblem, and behind them another radial of three petals, oriented opposite the sepals.

Problem was, he was suddenly confused about which parts of this particular blossom were the sepals and which were the petals.

Orchids can do that to you, too.

* * *

“He told Wolfe he was extremely sorry, he apologized, but he would be able to include only twelve Phalaenopsis Aphrodite in the shipment instead of twenty, and no Oncidium flexuosum at all.” 

– Rex Stout, “The Doorbell Rang,” 1965.

Sallie is partial to the paphs, many of which are known as ladyslippers (although the wild orchid that is Minnesota’s state flower, the pink and white lady’s slipper, is a Cypripedium). She likes the characteristic feature of one large, downward-drooping, pouch-shaped petal, called a labellum or lip, which serves to attract pollinating insects (and to my eye resembles the death-trap apparatus on the pitcher plant).

Part of our reason for going to the orchid show this year was to replace a rare fatality in our little home collection, a ladyslipper that spent a healthy four years with us but abruptly sickened and died of causes unknown. Happily, she found an identical plant from the very same vendor, along with the advice to try a pot with ventilation openings in the walls – your ladyslippers hate wet feet.

I am more than happy with the ubiquitous phals – especially, this year, with a plant whose 4-foot-long raceme is still weighted with seven of the dozen big white blooms that started to appear last September.

But lately I’ve been rereading the Nero Wolfe detective novels, where I first encountered the mystery of orchids, and this put me in the mood for a little more variety; after talking orchid anatomy with the expert, I thought I might keep an eye out for Oncidiums as we browsed the vendors’ tables.

The one I settled on – an Oncidium Ron’s Rippling Delight, 15 inches tall, with blooms like deep-sea creatures – is a manmade hybrid, an example of the human inability to let well enough alone. Well enough in this case being upward  of the estimated 20,000 orchid varieties produced by normal evolution.

I’ve had a reflexive sort of a policy of sticking to “natural” varieties in the past, but when they give such an awesome orchid your name, I guess it does something to you.

* * *

In 1877 [Charles Darwin] published a book called “The Various Contrivances By Which Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects.”  In one chapter he described the strange orchid had found in Madagascar — an Angraecum sesquipedale with waxy, white star-shaped flowers and ‘a green whip-like nectary of astonishing length.’

 The nectary was almost twelve inches long and all of the nectar was in the bottom inch.  Darwin hypothesized that there had to be an insect could eat the unreachable nectar, and at the same time fertilize  the plant — otherwise the species couldn’t exist. Such an insect would have to have a complementarily strange shape.

  —  “The Orchid Thief.”

More than most years, I noticed at this year’s show the remarkable diversity in size, shape, coloration and what I suppose I’d call anatomical modification represented by the orchid-viewing humans.

Plenty of fanciers who crowd the McNeely Conservatory in Como Park for these shows are as ordinary-looking as could be … except for the camera gear. They train lenses you could use to shoot from the sidelines of the Super Bowl on blossoms that sit still,  inches away.

Plenty of others are as, well, unusual as you might encounter at closing time at the State Fair.

I’m thinking now of the bare-armed woman inked from shoulders to wrists with unbroken floral array featuring, oddly, not a single orchid I could spot from a respectful distance; the artist seemed to prefer roses, irises and lilies, which I suppose are pretty, too, in their own limited way.

There was a man with a close-cropped, jet-black beard outlining his jaw and a skinny, floppy, crimson mohawk marking the fore-and-after centerline of his bald skull. A woman with yards of fat red yarn woven into nearly knee-length dreds that might or might not have been her own raven hair.

Any number of girls and women, from grade school to Social Security age, abloom in bright tights, flowing silks and stiff, taffeta-like fabrics that gave an impression of flower petals, or maybe I mean sepals.

One could speculate endlessly on what such costuming is intended to attract, or repel.

I preferred instead to think about the lengths our species will go to in its quest for apparent individualism, for  superficial diversity – a sort of mimicry of the speciation that the world’s myriad, still uncounted orchids display by evolutionary accident.

Orchids can do that to you, too.

*Source: Ron Meador for MinnPost


Explore the Legacy of Orchids at the 64th Annual Orchid Exposition in San Francisco.

Orchids are one of the oldest plant species and date back thousands of years. Their legacy and importance in society throughout history have been noted in the Aras Pacis of Ancient Rome and in the Materia Medica, which is the oldest known Chinese pharmaceutical text.

The Pacific Orchid Exposition boasts over 150,000 beautiful orchids from around the world and features docent tours, orchid potting demonstrations, cultivation tips and a diverse array of orchids for sale.

The event showcases intricate exhibits from local, national and international orchid growers, as well as vibrant displays from Orchid Societies around California.

Plus, throughout the weekend there is a silent auction featuring fabulous items to bid on like wine, art, trips, and more.

The 64th Annual Pacific Orchid Exposition runs February 26 through February 28.

Orchids for Bay Area’s microclimates:

1) Phalaenopsis are low-light orchids and will thrive in a east window, or a shaded southerly or westerly exposure. They do not like direct sunlight and will scorch.
2) Cymbidiums have been known to briefly withstand freezing temperatures, although frost will kill them. They can also withstand considerably summer heat without wilting.
3) Milltonias survive best with indirect light and some shade in the middle of the day. Too much direct sunlight will damage these orchids’ leaves.
4) Masdevallias require very cool conditions and abundant moisture throughout the year. They cannot tolerate dryness, low humidity, or excessive temperatures and the plants are very easy to kill.
5) Lycastes perform best with temperatures between 60 and 80 F, though they will tolerate slightly higher or lower temperatures for short periods.
6) Cattleya occineas grows best in areas that are on the warm and dry side and it’s best to grow in pots.
7) Laelia anceps are very durable plants. They easily take temperatures down to freezing or as warm as the 90’s.
8) Dendrochilums prefer very bright light just short of direct sunlight. The thinner the leaf, the more sun the plant will tolerate.

Dendrobium and Mokara Care and Handling Suggestions for Floral Wholesalers and Retailers

By Tom Vail

Manager, Amy’s Orchids – Thailand

People frequently ask about the best ways to care for cut flower tropical orchids.  Here are some suggestions.

First, the water tubes we use on the flowers are meant for limited time use.  While the flowers usually last more than one week with the water tubes, it is best to remove the water tubes as soon as possible, re-cut the stems, and place in fresh floral nutrient solution.  (Actually, the nutrient is of limited value.  CLEAN water is the most important factor).  Professional floral nutrient solutions contain sugar (the nutrient), but also antibacterial agents (usually a weak organic acid, like vinegar).  Bacterial growth in the vase solution is the biggest danger for Thai orchids, and it causes stem blockage and reduces water uptake.  This is why we recommend removing the water tubes and placing the flowers in fresh solution.  Also, re-cutting the stems helps to remove any blockage (usually from bacterial growth) which may be present.  Cool temperature storage also retards bacterial growth.

For wholesalers, it is usually not practical to remove the water tubes.  In this case, 1) make sure the stems are IN the water, and 2) storage is cool.  Ends of the stems must be in water (obviously) for the flowers to “drink.”  Sometimes, the flowers drink fast, and use all of the water in the water tubes.  If this happens, it is CRITICAL to re-cut the stem and replace the water.  Also, stems might not be inserted fully into the water tube.  Another case we have seen is orchid bunches displayed for sale with the water tubes elevated, leaving the end of the stem dry.  Whenever the stem ends have become “dry,” they should be re-cut before placing them in water.

Storage temperature for both Wholesalers and Retailers should be around 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius).  This is not a critical factor, but storage at both warmer and colder storage temperatures can shorten vase life.  A closely related factor is humidity.  The smallest amounts of condensation on the petals can cause botrytis to develop.  This usually starts as pinpoint sized black spots, and can spread rapidly and ruin the flower’s appearance, and dramatically reduce vase life.  Allowing moisture (humidity) from outside to flow into cold storage, or moving the flowers from cold to warm and back, can cause condensation on the blooms – even if it is too small to see.  Any noticeable condensation, either on the blooms or inside the wrapper, should be dried out as quickly as possible.  Fans can help.

In opposition to high humidity and condensation on the blooms, is low humidity and desiccation.  In our 15 years of experience, I have only encountered noticeable desiccation in one instance.  This was at a small exhibition in Denver.  They told me that there was very low humidity, and our flowers wilted dramatically in less than 48 hours.  Floral sprays which “seal” the blooms, preventing transpiration, can prolong vaselife in circumstances like this.  As a grower, packer and shipper of orchids, we have little experience with this and cannot recommend from direct knowledge.  We pack our flowers, leis and garlands in plastic wrappers for shipping.  This produces a “micro” environment in which humidity is favorable for the flowers.  (But, beware of condensation inside the wrapper.  This can be VERY damaging to blooms, and can cause the damage very fast).  Wholesalers should keep orchids in the wrappers.  For Retailers, the plastic wrapper would probably impede sales or use.

When blooms are on the stems, it is easy for them to hydrate from vase solution.  Once placed into an arrangement without the stem and hydration, as in a corsage or a lei, it is more important to protect the bloom from desiccation.  Storage in a plastic wrapper or container will help.  Use of a floral spray will help.  To counter this problem, Amy’s Orchids puts maximum effort into fully hydrating ALL flowers and floral products before shipping.  Our loose blooms, leis, garlands, as well as our stems receive a treatment protocol that makes them long lasting in almost any situation.  We have had garlands on display for up to one week without significant wilting.

Look for my soon-to-be-published book, How to Make Your Dendrobiums Last Four Weeks!  It has more information about care and handling of tropical orchids.

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