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Letter From Skunk Hollow: An orchid blooms, and then they’re all in flower

If orchids are hardier than is generally assumed, they are also more patient than predictable.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

I’m always on the lookout for awe in the natural world, collisions with beauty and resilience, with the complex, the fragile and the improbable — instants that serve as reminders worth sharing of everything we take for granted on a planet we relentlessly remodel.

Naturally I expect to find these moments outdoors somewhere, maybe on a woodland trail, along a stream. Certainly not in the central hallway of my home, a space I traverse 40 times in a typical day, oblivious to the low-light potted plants on the bookcases that line one wall.

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But there was no way to miss the new bloom that appeared a while back on the ladyslipper orchid that Sallie had brought home a year earlier from the Orchid Society of Minnesota‘s annual Winter Carnival Show in Como Park.

It was full. It was fleshy. It was colored in a way that looked somehow carnivorous. It was gorgeous, too, and it was, for us, a first.

We took this reflowering as proof of the plant’s superior quality. Also as a suggestion that one might be wise to buy one’s orchids from an actual orchid grower instead of from Home Depot, where I had acquired the four other, stubbornly nonblooming orchids in Sallie’s collection (one for each Valentine’s Day since 2009).

So awestruck were we that we forgot to take its picture.

A profusion of blooms

But then, within days, bud-like swellings were visible on all the other orchids. A sad little Peace Lily I’d been neglecting since the Clinton administration had put up two white spoons and with spikes,  and a venerable African violet of Sallie’s was awash in purple neon.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

Why all this floral exuberance, and why now? The main factor for the orchids, at least, seems to be an adjustment Sallie has made in her watering and feeding regime, following advice from the ladyslipper’s grower (details below).

The change seemed slight at the time, but evidently it was enough to overcome the discouragements an orchid might suffer in an indoor environment that experiences wide variability in sunlight, temperature, humidity and dusting.

After a trip to this year’s orchid show at Como, and another to Home Depot, there are now seven flowering orchids in the hall, with a total of 17 blooms and 20 buds yet to open. We may have orchids in bloom through April at the least.

As the orange-aproned cashier rang up the last purchase she said, as they always say, that she was amazed by how gorgeous and reasonably priced the Depot’s orchids were … but wouldn’t dare to take one home because she’d surely kill it.

And I replied, as I always do, that not all orchids are hard to grow, and her store’s Phalaenopsis offerings were actually pretty tough customers.

This year, however, I left off the caution about not expecting them to ever bloom again. If they’ve done it for us, chances are good they’ll do it for her —  or for you.

Why do we think they’re hard to grow?

In “The Orchid Thief,” Susan Orlean suggests that because orchid cultivation and collection have long attracted wealthy enthusiasts for whom cost is no object (and no collection too large) there’s an assumption that orchids require all the elaborate infrastructure and coddling that money can buy. But it’s just not so.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

Back in 1951, she writes, The Saturday Evening Post ran a piece by Philip Wylie called “Anyone Can Raise Orchids,” which outlined easy and inexpensive cultivation methods and touched off a frenzy:

At the time, an article saying that orchid growing wasn’t the exclusive province of the rich must have been as startling as an article titled “Anyone Can Raise Polo Ponies” would be. …    The magazine got more responses to Wylie’s story than anything except an earlier article about Pearl Harbor.

Tom Fennell Jr., a grower mentioned by Wylie, had to hire three secretaries to deal with the mail that ensued:

“Everyone wanted to know how to get orchids and how to come to [his shop in Florida]. … About a third of the letters actually had blank signed checks in them and just a little note attached saying, ‘Please send me some orchids, anything at all.’ ”

It may be, too, that because orchids emerged from jungle environments, there’s an assumption that they require carefully controlled variations of a jungle’s warm, moist climate — the plant kingdom’s equivalent of tropical fish.

Orchids almost everywhere

In fact orchids are found on every continent except Antarctica, in deserts and above the Arctic Circle. I have read that they grow in essentially every habitat on earth except for glaciers and ice sheets.

Most grow as tree-huggers, epiphytes taking in moisture through air roots, but some grow in dirt, too. Sallie and I regularly encounter a small, pinkish ladyslipper in early spring along the trails in western Wisconsin’s Willow River State Park, growing in the same moist soil we hope will yield some ramps. (Minnesota’s state flower, of course, is a hardy orchid of the genus Cypripedium).

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

Orlean writes that orchids comprise the largest family of flowering plants on earth, but there is actually some dispute about whether that title properly belongs to Orchidacea or to Asteraceae, the family that includes asters, sunflowers and daisies.

It’s a dispute that will never be settled on the merits. There are about 23,000 species grouped as Asteraceae and 21,000 to 26,000 Orchidaceae, depending on who’s counting. Both families are so diverse and broadly distributed that it’s unlike  a firm, final count can ever be achieved.

But in the case of orchids, the tally would be obsolete the moment it was printed, because orchids are ceaseless interbreeders, constantly creating new variations. It is said that Charles Darwin had a special love for them for this very reason, believing that their constant broadening of their own gene pool ensured survival no matter how their environments changed.

The sexiest, strangest flower

If daisies are the friendliest flower, as Nora Ephron had a character say in “You’ve Got Mail,” there’s little doubt that orchids are the sexiest, the strangest, the most beguiling. No wonder growers keep making new ones.

I learned at the orchid show this year that the current tally of manmade hybrids is well over 110,000 — in other words, four engineered varieties for every species found (so far) in nature. Because orchids can be hybridized across the borders of genus, because growers often register the results in their own names, a hybrid’s nametag can be lengthy and its ancestry can be more convoluted than that of Britain’s royal family.

We asked around at the show about what might explain our orchids’ sudden flowering but never got a clear answer. The general rule seems to be: Find a species or two that’s happy in your home, and then seek expert advice on which others will thrive in the same conditions. (You can’t just assume that because one Dendrobium likes your hallway, the whole family will thrive there, too.)

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

If orchids are hardier than is generally assumed, they are also more patient than predictable, and Orlean is inclined to grant them something like intelligence in knowing when to grow and when to rest, when to bloom and when to wait:

Orchids thrived in the jungle because they developed the ability to live on air rather than soil and positioned themselves where they were sure to get light and water —high above the rest of the plants on the branches of trees. They thrived because they took themselves out of competition. If all this makes orchids seem smart — well, they do seem smart….

 Orchids are one of the few things in the world that can live forever. Cultivated orchids that aren’t killed by their owners can outlive their owners and even generations of owners. Many people who collect orchids designate an orchid heir in their wills, because they know the plants will outlast them.

See what I mean by awe?

Sallie’s secret for happier orchids: Stop using softened water (oops!)  and give the plants their food and drink “weakly/weekly” — a good soaking with water and half-strength plant food once a week. That’s it!