Last year, when I wrote in this space about orchids, one of my editors said he’d found it a pleasant piece and added, “But then, I’m not all that interested in flowers.”
Neither, as it happens, am I. But orchids are different, a special window into nature, and more about that in a moment.
Like many people, I long assumed that orchids were exotic plants for exotic people, fragile and difficult to grow, a passion requiring deep study and deeper pockets.
Surely that was the message of the Nero Wolfe mysteries I devoured in my youth, with their tours of the great detective’s multiple growing rooms tuned to specific conditions of temperature and humidity, his professional horticulturist assisting for hours each day with work that couldn’t be interrupted even for murder investigation.
But then I began to acquire a few, more or less by whim and mostly from Home Depot, and instead of perishing they thrived and began to their magic on me, and one thing led to another.
And so, on Sunday, despite a combination of bitter cold and savage wind that made it perfect day for savoring the great indoors, orchids led Sallie and me to Como Park and the Orchid Society of Minnesota‘s annual Winter Carnival show, where you can see many hundreds of impossibly varied examples for the price of a second-run movie ticket.
Despite horrid weather the park roads were one long traffic snarl when we arrived, and I began to worry that this year’s show would be even more thronged than last year’s. Then we noticed all the people carrying shovels and hoes — seekers after the carnival’s buried medallion rather than a blooming Monnierara.
It took only moments to shed our coats into a coin locker, pay our admission and get our hands stamped with an outline of a Cattleya — “just like you got for your prom corsage,” the hand-stamper said, with a grin. Then came a three-hour, warm-weather vacation of unpressured orchid-gazing.
Emblems of biodiversity
Besides beauty, what explains the attraction of orchids?
First, they are living expressions of astonishing biodiversity. There are well over 20,000 natural species, too many for an accurate count to ever be made (and four times that many created by hybridizers who can’t leave nature’s work alone).
Orchids are also about survival and adaptation, have evolved and proliferated to occupy niches in every earthly environment except glaciers and ice sheets. Most grow without soil, taking in moisture and nutrients from the air, often in mutually beneficial partnerships with insects and other pollinators, whose forms they sometimes imitate.
Excepting Antarctica, they populate parts of every continent on Earth — though many of them look as if they had originated on some other planet.
The flowers are large and small, brightly colored and drab, formed of fleshy masses and the finest filaments. The foliage can resemble jungle vines and prairie grasses, punctuated by eerie air-root tendrils or bulbs that might resemble cactus pods, animal horn or rocks.
I’ve yet to see an orchid that wasn’t arrestingly beautiful in its own way, a sturdy and enduring way that separates these species from mere flowers.
Many are not at all difficult to grow, which explains why certain orchids have become a routine item this time of year at Home Depot. Others reward careful, expert cultivation, which is why you go to orchid shows.
An exhibitor’s insights
Last year’s show was my first and I walked around in a daze, trying to get my mind around all that complexity and variety.
This year I was determined to learn a little bit more about orchid cultivation and the people who practice it so intensively, and so I spent some time eavesdropping on exhibitors and visitors alike, listening for exemplary voices of expertise that might make a good interview.
Ninety-six percent of the comments I overheard were variations on, “Wow — would you just look at that!”
After eavesdropping for a while on exhibitor Ken Malvey of Golden Valley, who has won his share of ribbons at this show and its predecessors, I asked him to tell me about his collection and his life with these botanical emissaries of other worlds. He could not have been more down to earth:
Well, I’ve been growing orchids for probably 25 years, at least, I guess. There are just so many different varieties, you can occupy yourself with one variety for months, or years, and then try something new.
I think there’s something like 25,000 species of orchids, so you never run out of possibilities. At least I won’t, not in my lifetime.
At this point I suppose I could have asked Malvey his age, but didn’t; it’s a safe bet we both remember Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. I asked him what his first orchid was, all those years ago. He shrugged, lifted a massive bloom of pinks and purples and said with a wry smile:
Oh, it would have been one of these. A Cattleya, of course. Like you’d see on a going-to-the-prom corsage.
And this one was gorgeous, of course, but not as interesting as other, less familiar orchids on his table.
None of them were hybrids of his own creation, he said; growing orchids is, for him, strictly a hobby, not a business. He has a greenhouse, and needs one, because his orchid collection numbers, well …
I’m not sure (grimace). If I tell you this, people will say I’m nuts—but I haven’t really counted them.
I’m sure I must have maybe 200, or 250. My favorite? I have this friend, and she says, ‘My favorite orchid is the last one I’ve seen.’
I think I remember saying something like that, you know, 100 years ago in a dating situation. But it’s true. You become sort of ho-hum about what you have … and then there’s something new and wonderful.
Malvey was particularly proud of his nearly black Monnierara —despite the Nero Wolfe title, there is no such thing as a truly Black Orchid — and also of his golden Lycaste (though he also pointed me, quite graciously, to another Lycaste at another exhibitor’s display nearby, in a shade of maroon so striking, he said, “it’s got me thinking about larceny — ha-ha.”
So he’s still collecting?
Oh, yes, I’m still collecting. I will be, I suppose, forever.
I’ve willed my orchid collection here, to the Conservatory. Not that they would want them all for their collections. But they could sell them to raise money for their orchid activities, which is important. They do such good work here.
As we were wrapping up our conversation, Malvey pointed me almost off-handedly to the beribboned Paphiopedilum sitting at the far corner of his table.
This one received an Award of Merit from the national orchid society, for which I’m very pleased. I’ve never had that happen before.
He explained that the merit awards are given on the basis of a single bloom’s near-perfection in size, color, characteristics, etc. There’s a 90-point scale on which this flower had earned an solid 81.
And can I tell you where I got it? Home Depot!
Now, before you all rush out to your nearest Depot, I should explain that the circumstances were unusual. A grower known to Malvey had more orchids than he could continue to care for, and decided to dispose of a portion of his collection through a special one-time arrangement with a nearby store.
Not likely to happen again, but a person can dream. And Valentine’s Day is coming.
* * *
The Minnesota society is hosting the annual American Orchid Society Member’s Meeting and Show this year in Bloomington from April 30 to May 4, with displays and programs open to the public on the last three days.
More orchid photos