A passion for Paphs

The mere mention of orchids evokes tropical islands, plant explorations and mysterious encounters. Delicate and seductive, these beautiful flowers are unrivaled in both color and form, bringing joy to the hearts of their many admirers.

That said, I have a confession to make: For whatever reasons, I’ve never caught the tropical-orchid fever. As a horticulturist who’s worked mainly with temperate native ornamentals, I am not a good candidate to answer even basic orchid questions — or even, for that matter, to care for the one that someone gave me last year. The truth is, I’ve always thought of orchids as finicky, difficult to grow, and requiring too much attention. Recently, however, I decided to put my prejudices aside and try to learn a little about orchids and the people who love them.

Even I know that all orchids aren’t from the tropics; indeed, some live in our own back yards and surrounding woodlands. These native beauties, wild and exotic in their own right, are considered terrestrial — growing in and deriving nutrients from the soil. In this, they’re aided by a close relationship with soil fungi that helps them grow but also makes them difficult to transplant and maintain in a cultivated garden. So until production-and-cultivation techniques are better perfected, our best strategy for enjoying the lady’s slipper, rattlesnake plantain or showy orchis is to protect their native habitat, leave them there — and admire them when we stumble upon them in the wild.

Exotic or tropical orchids, on the other hand, are numerous and come from diverse habitats around the world, where they grow in widely varying environments and at all elevations. The majority of tropical orchids are epiphytic or lithophytic, clinging to trees or rocks respectively. But this is strictly for support — they’re not parasitic but derive nutrients from the air, water and available organic matter.

These days, you don’t have to journey to distant lands to find odd and unusual orchids. With more than 30,000 known species worldwide and hundreds of thousands of hybrids, there’s plenty for the grower and hybridizer to work with. New species are still being discovered, but due to deforestation, there may be many more we will never get to see and enjoy.

Mysterious encounters, too, may be a thing of the past. With the advent of retail garden centers, mass propagation and the global market, orchids have become just another potted, flowering plant that’s tossed in the trash once it finishes its sometimes long and beautiful blooming run. Mass production through tissue culture is one reason these splashy plants have become what some call “throwaways.” Another is the fact that most us don’t know how to care for orchids and have little chance of getting them to bloom again.

Although there’s no single approach to caring for this large and complex plant group, understanding the specific growing conditions required for a particular orchid can definitely boost your chances of blooming success. Growers say it’s best look to the plant’s natural environment to find out what it needs. But that can prove to be a lot more complicated than it might sound.

My orchid, for instance, turned out to be a Dendrobium. This is a large orchid group with a wide range of growing and light requirements, ranging from steamy tropical to cool mountains and from medium to high light. And then there’s the question of what it takes to initiate flowering: One species might need a cool, dry period, while another may not require any special treatment at all.

Let’s just say that I should have been directed to an orchid with the word “easy” on the tag. Members of the Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum and Cattleya groups, considered the most popular orchids for houseplants, are perfect for beginners like me. Tolerating low light conditions, warm temperatures and minimal attention, they’re well suited for the average home and will bloom for anywhere from six weeks to four months!

The only thing all orchids have in common is an asymmetrical flower composed of three sepals and three petals (with the third petal often modified). Orchids use bright colors and unusual forms to maximize their species-specific relationships with certain flying insects, beetles and birds that help them grow and thrive in the natural world.

This, I’ve learned, is similar to the bond that often develops between orchid growers and their collections. It’s a demanding relationship that calls for commitment, sacrifice and even lifestyle change. To fuss, tend and coax a green set of leaves into glorious and exotic bloom is not only fun and fascinating but a challenge and, at times, a thrill. If you ever get the chance to eavesdrop on a couple of orchid growers talking about their latest successes and achievements, you’ll quickly discover that the world of orchids is not only exciting but an actual adventure — and one that can be had without traveling to far-off lands!

If you’re interested in catching the fever, exploring the world of orchids, or simply getting lost in their beauty for a bit, consider attending the upcoming (and aptly named) “Fools for Orchids” show on Saturday and Sunday, April 2-3, at The North Carolina Arboretum. Sponsored by the Western North Carolina Orchid Society, the show will feature H.P. Norton, Tom Nasser and other experts, who’ll give demonstrations and discuss the many aspects of growing and collecting orchids.

As for me, I’m happy to report — to the considerable relief of my husband (not to mention healthy orchids everywhere) — that my recent forays have left me unscathed, albeit full of respect for those who’ve fallen prey to this all-consuming passion.

Admission to “Fools for Orchids” is free; parking costs $6 per vehicle. For more information, phone (828) 665-2492 or visit the Web site (ncarboretum.org).

[Alison Arnold is director of horticulture at The North Carolina Arboretum. She can be reached at 665-2492 or via e-mail (aarnold@ncarboretum.org).]

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