An orchid by any other name

It’s my Phalaenopsis and I’ll cry if I want to.

I never asked for this orchid, but I figure I better document its life while I still can. At the moment, it sports five absurdly gorgeous blooms, an orderly row of tight buds, and stems staked with what look like those tiny jaw clips girls used in the ‘90s to faux-cornrow their hair.

A Phalaenopsis by any other name: The author’s pet orchid needs a name, the better to keep company with Rose Emma (in fishbowl). Photo by Melanie McGee Bianchi

And while this particular species is supposedly an easy-to-care-for orchid—compared with the horticulturally needy ‘Cattleya’, queen bee of the corsage set—I don’t trust for a minute that it will thrive on my watch. Sure, I can passably tend certain plants (the dusty, indifferent ones): The semi-neglected cactus on the kitchen sink is still as dry and prickly as ever.

But a fancy hothouse specimen? Please. If it can’t actually smell my fear, I know it must at least sense my resentment. The orchid was a Mother’s Day present, but not from my son. He’s too young yet (thank heavens) to participate in such prescribed rituals of filial piety. Neither was it a gift from my husband, who knows I prefer to eat my way through such occasions (the darker the chocolate, the better).

No, it was my own mother and her husband who gave me the plant, along with a daunting scroll of instructions detailing its care. (These two enjoy giving complicated gifts: One Christmas, we got a state-of-the-art digital camera appended to an eight-hour beginner’s class in which they didn’t hesitate to enroll us.)

And after a week in my clutches, this intimidating Phalaenopsis still looks regal, though so far I’ve given it little but dribbles of water, what may or may not be the correct food, and many whiny apologies. (“I’m so sorry they gave you to me. If you die, blame them.”)

Truth is, the Internet abounds with horticultural sites whose sole goal is debunking the notion that growing orchids takes special skill. “Just relax … orchids are easy,” coos a passage on the cosmically named Imagine123 Web site, where it’s also revealed that certain varieties are now so much more affordable than they used to be.

Enter Joyce Owens, the no-nonsense co-owner of Owens Orchids in Pisgah Forest. “The Phalaenopsis likes ‘people temperatures,’” she explains. “If you’re comfortable, then it probably is. We had one that bloomed for two years.” (Impressive: The typical length is six to eight weeks.)

She also takes issue with the Internet advice. “I wouldn’t agree that orchid-growing has gotten easier,” says Owens. “It’s more that people have learned what orchids require.”

Easy for her to say: Owens Orchids has retailed and wholesaled healthy, exotic specimens from its greenhouses since 1962, and she tends a thriving eBay business. Despite the latter innovation, however, Owens is definitely an old-school grower, and she doesn’t exactly approve of the lowered orchid prices.

“It’s kinda like dogs,” she muses. “If you just want to have one and don’t mind what it is, you won’t mind a mongrel. You might even have one given to you. But if you have to have a purebred and you want it to be all kinds of wonderful, you have to pay more for it.”

Or have one given to you.

And since we’ve detoured into the animal kingdom, I should mention the purple betta that my husband recently brought home and installed in our son’s bedroom, expressing the curious belief that the colorful fish would speed his recovery from spring allergies.

I never asked for a betta fish, either. Moreover, I don’t particularly believe in keeping fish as pets, yet it is now my job—naturally—to feed this pretty creature and keep its surroundings clean.

Still, once we named our new pet Rose Emma, she began to flourish, her fins gradually becoming longer and flappier (never mind that our heavily adorned fish is most likely a male). Perched on the former changing table, her bowl now has gravel in it and a little fake tree. She likes looking at her next-door neighbor—none other than my Mother’s Day orchid. The plant’s petals dreamily complement Rose Emma’s subtly blended purple hues.

At first, I joked about which entity would die sooner under my oafish care: the flower or the fish. But thus linked, enjoying filtered sunshine from the same window and the soporific peace that descends during the baby’s epic afternoon naps, they both seem more likely to stick around.

This Mother’s Day orchid needs a name! Please e-mail with ideas.


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