The Dirt: Orchid man

Jim Rogers and Biltmore Estate are a good fit. On the house grounds, bronze statues run the gamut from a hippogriff to a terrier to a bust of George Vanderbilt in the library. Rogers particularly likes the one of George. “It is so real, it looks like it could get up and walk off,” he says. He should know: He’s a retired bronze sculptor. But these days, bronzes aren’t much on his mind—orchids are.

Green thumb: Jim Rogers grows the Biltmore Estate’s orchids. Photo By Cinthia Milner

After retiring to Asheville in June of 2007, Jim found himself involved in another of Biltmore’s treasures: orchids. He bought his first one in 1970—a huge, white, fragrant Cattleya—and from that first purchase grew an interest that has led Jim to Biltmore. Caring for the estate’s 400 orchids is now his job, though he calls it his “sweet spot, that place that enables you to escape the rest of the world. If you follow your bliss,” he says, quoting Joseph Campbell, “it will lead you to your bliss.” Orchids are Jim’s bliss: He speaks their language, and they speak his.

Jim also agreed to talk to me, and we sat in in rickety garden chairs in the Production House chatting, me scribbling while he took pictures. Orchids are identified by their blooms, and Jim’s personal project is photographing each one when in bloom, then labeling and cataloging it. He hopes one day to completely document Biltmore’s collection.

I told Jim that I wanted a list of dos and don’ts for orchid growing, especially for the beginner. Looking bemused, he told me to google “orchid culture,” saying, “The Internet has tons of information for that.”

For Jim, orchids are as much about life as about flowers—and our thoughtful conversation meandered between both. Indeed, I envied him his sweet spot away from the cares of the world, ensconced among plants and humidity. So I left off scribbling and simply listened to a man discuss his passion.

He began with the roots. “Grow roots instead of plants,” he advised. Orchid roots need to breathe; they need oxygen. Some orchids are epiphytes, which grow not in soil but in a mixture of lump coal and bark that allows air to circulate around the roots. For the same reason, pots for epiphytes have slits in the sides.

These are the orchids that, in nature, appear to be growing straight up a tree trunk. Terrestrial orchids grow in soil (actually humus or leaf litter), but they still need good roots, so the medium should be healthy and breathable. Orchids don’t want to be dry, but neither do you want them sitting in water—a big no-no. Too much of anything isn’t good for an orchid, says Jim. As for feeding, his advice is, “Fertilize weakly, weekly.” Again, orchids favor moderation.

Some facts about orchids for beginners and the fearful

Everything needed for growing orchids, from fertilizer to potting mediums, is readily available at most nurseries or on the Internet.
• Epiphytes grow well in a mix of 70 percent bark and 30 percent lump charcoal.
• Terrestrials grow in a mixture of humus or leaf litter.
• Orchids need little fertilizer (1/2 teaspoon per gallon of water, weekly).
• Never allow orchids to stand in water. Water from the top about every four to seven days, depending on the humidity in your home. Orchids should be almost completely dry before watering again.
• Flush them out once a month. Fertilizer can leave a residue of salts, so hold the orchid under a faucet and let the water flow through the plant, washing it clean.
• East-facing windows are best, but south-facing windows with a sheer to avoid direct sunlight will also work.
• After flowering, cut back the flower spike and don’t let it re-flower. Instead, let that energy go back into the plant, making it healthier and more likely to produce new flower spikes later.
• Have a fan or open window nearby. Orchids like air movement and gentle breezes.
• If you’re not into surfing the Net, a good reference book is Home Orchid Growing by Rebecca Tyson Northen (fourth edition).

The Production House hosts rows of orchids, both terrestrials and epiphytes. Jim held one up to show what he meant, and I could see the healthy roots through the clear-plastic pots. Good roots, good plants, good blooms.

“Orchids are symbiotic,” he continued. “They need their environment, and their environment needs them.” The roots feed on all that surrounds them—dead bugs, bird droppings, dew—and they return the favor by supplying needs to their environment. That’s why digging up one of our native ones (lady’s slipper, showy orchis) is not so easy: They don’t transplant well. They’re a community flower, so to speak.

So what’s Jim’s favorite orchid? Without hesitation, he named Amblostoma tridactylum, describing it as tiny, lightly yellow and having a fresh fragrance. The word “fragrant” pops up a lot when he talks about orchids, and he had me bend over to smell a small, lilac-colored one whose aroma rivals any gardenia or rose. I’m already beginning to picture which window in my house needs an orchid.

“Orchids are creatures of habit,” said Jim, instructing me to write that down. “If we pay attention to them and understand their habits, they are easy to grow.” I arch my eyebrows at him in disbelief; he snaps my picture.

To appease my need to “figure it out first,” Jim did finally gave me a short list of how-tos. But when it was time for him to get back to work, he said: “Just start—just buy an orchid and try. You’ll fall in love.”

I’m pretty sure we were talking about life.

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]



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