by Sue La Rosa
My vanda orchid started to bloom on Friday night. This was a much anticipated event for me. Not that I am an orchid person or that I am a hybridizer of orchids or a horticulturist extraordinaire. No, I am a person who bought an orchid one day and now find myself hooked.
I, like most people, knew orchids existed. To me, they were exotic plants , linked to people who had greenhouses, lived in South America or at least some tropical environ. My perception of orchids was based on the movies or books where orchid growers were portrayed as elderly and had these huge greenhouses where they doddered around caring for these erotic plants that their ancestors had collected in Victorian times. The other face of orchids was they were growing in some plantation environment with coffee trees, banana trees, coca plants and bamboo growing close by. In my mind, orchids were linked with foreign food and culture.
My first real contact with orchids came when I took a part-time job at a very large nursery where I lived.
I was comfortable with the variety of plants they offered the buying public for indoors and outdoors... except for orchids. And cactus, but that is whole 'nother story. I worked on Sundays and after getting ready to open, I would walk through the store to the greenhouse, check out the new arrivals and then exit out into the outdoor nursery area. One Sunday, after picking up my cup of coffee, I zipped through the pneumatic doors and stopped short. There at the end of a wire mesh table, gathered in a large clump of color, blooming in soft lavenders, golden yellows, royal purples and creamy whites, were orchids. I found myself just staring. Here were the weirdest looking plants I had ever seen. There were phalenopsis, cattlyeas and paphylopsis. Each was different from it neighbor. On closer inspection, I could see that there were three types of orchids on the table, but knew no more than they were luscious.
They didn't look like anything I knew. Their petals came in all kinds of shapes. Their color was so muted as if it was in layers. They had a look of eroticism…a come-hither quality that I couldn't explain. Over the years I had seen plants that were show-stoppers; plants that made you examine them thoroughly; plants that made you find a book and read everything you could about them. It was a shape, a size, a texture, a color or a smell that intrigued you. Orchids became that for me that Sunday morning. I would find myself going into the greenhouse right away on Sunday morning, just to see what had changed during the week, what had bloomed, what had new had arrived, what had been sold. When I had noted the price on these exotic plants, I knew that I could not afford them on my minimum wage. Most were marked $30 or more. Some were upward of a $100. But I could enjoy them every Sunday and I was happy with that.
I noticed over time that anyone of Oriental extraction would stand and gaze at orchids for long periods of times, especially those that were female and older. The orchids seem to put out some kind of message to these people and it was often that there would be some Chinese woman, a Korean woman and me standing on Sunday mornings just looking at the orchids. It was a pull I could not explain. A sort of meditation or trance-like state would occur as one gazed upon these plants. They had such a three-dimensional quality to them and a faint lovely scent.
On a hot August Sunday morning I came in the employee entrance and found a shopping cart full of orchids. They were only stalks and leaves. I asked about them and was told they were to be discarded because they had finished blooming or had bugs. Now this nursery had a policy were employees could purchase discarded merchandise at a considerable discount if approved by the on-site supervisor. In this cart was a vanda: a prized orchid. It seemed to call to me from that wire basket on wheels and I immediately sought out the on-site supervisor. I was told she would let me know later in the day. After lunch, I was informed I could buy the Vanda, which was bug infested, for $5. Now this was in my price range. I bought it instantly.
Once home I hung it from my clothesline pole, doused it with soupy water and then it hosed down with clean water. I figured it was far enough from my other plants in the yard that the bugs wouldn't be a problem for them. I just had to eradicate them on the vanda. I looked long and hard at this plant. Now a vanda is truly a different looking orchid. It is not three-dimensional until it blooms. It is a plant with a tall stalk with leaves that come out in a vase-like shape. It looked odd hanging there. The plant was in a wooden box filled with wood chips and the stalk was attached to a heavy wire that ended in a hook, much like a clothes hanger. In between the slats of the wood basket were these gray green roots that were very hard to the touch reaching out beyond the slats. I left it to hang, dripping water.
Over the next few days, I continued to wash it with warm soapy water and then rinse with clear water. After several days, no bugs were found and I left it to hang in the dabbled shade of my back yard. I would occasionally check it for bugs and it seemed to be thriving. Near the end of August half way up the arcing leaves a grey-beige leader seemed to be poking out and growing. This was a …….. On the ends of this stalk little buds formed. Then blooms. I could not believe it. I actually got an orchid to bloom out of doors and did nothing extraordinary. Every person that came within feet of my house was dragged to the back yard to look upon my glory. Family, friends, my guy who cut my grass, neighbors. No one was immune to my braggadocio. I found this glorious plant, just that. Glorious!
The blooms lasted almost a month and during that entire month I never stopped being amazed. I would look at the leaves, the flowers, the roots. Trying to imprint in my mind all that happened with this plant.
Fall came and the temperatures dropped and I brought the Vanda into the house and put it on a hook over my sink in an east facing window. That fall I had gone to the Napa Valley and at a wine tasting session noticed that all the corks were being placed in a basket to be thrown away. I approached one of the pourers. I asked if there was a way I could have the used corks for my orchids. I had remembered that one of the books I was browsing through had said that corks could be used as a rooting medium for orchids. They put together several bags of wonderful Beringer corks for me. When I got home I added several to the wooden basket.
In the spring I put the vanda back outside to hang on the clothesline pole. The next summer it did nothing, but swing in the breeze and grow a few more leaves on top of the stalk. When I bought it, it was about three tall from the bottom of the basket to the top of the stalk. At the end of that summer, it was about three and a half feet tall. Fall came and it was put on the hook in the east facing window in my kitchen.
I was concerned that it had done nothing that year and was wondering what I could do. I wanted it to bloom again and started to read more orchid books and do research.
In the spring it went back out to the clothesline pole. Again the summer came and went and nothing. I did do some trimming of the old leaves near the bottom of the stalk and also clipped a few broken ones. Cooler nights came signaling the onset of fall and I brought the vanda into the house. Two summers and no blooms. I was thinking I would have to relegate this plant to the failure pile along with my agapantha, begonia and phalenopsis. All had failed to bloom for me, but I didn't have to heart to toss them in the compost heap. But not long after I hung it up in its usual place when I noticed a leader coming off of the stalk. I watched. It grew longer each day. Then the littlest of buds appeared. I counted six. My vanda was going to bloom. YAY!!!
About the Author Sue La Rosa gardens in Zone 4 - Minnesota. Her passions are roses, orchids, herbs somedays, perennials and trees. She comes from a long line of serious gardeners and is forever humbled by the whole process of nature and eternally grateful I can be part of it.