When asked what attracted her to orchids, Liz De Niro of Green Bluff said simply, “I like flowers and growing things and orchids tend to keep their flowers for a long time.” A few simple words to express a passion for one of the most unique and widespread plants on Earth.
It is a passion shared by Ed Shuey and other members of the Spokane Orchid Society and a fast growing cadre of orchid aficionados around the world. Next weekend the members of the society will share their passion with the public at their annual show and sale to be held at the Woodland Center at Finch Arboretum.
Orchids have intrigued people for thousands of years. Fragrant varieties were coveted by the Chinese emperors in 500 B.C. The Japanese prized others for their brightly colored flowers. The Greeks valued them for medicinal and aphrodisiac purposes. The Aztec rulers of Mexico ground the seed pod of the species Vanilla and mixed it with ground cocoa seeds to form the drink we know as chocolate today. Yes, the real vanilla extract we use in cooking comes from an orchid.
The mystique of the orchid really took off when European explorers found tropical rainforests full of stunning flowering plants clinging to trees and rocks. They were smitten by the unique beauty and by the 19th century expeditions were mounting to collect the plants. The craze created so much demand that owning an orchid became a pricey status symbol in yet another society.
Orchids are the largest family of flower plants on earth claiming 25-30,000 different species and more than 100,000 hybrids. According to Shuey, “Orchids grow in every climate except the Arctic and Sahara Desert.”
To adapt to this global range of environments, individual species have evolved some of the most unique symbiotic relationships with the specific trees, insects and microclimates in the forest canopy. “Many of these plants have a very symbiotic and unique relationship to a specific pollinator, so much so that they evolved to fit just that pollinator,” says Shuey.
According to Shuey, this specific relationship between one orchid and its particular insect pollinator actually contributed to the formation of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. During the voyage of the Beagle, he found an orchid on Madagascar whose flower had a 14-inch-long nectar tube that was only fragrant at night. Darwin knew from experience and observation that only an insect with a very long tongue could get to the nectar and thus pollinate the plant. He assumed it was a moth. It wasn’t until 40 years later, two years after his death, that the moth was discovered.
In their native habitat, orchids anchor themselves to a host tree, rock or the ground surface. Their roots then grow fully exposed to the very humid air of the rain forest or other environment. Special cells on the root surface draw in all their water and nutrient requirements directly from the air. In the tropics, they are often found high in the tree canopy where they can reach bright but filtered light and the breezes can dry their roots quickly to prevent rot.
Recreating the proper light, moisture and temperature for the plants in a greenhouse or home is an orchid aficionado’s biggest challenge and one of the reasons Shuey and De Niro were drawn to the hobby. They are both adamant though that while growing orchids can have its challenges; anyone with a bright but indirectly lit window can enjoy the rewards of beautiful orchid flowers that can last up to six months.
“Orchids really aren’t a lot different than any other houseplant, says De Niro. “Just like any other plant, you have to know what that plant needs.” This means understanding the relationships between humidity, light, and growing habit of each variety. According to De Niro, hybrids of the phalaenopsis, phaphiopedilums, cymbidiums and cattleyas are good choices for beginners. Of the cymbidiums, De Niro says, “They are real hard to kill because they tolerate a big range of conditions and watering.”
Next weekend’s show will bring together hobbyists from all over the Inland Northwest and vendors from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Society members are planning to have some of their best blooming plants on display and the vendors will have a wide selection of plants, growing and greenhouse supplies available for sale.
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