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End of Summer Garden Edition:
The Lure of the Orchid

by Linda Coyner

From the heart of orchid country, here in southwest Florida, orchids are everywhere. That's not surprising as this is where they grow naturally. With human help, though, orchids have breached the climate barrier and can be found growing all over the US In fact, orchids are the third most popular potted plant in the US behind poinsettias and chrysanthemums, according to the American Orchid Society.

Availability has skyrocketed and prices have plummeted. You can find them reasonably priced in abundance in home and garden centers, in mail-order catalogs and in e-nurseries on the Web. That's amazing for a rather esoteric plant whose flower was, until recently, only known as a prom corsage. How did we get from there to here?

The key to the transformation of the orchid into a houseplant is a technology called tissue culture. With just a few cells harvested from the roots and tips, breeders can grow orchid tissue that they can then divide into separate plants. The plants with the sturdiest roots and the longest sprays of the most perfect blooms are then cloned, creating super hybrids. Unlike their genetically-untampered-with relatives, these hybrids require less fussing and are capable of lasting longer.

Nature also played a role in the shift toward mass production of orchids when Hurricane Andrew caused massive destruction over southern Florida in 1992. The devastation created the perfect opportunity for the tropical plant industry in Florida to modernize while it rebuilt.

Still, the current American infatuation with the orchid seems more than just the result of scientific advance and industry updating. Some compare today's popularity of orchids to the tulip madness of the nineteenth century. Two popular books provide abundant anecdotes about orchid obsession. Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (Ballantine Reader's Circle/$14.00/1998) weaves a fictional account of orchid smugglers in South Florida. Orchid Fever by Eric Hansen (Vintage Books/2000/$13.00) is an investigative exposé of the orchid trade and misguided international regulation. Both are very readable.

Orlean's book appeared first, captivating and introducing readers to the steamy world of orchids through John Laroche, whose plan is to clone the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii, thereby making himself and the Seminoles wealthy and saving the orchid from extinction.

Hansen's story—researched over a period of several years—documents his encounters with botanical gardens, scholars, scientists, ordinary enthusiasts and even the ancient art of making orchid ice cream. He makes a strong case against the 'plant police' whose job it is to stop the traffic of endangered species but, by doing so, contributes to their demise. Some of his essays originally appeared in the Natural History magazine.

Orchid houseplants bought at Home Depot are far from endangered, at least not in the larger sense. Some may choose to enjoy the flower, perhaps an Easter lily plant, for several weeks and then toss it in the trash or, preferably, recycle it as compost. Others may want to try nurturing it back into bloom. The chances of success depend a great deal on what type of orchid was purchased, as some adapt better than others to the home environment, and the care provided.

For basic care information, there's no shortage of how-to books, with the exception, as yet, of an Orchids for Dummies. As the availability of orchids has grown, so have the number of stunning, beautifully photographed books for the home gardener. Classics have been revised and reissued. New authors have their hand at introducing a whole new generation of orchid lover to the basics of cultivation—now measurably easier than it used to be, thanks to the hybrids—walking that tricky tightrope of providing not too much or too little information.

Highly recommended by orchid-lovers is Ortho's All About Orchids by Elvin McDonald (Meredith Books/1999/$11.95). Written by the dean of garden writers, this time-tested book is the textbook for many beginner orchid classes. All the requisite growing cultural advice is given, but at a level of detail that might intimidate a beginner, including myself. In very workmanlike style, the guide gives specifics on 18 groups of orchids and the practical advice for getting them to reflower.

Orchids Simplified by Henry Jaworski (Houghton Mifflin/1997/$22) is remembered by orchid aficionados as their 'grade school primer' in orchids. The author succeeds in simplifying his growing methods and explains them in an easy-to-understand, personal style. He is equally clear when describing growing areas, supplies, potting, indoor and outdoor growing methods and propagation techniques.

Orchids: Care and Cultivation by Gerald Leroy-Terquem, Jean Parisot (Southwater Publications/2001/$13.95). This book is impressive for its clear illustrations and inviting style. The author organizes his advice based on where you might be growing orchids, including on top of a radiator. The last section describes 30 orchid genera, including their history, physiology, and horticulture requirements.

Easy Orchids: Simple Secrets for Glorious Gardens, Indoors and Out by Mimi Luebbermann (Chronicle Books LLC/2002/$15.95). This odd-shaped volume keeps things simple, supplying a good overview of the orchid world. Luebbermann uses a personal tone to provide hands-on facts for transforming various home environments—a windowsill, patio, glassed-in porch, radiator, or small garden plot—into orchid territory.

Following in the format of 100 English Roses for the American Garden, Smith & Hawken modeled 100 Orchids for the American Gardener by Elvin McDonald (Workman Publishing/1998/$17.95). Here is both a how-to book and, with its narrow, catalog format, a field guide. McDonald describes potting mediums, water and air needs, light and lack of light, how to create an orchid garden, and troubleshooting. The book profiles 100 varieties but the selections have been criticized for not being the easiest to find or grow.

A new and worthy entry to the orchid bookshelf is Orchid Growing for Wimps: Techniques for the "Wish I Could Do That" Gardener by Ellen Zackos (Sterling/2002/($17.95). Author Zackos is reassuring as she gently steers the reader through a clear and non-intimidating explanation of the orchid-growing basics. Beginners will especially appreciate the profiles of 16 orchids that really are easy-to-find and easy-to-grow species. The information will help them choose the right plants for their growing conditions.


Resource: The American Orchid Society (www.orchidweb.org)

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