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Passions: Growing and Collecting Orchids

Honestly, I only meant to buy one plant — but I ended up an orchid-holic

By Deborah Quilter | August 17, 2012

All I wanted was some advice about my phalaenopsis. So I dropped in on a meeting of the Manhattan Orchid Society, the place where New York City aficionados congregate to talk shop. I didn’t intend to join the society; I had just planned to attend one meeting, in hopes of learning how to get the darn thing to bloom again.
 
Clearly, I had no idea what I was getting into.
 
At that first meeting, the affable president, Jim Freeman, introduced himself as an "orchid-holic." That should have sent me packing. But I stayed.

Here I was, a newbie to the world of orchids, with my one plant, a common, stereotypical phal. Ordinary, maybe. Beautiful nonetheless, with its one sweeping arc laden with huge white blooms. It was a present to myself, and the first thing you saw when entering my apartment.
 
Before I attended a meeting, I had envisioned the society's members as mature, Upper East Side ladies in pearls. While it’s true that the bulk of the members are in the full bloom of middle age, most of that night’s attendees were men — men who took their orchids very seriously.
 
I wasn’t expecting so many men, nor was I prepared for their depth of knowledge. They chatted about lighting systems and debated fertilizers and potting soils. Latin names rolled off their tongues, as well as words like epiphyte and terrestrial. (Epiphytes are plants that grow on other plants; terrestrials grow in soil. And just for the record, lithophytes grow on rocks.)
 
My first visit, serendipitously, coincided with the annual fund-raising auction. Everybody (except me) received a paper plate with a letter on it, and the paddles flew up and stayed up as the bids rose higher and higher, starting at $15 and ending around $75. As I was to learn, the rarity of a particular orchid, an unusual color combination, if it has lots of buds or if it’s a hybrid — any of these factors can make it more desirable. Plants that are harder to grow or propagate, like multi-floral paphiopedilums, are pricier. 
  
I watched in stunned fascination as the action grew fiercer. Although no one came to blows, dirty looks and barbed remarks flew like poisoned arrows.
 
Because I was too shy to talk to most of the members at the first meeting, especially in light of my novice stature, I ended up not asking for the advice I came for in the first place.
 
I left intimidated — yet intrigued — and returned a month later.
 
I was lured back because I couldn’t get the astounding variety and beauty of the orchids out of my mind. I had no idea what a complex area this was: The flower’s lip provides the landing spot for the pollinating insect; these delicate blooms can grow wild on discarded tires, etc.
 
And I was just as fascinated by the orchid people. They came from all walks of life — doctors, executives, working blokes and even a fashion model — and all they had in common was love of orchids. They were sometimes rambunctious, usually irreverent; it was always pleasure to watch the witticisms fly.
 
At that second meeting, Patti Lee, the estimable founder of the society, asked me point-blank if I was married. What on earth could my marital status have to do with growing orchids? I wondered.
 
But, as I was soon to discover, it does matter. A lot.
 
Strictly speaking, it’s not so much about wearing a ring as having a bedmate.
 
For starters, lots or orchid lovers keep orchids in their bedrooms. A well-known secret in orchid circles is: To get certain plants to bloom, one needs to sleep with the window cracked, especially in winter. You may be willing to put up with a cold bedroom for your orchid’s health and comfort; not everyone is.
 
Nor is one’s spouse/sleeping partner likely to embrace having every single window sill in your house or apartment covered with seedlings and pots — and lights and humidity trays and tiered racks and timers.
 
Trust me, orchid No. 1 is just a gateway plant. Once the compulsion is fully rooted, partners might start believing you care more about the orchids than you do about them. (Sadly, some of them may be right.)
 
(MORE: The Secret Life of Flowers)
 
A Budding Romance
 
At my second meeting (when my sleeping habits were probed), Jim Freeman handed me a cutting of the stunning ludisia discolor, treasured for its veined, velvety foliage. It seemed like an innocent gesture, but I immediately felt the weight of responsibility. I had to grow this thing — and what if it died?
 
The next month — my third meeting — I questioned my judgment when I accepted another gift from Jim, a slip of dendrobium kingianum, an Australian Pink Rock Lily. (One benefit of membership is that people sometimes share cuttings.) Here I was, already worried about my new ludisia and now I had a third baby to care for. Is this how most people become orchidists? 

Falling in Love With Flowers
 
After a year of faithful tending to my ludisia, it sported luscious foliage. To my further delight, it sprouted spikes (the stalk that blooms grow on), and in time delicate blossoms emerged. I was ecstatic. “I grew that! I grew that!” I gushed like a schoolgirl to Woody, a longtime member with a deadpan sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of plants. Woody neither laughed nor smirked.
 
I yearned to branch out and grow some of the beauties I saw on the show table. I entered the society's regular raffles and wound up with a lot of seedlings. (I was thrilled, but no one had warned me that each could take up to five years of loving attention to bloom. Plus, I had no idea of the size, shape or color of the eventual blossom.)
 
One day, when passing the Silva Orchids booth at Union Square Market, I went a little crazy and dropped $45 on a huge oncidium, a large, showy plant with scarlet blossoms. Out of kindness — or sympathy; I couldn’t tell which — Woody and another member, Stephen, steered me toward more growable plants. Maurice helped me with potting. Gary and Jim answered my frantic questions. I was deeply grateful, but inwardly I was growing wary of getting so involved.
 
While the society is hardly a cult, I did start to feel a tacit pressure to grow more plants than I had room or time for. One member, who was looking at photos of my office orchids, said, “Look at all that real estate you have on your window sills. You could have so many more orchids!”
 
(MORE: Know Gardeners? Make Them a Seed Packet)
 
I Come Perilously Close to Orchid Mania
 
As I fell deeper into my habit-forming hobby, I started hearing rumors and rumblings that led me to believe orchid-growing might be a sickness. One orchidphile had built a special misting system for an entire wall of his apartment. Another had spent $12,000 to properly chill her basement. And when a prominent member proudly showed me pictures of his greenhouse, I couldn’t possibly have heard him right. “You have how many orchids?” I gasped. I could swear he said 600. (But apparently even that isn’t such a big deal. Jim Freeman tells me that some collections run into the thousands.)
 
The following spring offered an impressive roster of speakers, including Michael Coronado, who grows vandas in Florida, and Glen Decker of Piping Rock Orchids, who specializes in paphiopedilums. Speakers would lecture on their species and impart gems of growing advice, such as not bumping newly repotted plants because it tears the fragile roots. That would cause the leaves to shrivel and you’d think it was thirsty — and then you'd kill it by overwatering. (The fix is to wire the roots of the plant to stabilize them.)
 
By the end of my second membership year, I had accumulated 10 orchids. I drew the line at acquiring plants that were too large for my Manhattan apartment, or required southern or western exposure, or grew on bark.
 
Still, orchids had cast their spell on me. I couldn’t walk past Silva Orchids without being magnetically pulled in. I would stand and stare, transfixed. At home, I obsessively checked my plants for signs of new growth. (This does not make plants bloom faster, but it is a warning sign that one is becoming dangerously obsessed.) I worried unduly about light and temperature. I began referring to my orchids by their proper Latin names. Was I becoming a bore?
 
Over time, I realized how much I’d changed. I’d gone from restraining myself from buying orchids to purchasing raffle tickets for seedlings. Both home and office window sills looked like mini-nurseries. In short, I had fallen helplessly in love with orchids. “What have I become?” I mused aloud at a recent meeting. Jim, who was within earshot, understood completely. “There are worse obsessions,” he said with a knowing shrug.
 
At the moment I have nearly a dozen orchids in various stages of bloom or growth. I keep promising my officemate I won’t get any more — after I get that mini cattleya that I’ve had my eye on, I swear I won’t.
 
And even though my first orchid (the common phalaenopsis, or moth orchid), is disparaged by cognoscenti as being a “grocery store” variety, it is still undeniably gorgeous. I may not admit that I own any phals — but truth be known, one occupies a spot of honor in my apartment and makes a magnificent arc over my prized Buddha head.

Veteran health writer Deborah Quilter is author of The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book and Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide. She is director of The Balance Project at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, where she teaches Yoga to elderly students. She lives, writes and grows orchids in Manhattan.