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The Elegance of Orchids
Centre of the City, Toronto, January/February 2005

As a symbol of exquisite simplicity, the orchid’s delicate beauty and form adds a sense of the exotic to any room. It creates drama and interest wherever it appears, especially when used in contrast with a more contemporary room design. Signifying perfection, beauty, and innocence, in the worlds of gift-giving and decorating, the orchid is fast becoming the new rose. Once considered an ostentatious and elitist choice, the orchid has finally overcome its bad press. It now turns up in TV home design shows, in the draughty venues of garden and hobby exhibitions and can be found for sale, along side the ever-present African violets, at box stores around the city. In our preference for conservation, even in gifts, we are turning away from traditional cut flowers like roses, to living plants. And for sheer impact, nothing beats an orchid.

The name orchid comes from the Greek ‘orchis’, meaning testicle, because of the shape of the plant roots. It is no surprise, then, that in Greek history the orchid was utilized by women who sought to control the sex of unborn children. If the father ate large orchid tubers, it was thought the child would be male. To ensure a female child, the mother would eat small tubers. The ancient Aztecs were said to drink vanilla from the vanilla orchid, mixed with chocolate, for strength. In China, the orchid signifies refinement or many children. The cattleya orchid denotes mature charm and is often used in corsages or arrangements for Mothers’ Day.

The orchid’s reputation as expensive and temperamental has softened, somewhat. If you want a pricey plant, there are lots to choose from, but the cost need no longer be prohibitive. A recent visit to a local orchid store found an ample supply of plants in the $10 - $20 range. Of the more than 25,000 species within the orchid family, plenty do not require a greenhouse environment. To be sure, some require intense moisture, warmth and care, but others are much less demanding. A few will even tolerate frost. If you can grow other house plants, you can probably grow many commonly available orchid varieties. For longevity, they are certainly worth consideration, and with proper care, it’s entirely possible for an orchid to outlast its owner.

Orchids can be found in nature throughout Europe; from northern Scotland, Greenland and Iceland; in Asia, Africa and South America; and across Central and North America. They can be found on grassy hills or in bogs and marshes, on breezy slopes, on the forest floor, and at 3,000m altitude in the Himalayas.

In fact, there are more than 75 orchid species native to Canada, 60 of which grow right here in Ontario. Amerorchis rotundifolia, with white or pale pink blooms spotted with deep purple, grows in shaded bogs, swamps and forests in several parts of the province, notably Ottawa and the Bruce Peninsula. Standing only 15cm tall, this plant is approaching extinction in some areas. Cypripedium acaule grows particularly well under Jack Pine trees in the Bruce Peninsula, and in White Pine stands along Lake Erie. Ranging up to 59cm in height, its often-fragrant blooms are yellow-green to purple-brown with a showy pink pouch and reddish veining. Neither transplant well to gardens, though, so purchase them from a reputable vendor rather than digging them up.

Orchids can range in size from the height of a thimble, with almost mosquito-sized miniature blooms, to twenty-foot goliaths with blooms the size of dinner plates. The ones we regularly see range in height from one to two feet. How long a flower lasts depends on the type of orchid, and on the care provided. Blooms of some species can last up to four months, while others may bloom continuously, once a year, or a few times a year. Cut flowers can last up to 2 months. In general, however, cut orchids usually have a vase life of only 7-14 days.

The largest known species of orchid, grammatophyllum speciosum, can attain a length of 15 feet, growing in the crotches of large trees, and weighing up to 2 tons. Its bloom can be expected only once every 2 to 4 years, with flowers 6 inches across. Flower stems can reach 6 to 9 feet in length, with 60 to 100 flowers per spike, and it may remain in bloom for up to two months. In a news release from October 2003, the blooming of a rare Tiger Orchid at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden was enough to generate world-wide attention.

Fragrance has a major role to play when selecting an orchid. There are intensely fragrant orchids, ones that produce a scent only at night, and those with no fragrance at all. Orchids can smell like vanilla, chocolate, curry, cinnamon, or surprisingly, corn chips. Some smell fishy; others like rotten meat. The label ‘scented’ does not necessarily mean ‘floral scented’, so you may want to ask the store clerk to help you pick, especially if giving as a gift.

Generally, orchids are classified according to the type of growing medium they require. Epiphytes are air plants that grow on trees, in their natural habitat. They are the most popular type of orchid, and can be grown in tree bark, crumbled charcoal or pebbles. Lithophytes cling to the surface of rocks. Saprophytes grow on the forest floor in the mulch that collects there, and Terrestrials are found in sand or soil.

The surge in the orchid’s popularity has made available loads of information about their care and feeding. As with most hobbies, enthusiasts range from casually interested to totally committed, and the way they baby their plants reflects this. Some advocates suggest using only rainwater on the plants, while others insist that it be fresh rainwater, collected only after it has been raining for at least an hour, so that impurities left on the catching basin have been cleansed. Still others say any type of water is fine. There is consensus that whatever water is used, it should never, ever, be cold water, and that the plants should be watered from the top, early in the day, avoiding leaves. Never let an orchid dry out right out, or stand in water. This sounds very fussy, but it’s much the same care as we provide for common African violets.

You can keep an orchid alive without great light. To make it really bloom, however, you need the brightest light you can find, except direct sunlight. Although we think of orchids as tropical, their natural habitat is usually under the tree canopy, and exposure to direct sun may cause them to sunburn.

Most orchids appreciate the greatest possible variation between daytime and night-time temperatures. Our summer temperatures are usually quite even, inside and out, day and night, and in the winter our home environment is kept to a certain heat standard. As a result, orchids generally flower for us in the spring and fall, when there is more temperature fluctuation.

Special potting medium is required by orchids, designed to keep the air circulating around roots and to anchor the plant. The medium keeps the air moist, but the roots aren’t wet. Keep the humidity raised around orchids, with the use of a pebble tray, misting, or by keeping them near your humidifier. With fertilizer, remember that orchid medium is not like soil, and has no nutrients. You will need use at least a 20-20-20 fertilizer regularly. Exact instructions depend on the orchid variety, and there are as many ways to maintain an orchid as there are orchid-growers. Care can be as fussy, or fuss-free, as you want it to be.

Some of the more common and popular orchids include: - oncidium ‘Twinkly Fragrant Fantasy’, sporting hundreds of yellow flowers with a spicy, musky scent that is sometimes a little chocolaty
- cymbidium ensifolium – lemon-scented, with a touch of jasmine
- maxillaria tenufolia, with dark red flowers and a coconut fragrance
- polystachya bella, with little parasol-shaped flowers that smell like Lemon Pledge
- brassavola ‘Little Stars’, with lots of small, night-scented white flowers
- phalaenopsis orchids, or moth orchids - good beginner plants as they tend to grow well with about the same amount of light as African violets
- neostylis ‘Sweet Fragrance’ – sweetly chocolate/vanilla scented
- zygopetalum ‘Artur Elle’, an intensely fragrant fall bloomer

Helen Kirkup
HMK Consultants
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Also by Helen Kirkup:
The Kirkups: Pioneers & Travellers
Available now on Amazon.com