The last time I hosted the family Thanksgiving, my sister Sonia brought me a moth orchid. It was nothing special, although it was pretty, and a bit of a novelty in those days before orchids took over the floral department of every grocery store in America. I can imagine my sister grumbling to her husband in the car: “I completely forgot a hostess present! What store is open? Aha, there’s Trader Joe’s—pull in, they must have something. Anything.”
This orchid gift joined the mob of houseplants on my windowsills. With the jade plants and the Christmas cacti and the jasmines and the creeping figs, I schlepped the orchid out to the patio every May. There it would sit through the Summer, in the shade of a hideous old maple. Slugs chewed its leaves. Squirrels knocked over its pot. I repotted it in compost, because I stubbornly refused to believe that anything could grow in that weird orchid bark. Back indoors it came every October, and over time the orchid’s nice flowers, creamy white with a magenta lip, would open along the corkscrew stalk that I never bothered to stake.
Eventually, three more moth orchids joined it, but this was strictly the limit, I told myself. One came from the florist’s “Need TLC” table, out of bloom and marked simply “White” with masking tape on the side of the pot. Five dollars was the right price for me. It turned out to have huge and lovely white flowers. It was a couple of years before I got to see them, though. It really seems like a stupid evolutionary strategy for a plant to have such fragile bloom stalks. I mean, I barely touched it, and look what happened.
I had been ignoring the orchids, as usual, during the terrible Summer when my sister died. So when the plant Sonia gave me bloomed unexpectedly just a few days after her death, it felt like a powerful message. My mind was so full of Sonia, full of the awful images of her death, and that one little flower was reassurance that her spirit still hovered around her family. While “her” orchid bloomed, it felt as if part of her were still here, keeping an eye on things. Where else would she be but in the garden, where she had strolled so many times, envying the roses, admiring the hummingbirds, and cursing the groundhogs? She had to go out to the garden, because of course she wasn’t allowed to smoke in the house. And she had to smoke. Fuming, she called it. “I must go out and fume!” she declared.
This year, when it was time for Sonia’s orchid to come indoors, it was given a position of prominence. I set up a humidifier. I watched the succeeding buds open with rapt attention. I observed the growth of aerial roots. Every day, I admired the flowers. Through the long dreary Fall they bloomed, and into the cold Winter. After New Year’s, I checked out a few books on orchids from the library. I read the books from cover to cover and then began to worry about all the things I had been doing wrong. What kind of an idiot would pot an orchid in compost, dug from a weed infested compost heap? How could I possibly find out how many foot-candles of light my plants were getting? What made the holes in the leaves? Why had I never disinfected the old clay pots?
I also learned that a moth orchid was more properly called a phalaenopsis and that there are many, many other kinds of orchids, most of which are gorgeous and eminently desirable. There were cattleyas, which are described as the traditional “corsage” orchids, although I can’t remember anything so glamorous from my low-rent prom-going days. There were oncidiums, with tall sprays of flowers in bright, bold colors. There were orchids that looked like bees or spiders or even monkey faces. Slowly, what started as a new fixation on the orchids I had turned into an obsession with the ones I did not have.
I remember visiting Longwood Gardens with Sonia. I remember her in the orchid room in the conservatory, lost in the reds and yellows and pinks, the humid air full of exotic scents. She was an avid amateur photographer, and although Longwood has many beauties, it was their tropical plants that appealed most to her, the orchids and the bougainvillea and the tall vast palms. How I wished now that I could talk to Sonia about the many orchids that I suddenly just had to have.
Early in February, I visited a nursery where I thought I remembered seeing some orchid plants—beyond the usual ones. The parking lot seemed unusually full. Throngs of people were milling around inside the greenhouse.
Happy with a pale blue dendrobium hybrid I had selected, I asked a fellow shopper, “Why such a crowd? Is something special happening?”
“Oh,” she kindly said, “didn’t you realize? There’s an orchid show today. Didn’t you see the tables full of orchids for sale?”
An actual orchid show? And a sale?!
I had stumbled, in total and complete ignorance, into an orchid-shopper’s paradise. I felt like fortune was smiling upon me. Most of these plants were a mystery to me, though. Many had lovely flowers, interesting structures called pseudobulbs, and strappy leaves. I asked questions, and people helped me. I learned about the local orchid society. I looked at gorgeous display tables. I assured growers that I was just a beginner, and they said, “Here, this will grow for you.”
I came home with two little oncidiums and a baby cattleya that has given me some trouble. The blue dendrobium would have to wait. Weeks later, when I went back to the nursery, the dendrobium was still there, neglected on a back table. It seemed like we were meant to be together, and it has since become a good plant friend.
The following weekend, close to Valentine’s Day, my husband took me to visit a nursery that claimed to carry orchids “for the enthusiast.” I wasn’t sure how much enthusiasm it took to become an actual enthusiast, but I felt like I was rapidly reaching that point. Especially when I was disappointed that they “only” had phalenopsis orchids. Some were even dyed a peacock blue not found in nature. (Except of course on peacocks.) While I browsed unhappily through the nursery, my husband got to work on his phone and found the poetic but not very extensive website of an orchid nursery just 20 minutes away.
Off we went—through the industrial backstreets of town, past countless strip malls, and finally into a quiet residential neighborhood. This can’t be it, we thought, we must have gone wrong. But suddenly a ratty wooden sign loomed on the right, and we turned down a long drive that seemed to lead to a private house and a garage. A shaggy black dog sat in front of the garage, and when we got out of the car, she struggled to her feet and came towards us slowly, barking. We hesitated, a little nervous. When she reached us, she sat down on my husband’s feet and looked up at him as though he were Odysseus returning from the Trojan War. This was Trixie, the greenhouse dog, and she led us into the garage.
I came home from this new-to-me nursery not only with lovely orchids, but also with thoughtful and generous advice. Needless to say, this was not my last visit.
It wasn’t long before I went to my first meeting of the orchid society. The meeting featured a “novices’ table” where an expert sat and answered questions, a lecture on orchid culture, and a show table groaning with beautiful flowers. There must have been a hundred people attending, eating cake and drinking coffee and standing around actually talking about orchids. Someone gave me a little division of Epidendrum radicans, and instructions on how to grow it. I potted it up and set it near Sonia’s orchid, now in its seventh month of bloom.
Throughout the Spring, lots of orchids joined the gang of plants on my windowsill. There is Brassavola nodosa, which is supposed to smell wonderful, but has no scent at all as far as I can tell. There is a purple zygopetalum hybrid which does indeed smell great. There are some miltoniopsis which look like pansies with trust funds. There are some baby dendrobiums rooting in a little pot of moss. There is an out-of-bloom rhyncostylis from the sale table at a nursery, hanging in a teak basket that makes it look as though I know what I’m doing. I repotted orchids into more or less the right potting mix, fertilized them more or less as I should have, and moved them outdoors into more or less the right light.
At my third orchid society meeting, I became a member. In celebration, a stranger gave me his winning raffle ticket, so I could choose a plant from the prize table. In May, when the last faded blossom finally fell off Sonia’s old phalenopsis orchid, I was able to see it go without too much sorrow—because I was so grateful for the worlds of kindness and beauty it had shown me at a time when I really needed it. ❖