Thursday, February 14, 2019

My Year of Orchids: More experimenting with fertilizer

I broke down today and bought some epsom salt (magnesium sulfate). “Why?” You might ask. I’ve been reading a bit on this substance which has, it seems, no substantive orchid research behind it! Kind of interesting.

But as a botanist I know that magnesium is the central ion of every chlorophyll molecule. It is primally, absolutely essential to photosynthesis. And many of my orchids have been yellowing, meaning they are doing less photosynthesis than perhaps they should. A signal perhaps that they are lacking chlorophyll or not synthesizing chlorophyll as they must, possibly because of a lack of magnesium with which to build the chlorophyll. Incidentally. And I hope you are interested in this as much as me. Or at least a little bit:

The biosynthetic pathways of hemoglobin and chlorophyll are identical, identical! for the first twenty or so steps. Later iron is substituted in hemoglobin for the magnesium in chlorophyll. These essential molecules, hemoglobin (in us) and chlorophyll (in plants) are not-distant cousins.

Anyway. I’ve noticed those orchids going yellow. First was Miltonia spectabilis, which is supposed to yellow when happy (spoiler alert some of her yellow buds turned purple today. I think I may be a papa soon! Flowers??) but others went yellow too. My browning Broughtonia looked great, then asked me not to water her, and yesterday, scandalously, dropped a leaf. I was I admit in bit of a panic.

So now with warmer days coming on I figured even the shyest of orchids must be getting ready to live their best life. Why not help them accomplish it with magnesium, that all important building block of chlorophyll and, incidentally, coenzyme to so many metabolic pathways in the plant cell. Let’s see where they go with it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Growing every which way

I don’t know how to say it any other way. The orchid roots have gone wild. Cattleya labiata is a good example. She has sent roots pretty much radially across her tree branch. I think if you accounted for the topography up there you could map her root growth pretty much like the outward aiming spokes of a wheel. Great way for her to explore, build territorial rights, and find sources of nutrition, light and water.

Pretty much the same time I noticed this crazy root behavior I observed several other things about labiata. She is glued solid into her tree. Rain and wind pose no challenge. It’s really like she’s “one” with the tree. She has successfully built a crypt of roots beneath her to store moisture and nutrients, and to invite geckos, ants, other insects, and countless microbes in that cool protected space. Cattleya labiata has also grown perceptibly. Her leaves have gotten wider, harder, and much longer. And she’s kind of hanging out of her perch. In search of more light? A random leaning? Time will tell.

Cattleya labiata is not the only one I noticed today. It seems that winter is past and we are experiencing mild days and moist, sometimes densely foggy mornings. If you were an epiphyte I don’t think you could ask for anything nicer. And so my orchids, bromeliads, tillandsias and epiphytic cacti have responded beautifully. Even noticed today an air plant whose leaf tips are becoming just the slight blush of purplish. Subtle yet eye popping!

When we lived in Cambridge Massachusetts I doted over my tiny garden. Just ten feet wide and barely thirty feet long. In winter it was bleak, empty above except for branches and stray leaves of the season before. A few bulbs would start in the spring, following the example of the early blooming witch hazel and my lusty trusty hellebores. By late June it was a solid green, eight or ten feet tall.

I used to ponder. That mass of green, those cubic yards of green developing over four months or so represented not only plant growth. It signified an explosion of bacteria that live in the plants, specifically mitochondria and photosynthetic chloroplasts. All of this had to be choreographed, regulated, and controlled in the plant body at the cellular level, and also in the collective plant community.

Here in St. Petersburg Florida in early February the dead of winter has passed. I noticed a lull in the plants. Two, actually. The fall into hibernation was slow and bumpy. I struggled for weeks figuring out when to water orchids that “should” have been sleeping. Now with the week or two of winter over, there were a couple of days of lag before the orchids woke up. Now I think they are fully present, recharged and ready to take off. They all seem to be growing every which way. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Mycorrhizae-the plant fungus symbiosis in orchids

I knew from what I’ve read that fungi played a role in orchid germination. In that situation the orchid seeds, which lack nutrients of their own, depend on the fungus to supply them with what they need to germinate. I didn’t know that adult orchids also partner with fungi. And I’ve never had the opportunity to observe this in nature. Until today.

My friend Calvin gave me a big mount of Encyclia tampensis. The orchid had been growing on a dead oak branch, which now might be why it started to fail. Oak is good. But the orchids want live wood. The reasons are not clear to me, nor can I imagine how the orchid “knows” it’s on something dead. But nothing these creatures do comes as a surprise.

OK. Lunch at Calvin’s. Big bag with big bunch of orchids and dead wood. Next morning I went to work. The orchid hadn’t been thriving, at least recently, but it occupied a large area of the wood. Enough I’d say for several jumbo handfuls, if you could measure orchids that way. Because it was a big colony I decided to separate it however it would come apart and do a little experiment to see how the different clumps would grow in different parts of the garden. By the way Calvin came over about a week later and did a quick inspection. I think he was satisfied.

The clumps didn’t look too healthy but they weren’t dead. Some good pseudobulbs and stiff leaves and a lot of roots. They went up into the trees on a cold damp week and even as it has warmed up the mornings are foggy and dew is everywhere. So my daily misting is more a “want” than a “need” for the new orchids.

Today I went up close and saw roots on one clump that looked like typical mycorrhizal roots in terrestrial plants. The root tips were blunt, the roots themselves stubby and thicker than neighboring roots. Some were blackish, some whitish, but notably, none of them had the green scum you usually see on older roots.

If these we’re mycorrhizae it’s possible that the fungus was fending off or even digesting whatever green stuff (algae or photosynthetic bacteria) might have landed on the root. And perhaps transferred some of those nutrients to the plant.

Mycorrhizal fungi provide extra nutrients for their plant hosts. Usually the nutrients are transferred from the soil to the plant via the fungus. But what about in a situation where the plant roots are not in the soil, like orchids? The fungus must be making micronutrients available to the orchid in exchange for carbohydrates the orchid produces during photosynthesis. It makes sense that both organisms benefit from this partnership.

Mycorrhizal fungi in the soil go a step further and improve the delivery of water to their hosts’ roots. Partly this is strictly mechanical. The fungal cells (hyphae) are thinner and have more surface area than the plant roots. This way they can penetrate the soil more effectively than the plants or simply penetrate tinier spaces where water molecules are hiding.

What about in epiphytes? The crowning observation I made, the thing that got me really excited, was that fungal-covered roots retained water for longer. A lasting drop of water developed at the tip of every root infected with fungi. It stuck around longer than the water on uninfected root tips. Again, possibly a mechanical explanation. More (fungal) surface area, more water adhesion and cohesion at work.

Another thought. We know that fungal species have lots of different lifestyles, parasitic, saprobic, mycorrhizal, and lots and lots of in between. We know as well that fungi growing on wood have different molecular microhabitats. One wood rotter goes after nitrogen, another digests cellulose, and so on. Mycorrhizal fungi are some of the same wood inhabiting species. What if Calvin’s oak mount was just too old, too depleted to support a healthy fungal community. As the fungal ecosystem degraded and possibly simplified (less species on the log because of less nutrition) the orchid also started losing ground. We’ll have to keep a close eye on these babies and see how they develop over the months now that they’re not on their log. Sorry for the dad humor but LOTS of food for thought here.

Wonderful to observe these details that are actually vital to orchid growth in the wild. What an exciting day.

My Year of Orchids: Tiny orchids

Yesterday’s mail brought an order of about twenty orchids. I knew they were in two inch pots but boy were they tiny! Tiny orchids are a beautiful thing. We saw some a couple of months ago at an amazing exhibit at Selby Botanical Garden. They were part of a large glassed in terrarium and the landscape they inhabited was absolutely magical. But I’m not trying to build a terrarium. I’m planting all my orchids outside. These tiny babies were sure to get lost.

I had to come up with a strategy for placement and retrieval that would kind of help me remember where everybody was. And when I say tiny I mean it. Like smaller than a quarter and nowhere near as shiny. So for my three new jewel orchids, some of the smallest of all, I planted one in a pot, one I planted on the shady side of a large rock in my shade garden, and one I put near the base of a tree with the tag showing prominently. Fingers crossed for those beauties. Also by the way I wanted them in slightly different placements and habitats so maybe one would survive.

I had another terrestrial/litho that’s supposed to grow to a very large size, Vandopsis lissochiloides. It too was teeny so I arranged a big rock vertically and planted it at the base of the rock, so hopefully I’ll keep track of it and the rock won’t fall on it. 

Some of the new babies I put in slatted baskets with their cousins. They are just too small to plant on their own. The smallest, a tiny Bulbophyllum digoelense, I slid into the basket with my thriving Bulbophyllum fascinator. Maybe it will catch on and grow. At least I won’t lose it. A Dendrobium and a Phalaenopsis I put in baskets with very old cousins of theirs that I rescued. The oldies are blooming for the second time this year but they take up less than half the basket. Why not potentially extend the blooming season with these new babies. I’m not the kind of purest who grows specimens on their own for “show.” I’d rather fill up the space with lusciousness.

Speaking of which....most of the rest of my new orchids I stuck among bromeliads or air plants just so I’ll remember to mist them but also to give them a toe hold in their new world. I think they’ll look great as they complement each other and start to burgeon.


Well as always it’s fingers crossed when new plants hit the trees. I think they were in their box a little too long and just a little squished—my supplier sent me some free no-IDs so the space was really packed. But good news is everyone perked up beautifully an hour or two after they were unpacked and even better, it was a cloudy afternoon, a cool night, and a fog shrouded morning that greeted them in their new home.

Monday, February 11, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Companion plants

We love our lawns. So green and lush and uniform and open. So clean and pristine. But like the dozen or so spider egg sacs Janet found under our couch today, an explosion of hatching we didn’t really want to see, Mother Nature likes things a little more hidden, more complex, perhaps a bit darker. 

I ran across the term companion plants a couple of weeks ago. Yes, in the context of orchids. Strange I thought. Do they need a companion? But then I took a moment to think about the one or two orchids that I stuck in next to a bromeliad or an air plant. They certainly didn’t seem unhappy. I had conjectured in fact that they were somehow “encouraged” by the companion to grow. Hormones in the air? Some sort of secret chemical communication?

Lately I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the orchid plant shape as a micro ecosystem, a place that encourages pockets of moisture, microorganisms, and nutrients that bolster the growth of the whole plant. It occurred to me that companion plants may offer very much the same thing. A companion plant increases the complexity of its immediate environment. Textures, tunnels, caves, notches, and striations that catch and retain resources. So it could be that companion plants can act as a sort of “nurse plant” that provides the orchid with more goodies. 

Then I thought some more about things I’ve observed, for example a large extended orchid root literally dipping into the body of another plant. I’ve seen this also with an orchid root invading someone else’s slatted basket. Orchids definitely like company.


If we imagine how orchids grow in nature it’s probably like other plants. Not alone as some gorgeous specimen but in a community surrounded by other plants. Not competing with them necessarily, because what we consider to be “competition” usually occurs among same-species individuals that require exactly the same resources. We know orchids grow in symbiosis with insects, fungi, and bacteria. What about on the macro scale with companion plants?

Saturday, February 9, 2019

My Year of Orchids: All systems go

It’s been a bit of a rocky road with my Sobralia, a terrestrial orchid that needs to be planted in soil. This particular one also needs kind of shady conditions according to the grower. It came to me in great shape. I especially loved the sort purple hairs at the base of the stem and along the leaves, which is reflected in its species name, “atropubescens.”

I put it lovingly in a slatted basket with mostly soil in a place among the sea grapes where a nice morning sun lit up the purple hairs and shone through the thin leaves. Maybe the slatted basket was a mistake and maybe I was wrong to mist the leaves, because they started to go brown at the edges and finally die. 

Sobralias are not supposed to be particularly fussy so I knew I must be doing something wrong. I gingerly took it out of the basket and planted in real soil in an urn where I could watch it carefully. I planted it with a nice trailing Pilea that made the whole setup look gracefully sculptural. Sometimes the plants know when you are prettying them up and they respond. That’s science. 

I had read that Sobralias like to drink and I figured with this kind of leaves it might like my home brewed fertilizer liquid. Smelly but gives nice results. When I transplanted I did notice that the roots looked happy so that was a good sign. I fed those roots (and not the leaves) every day with my concoction. After a few weeks a new stem popped up out of the soil. A good sign but I had the feeling we weren’t out of the water yet. 


Then today a sign from the garden goddess as I did my pre-watering rounds (it was a cool dewy morning so no rush to start misting). At the tips of Sobralia’s leaves I observed drops of water, the signal feature of guttation. Guttation in plants happens when the immediate atmosphere is humid. It’s the result of a healthy water column reaching from the roots through xylem cells of the stem and into the leaves. Reverse pressure upward from the roots forces the water out of pores on the leaf. When you see guttation you know you have a happy plant and a well-functioning vascular system. Sobraila is good in its new place, ready to thrive. Now it’s all systems go. 

My Year of Orchids: Promise of the epiphyte garden

I grew up in a home where design was a real topic. My parents, though relatively poor, had furniture from Herman Miller. We kids were taken in car rides to see the architectural work of Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology and on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Less so the great parks of Chicago, Grant Park and Burnham Park, through which, twenty years later, I used to commute by bicycle from downtown to my apartment on Marine Drive.

Those bike rides were the beginning of my landscape awareness, the touch of landscape design as light as a cirrus cloud over Lake Michigan.

When I moved to Boston to work on my PhD at Harvard I visited the Arnold Arboretum several times for classes and later took students there, less for the landscape than for the living specimens. It did occur to me though, especially overlooking the rugged pinetum there, dark with evergreens against a dramatic cumulus sky, that thought had been put into the plantings. Not just what they’d show you about conifers, but how conifers appeared in a quasi-natural setting.

Later when I took students from the Boston Architectural College to Arboretum and to the Boston Fens, I came to realize that the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of these spaces, lay beyond taming the Muddy River and laying nice curved pathways. There was a vision there of how the plantings would look in ten, fifty, maybe one hundred years. This was fine urban garden design, coordinated to a level where the untrained eye could perceive beauty, grace, and form. Gardens got very interesting to me. For a while they were more interesting than the plants that grew in them.

The promise of the epiphyte garden hangs on these formative experiences. Placing my orchids, my bromeliads, my tillandsias and epiphytic cacti among the Native trees and shrubs I started a vision. Maybe in some years as they grow and extend their presence in the garden these plants will develop a sort of canopy in which a new, wild ecosystem will develop. Maybe as these plants grapple with the space in and above the trees they will introduce a new rhythm of community form, leaf placement, and movement in their woody hosts.

Friends ask if the orchids will weigh down the trees. Will they break off branches? It’s an experiment. We’ll see. But I think we’re safe for a few years. And don’t trees strengthen as their branches grow and bear more weight? Isn’t it possible that this whole endeavor will lead to changes perhaps unforeseen in the garden? As a living sculpture each plant contributes to the shape of the garden as it develops in and with its inhabitants. To me the promise of the epiphyte garden is the dynamic interplay of sun, water, nutrients, and the amazing plants I have the privilege to nurture.

Friday, February 8, 2019

My Year of Orchids: On close observation

I used to harangue my students to observe closely. I still do, when I teach my online classes for BU. It took me some time to realize that my own education was gotten through close observation, not the memorization of facts. So it made sense to me that I should teach observation instead of what seemed to be ever more random and purposeless scientific concepts.

Not that I paid attention to my own words all the time. My corner office, which faced south and west, became incredibly hot almost from early spring. Our building had an antiquated HVAC system where half the building was chronically cold and the other half excessively hot. So I blamed it on my building. One day a student asked me if I’d looked behind my door for a thermostat. There it was. And my heat problem was solved, or at least mitigated. But I had to eat crow, not always a bad thing for a professor.

Close observation. What does it give us? It offers a chance to get away from learned behaviors and packaged ideas. It lets us see something from its own perspective, or at least to get nearer to that perspective. It allows us to contemplate, bring in some imagination, ask our own questions based on what we observe, play around with ideas. Close observation gets us lost in the seething reality of what we’re observing, experiencing that reality from the inside rather than the outside. From a bottom-up outlook instead of top-down. Maybe to challenge givens and gain surprises. Insights. New models of reality.

Well all this sounds like a tall order. I did practice it a few times formally, most significantly I think during my doctoral work at Harvard where I stared purposelessly at thousands of lichen specimens under the dissecting microscope. This gave me the uncanny ability to see what was hidden in plain sight. And to forge a new direction in lichen studies.

The direction I took, studying lichen shape and shape-making (morphology and morphogenesis) took me quite far in understanding new things about the lichens I studied. My findings were not well received by the small academic community of lichenologists, whose scientific horizons were dictated by 19th century taxonomic concepts in a sickly dance with reductive 20th century notions about lichen chemistry. All this is to say that there was little room for new perspectives. Especially because during this time throughout the academic botanical world perspectives based on whole-organism studies were being supplanted with ever more stringently technical molecular techniques.

Now I’m retired and I’m not pressed to publish or even make sense of my observations. All I have to do is observe my orchids, keep a close watch, and learn from what I see. It’s the greatest pleasure to share these findings, findings which are perhaps not entirely mainstream, with people who read them for the sake of learning more.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Happily glued to their trees

It rained and poured straight for more than twenty four hours. How could such a prodigious amount of moisture come down in such a plain wrapper as raindrops? There was so much rain and it was so uncomfortably cool we couldn’t take our guests from up north into the garden, let alone look around the neighborhood. And I couldn’t muster up the will to check on the orchids.

Next morning it was still damp, dripping water from the roof, thick dew condensed on the car and plants. I stepped gingerly over the damp shells. It was still cool and only a tiny bit less raw than the evening before. The garden however was shining.

Seems to me the epiphytes, orchids, bromeliads, and airplants, even the few epiphytic cacti in our garden, like nothing more than a good soak. It takes care of whatever ails them. Flushes the salts off their bodies, replenishes ambient moisture. It’s like the rain feeds them.

The only drawback is heavy rain knocks some of them out of their perches almost as readily as wind. When I sense someone missing I have to ask myself what trajectory it might have taken in the way to the ground. Then I can zero in and find it. As far as I could tell the other morning only one bromeliad had fallen. Everyone else was in place.

Gradually the sun came out, patches of blue sky and a lighter cast to the day, still chilly though. I did a closer inspection of the orchids, which seem to have not moved an inch. I got a little closer and put my hand around Cattleya labiata, who I’ve noticed is propelling herself out of her tree crook at the same time as sending roots in all directions along the branches. I was surprised. She seemed glued in place.

I tried a few more of the orchids, which I should tell you I rarely do. Just don’t want them to suffer from whatever’s on my hands. Don’t want to disturb. This time though everyone I felt seemed happily glued to their tree. It was as if this rain and the gentle winter light that went with it held a promise of growth and establishment.


I’ve only had most of these orchids since late July or August. And as I’ve told you I moved most of them as I got a better idea of how they wanted to grow. Seeing them tightly bound to their woody substrate, seeing that they had been nomads themselves, now truly at home in the garden, was a wonderful discovery. I think now they can really grow.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

My Year of Orchids: The orchid is a sculpture

The orchid body is something we pay less attention to than the flower. It’s a loss for us. Of course the flower is a thing of beauty, a monument to the hard work and patience of the gardener. A graceful product of evolution or hybridization. But there is so much fascination in the orchid body.

The orchid is a sculpture in three dimensions of space and also in the dimension of time. It opens, unfolds, extends, twists, and propels itself over time in a process of growth and change. The sculpture in space is not static. Changes occur every day, every hour as the orchid plant body manufactures and refines itself.

The orchid has all the elements of art. Composition, proportion, balance, symmetry or asymmetry or both together in close arrangement on the plant. It has presence and might, even if it is tiny. As the product of evolution the orchid body sculpture is evidence of change and accommodation not just in the immediacy of our observing moment. It is a sculpted presence produced over millions of years.

Imperfections or what look like imperfections are part of the sculpture too. They are produced by the interactions of the orchid body with its environment. Yellowing, spots, rips, changes of coloration. All of these are responses. So also are buds and roots and spikes. As the sculpture forms itself in time and space it adjusts its form in action and reaction to the forces around it. Light, water, nutrition and wind are less sculptors than forces that influence the sculptor. The orchid plant body is the artist and product, a self propelled body in the process of shape-making.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

My Year of Orchids: I live in a giant terrarium

I live in a giant terrarium. Moving to Florida was such a great idea. I hate the cold and I crave the warmth. I wanted to garden all year. It had to be the right place though, with space for plants. No gated community, no lawn, no pool please. As it turned out we found it. Much better than expected. We fell into a place with mature native trees and shrubs surrounding the property, a good ten or fifteen feet wide on all sides, and higher than the roof line. So I am kind of plunked into a giant sized terrarium.

The trees surrounded me when I first got here, overgrown and with thick branches on the roof. A crew had to come in for some heavy duty trimming. They were happy that I encouraged them to go farther than trim. Cut! Cut! Cut! I knew everything would grow back whether I wanted it to or not. Also, I had just moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts where bogus tree huggers next door wouldn’t respond to my pleas. Their gigantic rotting pine tree was ready to send itself crashing through our roof at the next nor’easter. Its sap was all over the back of our house and squirrels used it as a launching pad onto our roof where they delightedly dug and delved. Didn’t want any of that here in St. Petersburg. But I did remember to talk to my future neighbor Robert, who turned out to be a wonderful person, that I would be going the cutting. “Full speed ahead!” Was his reply. And a few months later he hired the same excellent crew for his big project.

It took a full day and two crews and two trucks to accomplish what had to be done. I was left with a forest border thinner by a barely perceptible margin. Green things were still thick and rife all around my house! Have I told you about the shoulder length weeds? Drought resistant native plants all of them, luxuriant from the twice-weekly irrigation they got for the two years no one lived here. Thick and loaded with pollinators of every sort and beautiful hunting grounds for the black racer snake who lived on the property.

On the outside corner the native plants were so tall and thick they practically invited passing cars to toss out their garbage. Before I could think about orchids I had to do something about the weeds. And the six hundred pound native cactus (also assiduously watered twice a week) that had draped itself across my front steps. And the dozens of Spanish bayonets that scratch a leg or a wrist or get perilously close to the gardener’s eye.

Days I was slave to this garden. Sweating so much and so hard I didn’t realize I was dehydrated, torn and scraped, aching from the pulling and the clipping and the sawing and dragging tons of plant material into the large black garbage container that the St. Petersburg sanitation crew faithfully emptied every Tuesday and Friday. I really appreciate those guys. Not like Cambridge where you fight for a space for your trash on top of a blackening pile of snow and ice as tall as your car. So my Florida sweat was, I reminded myself, a small price to pay.

The orchids came and were placed in their nooks and crannies, mostly inappropriately as I’ve written before. And it was also the height of summer, mid July, and they needed almost constant misting. The heat and sun were intense just as I’d hoped but there was only so much I could accomplish with the sweat pouring off of me concomitant to the volume of water I was giving the orchids. Later things would cool off. Later I would notice the wonderful spaces, the exposed twigs, the excellent perches that the cutting crew left for my orchids. For now the heat made “noticing” too hard to do.

But the humidity, the frequent storms, the wavering warmth of the morning and the stunning clouds reminded me of a balmy blanket. I struggled to find clothing cool enough to wear. A t-shirt was too much. It was a waterous warm world and I was swimming in it with the growing, breathing garden of orchids. I was in a giant terrarium.

Monday, February 4, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Water balance in epiphytes

It’s pouring rain outside but I’m not worried that my orchids will drown. Nor will any of my other epiphytes- tillandsias, bromeliads, or cacti. You can’t overwater an epiphyte.

Well I should modify that statement. An epiphyte living in the tree canopy in natural conditions can’t be overwatered. Plants in pots are another question. But I’m talking about orchids in a natural or neatly natural state.

Orchids in nature take in the water they need and no more. Water enters mostly through their roots, of which there are several kinds with lots of different roles-anchoring, exploring, etc. Once a root has absorbed its portion of water it stops. It can do no more. Some water is absorbed through the leaves and stem but these amounts are negligible. Mostly the orchid body, including the roots, is built to conserve water. Not to take in or let out too much.

Orchid metabolism is a further and very significant factor in water conservation. Since water vapor is lost through stomata (leaf pores) during photosynthesis the orchid does most of its photosynthetic activity after dark, when the ambient humidity of the air is higher. This way less water is lost from the orchid body. And sugars manufactured during sunlight hours are reconfigured to fuel energy-producing activities.

Orchids aren’t the only plants that do this. But they do live in some of the wettest environments. Which brings us back to the question. If they’re already living in a humid environment why conserve water so carefully? The answer is in their epiphyte lifestyle. Without a soil substrate where they can find water molecules during dry times the orchids are totally at the mercy of their immediate environment. Better to conserve water than to waste it.

If you’ve taken the time to feel your orchid’s leaves you’ll notice that they’re rubbery or leathery or otherwise thick and toughened. Something like a cactus. This kind of succulence is an anatomical feature that conserves water. So orchids are equipped in many ways, anatomically, metabolically, and structurally to conserve water and exert control over their immediate environment.

We still haven’t discussed why you can’t drown an orchid but doesn’t it make sense? If there’s no standing water-just a cascade of rain, and if there’s any kind of breeze, the orchid plant limits its intake and perhaps more important, retains plenty of contact with ambient oxygen. Unlike greenhouse or potted plants that are susceptible to molds and fungi, insect pests, and other pathogens, the outside orchid, which evolved to live in the open, has natural defenses that protect it.

As I continue to work with and observe my orchid garden I feel myself becoming more and more a champion of natural conditions (at least when it’s possible) for growing these fascinating plants.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

My Year of Orchids: The dead of (Florida) winter

So for weeks I’ve been struggling with the question: when to let the orchids rest? Even a few days ago a balmy afternoon convinced me to give them some attention. A few I even fertilized. Then yesterday things changed. 

The sky went from thin clouds to leaden. A few peeks of sun and light suddenly felt welcome. The sky thickened. You could see and feel the moisture building. But a damp cold moisture. The polar vortex sank into the Midwest a few days ago. This is the cold air leaking southward all the way to us across the Gulf of Mexico. In response, a mass of suppressed moisture pushing northward. We are in the middle. 

Dark gray clouds puffed in among the lead color of the sky. A drop or two of rain, just a taste of the next day to come. All around the garden, a place that had become dark, red and yellow leaves, bare bark, muted greens. 

The orchids it seems are a kind of canary in the mine. Their leaves changed weeks ago, at least a lot of them did. Not a thorough change or I hope, a permanent change, but a subtle shift from vibrant to not so vibrant. From bright greens to dull, to yellows and a few almost grays like the tillandsias. The air plants too have given up some of their vibrancy. I know they are happy because all of them have sprouted healthy pups at their base. Like the healthy orchids that have put out roots. I sense the garden is healthy. Not even dormant. Not hibernating. Just slowing. Waiting. Gathering into itself a new energy.

It’s pouring rain today and we expect several inches. This is the natural state of things and since my orchids are all outside in trees and on twigs, they are experimenting what they would experience in nature. But that’s nature. The signal of yellowing they have sent me says we are in the dead of winter. Even if it lasts a week or two it’s too cold to shower us with water. Time for a real rest.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

My Year of Orchids: If bugs are singing should the orchids be resting?

So I am walking down my street at 8:30 PM and the Pinellas Point neighborhood is dead silent except for the crickets. There is life and warmth and humidity at this rare spot here at the end of January! We expect severe storms tonight as a potent cold front moves through but for now it is still and peaceful and languid.

I walked my friend home the three or four blocks to her house and as we rounded the corner of our street we saw Robert and Scott on their way home from dinner with Bobby’s mother at Po Folks. I asked them to stop in to say hi to Janet. We are a quiet tight knit neighborhood and checking in with one another u the way we do things.

So, if the insects are singing should the orchids be sleeping? Is there a “rule“ to dictate the answer to this question? Are there experts who can share their knowledge about a given species in a given tree on a given night? Today it was warm and breezy. Tonight it will be stormy and windy. Tomorrow there will be rain and the temperature will cool down for the next week. What was the right way to treat the orchids today?

We had tiny twins who had just begun to walk where we took them from San Francisco to Mazatlan on the west coast of Mexico. We didn’t like the place we were staying in Mazatlan and we didn’t like the vibes so we asked the front desk where we could go that would be a little bit off the beaten path. We found ourselves on a multi hour bus ride to a fork in the road that led down to the Pacific coast, to a village called San Blas. A good ten or twelve people got off the bus in the rain and cold. A taxi drew up and greeted us and somehow all of us, our tiny twins included, piled into that taxi.

The ten miles or so downhill to San Blas were rainy and dark, even though it was the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the tropics. All around us was tropical forest. But it was cold! What were the orchids going that day?

Friday, February 1, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Root follows water

It’s amazing to me to watch this. The water sticks to orchid roots as a thin coating before it’s absorbed. It’s simple adhesion in action, one of the typical behaviors of water, but it holds so much in the way of biological implications. As epiphytes, living in the air without a direct connection to the soil, orchids are wedded to water in a way few other plants are. They absolutely have to make the most of it.

There’s a lot written about how orchid photosynthetic metabolism utilizes water super effectively. In their own way orchids are like succulents. They open their breathing pores after dark instead of during the day in order to lose less water. This phenomenon is super interesting to me but somehow more interesting is how the orchid body interacts with water. Roots following water is just one example.

You water and watch. A drop of water forms and enlarges at the root tip. This drop lasts longer than the water that stuck to other parts of the root. I don’t know how to describe it except that it’s somehow a “lead” drop, which directs immediate and future root growth. Roots elongate in the direction of water. I’ve seen these drops at the end of thick and thin roots. The root can be suspended in air or it can be running along the surface of its host plant. Mostly the root is growing down with the dominant flow of water. Sometimes it’s growing upward, I presume to reach water flowing from farther up the tree branch. Water seems to direct the way the root will grow.

This all seems simple. Maybe silly. But it taught me something practical. I’ve noticed that orchids I put at branch tips don’t grow as well as those further down. And best is if the orchid was placed in the crook of the of the tree between two branches or twigs. It makes sense doesn’t it? The plant wants to be situated where there’s a bit of extra water. Then the roots can go to work extending in the direction of that extra flow.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Bootstrapping knowledge

My greatest botany professor, Dr. Harry Thiers, used to tell us at the end of lab, “When you are satisfied with your state of knowledge you may leave.” It was kind of an invitation to pack up but it was also a gentle barb. Is a true learner ever satisfied with his or her state of knowledge? There’s always so much deeper you can go. So many questions you can ask. So many ways to explore. This is especially true I think in the world of plants.

I took Dr. Thiers’ advice and kept looking. Long after lab was over. I had to. I barely understood what was in front of me. Living things are a mystery. And lichens, the organisms I decided to study under his guidance, are especially so. Their mysterious presence, their shape, their life habits, their aroma. All of these aspects were, to me, stunning and strange.

It didn’t take long to realize I wouldn’t be able to find much written material about the questions that really bothered me. How do lichens grow? How do they experience their environment? What makes them the way they are? There were standard answers out there, more definitional than dynamic. So I accepted the definitions more or less, and introduced the dynamic aspects myself. I had to light my own fire. Everything I wanted to learn I had to learn on my own. Through experience.

Fast forward a good thirty years, slightly more. I’m not yet the age of Dr. Thiers when I was his graduate student but almost. Instead of the amazing lichens I’m playing with orchids. They are no prettier than the lichens I worked with but they are a lot more responsive. Even if you observe them every day several times a day you can detect changes. You see a root extend and grab onto a branch. You see a bud enlarge. You watch as the plant changes color or curves in response to weather, nutrients, or preparation for reproduction.

But the state of our knowledge is way incomplete. I’ve gotten plenty of advice about how to fertilize and with what. I’ve read all about potting mediums, how and when to repot. It’s easy to find nomenclature and taxonomies prepared for regular people, not scholars. But the questions I asked about lichens still bother me.

How do orchids grow? How do they experience their environment? What makes them the way they are? These questions I think need exploration at a deeper level than you can find in the common literature. My hope is that they will lead to further discoveries and open the door to a more thorough understanding of the nature of orchids.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

My Year of Orchids: What controls orchid growth?

Orchids grow in three dimensions and exert influence on their immediate environment. They are not passive. They are host to many other organisms, not just their internal bacteria, the photosynthetic chloroplasts and energy-producing mitochondria. There are external partners like ants, or the moths I have found nesting and resting in the plant body. These organisms play roles that we can only speculate on. But we know they are intimately involved with the orchid entity. There are partners also that are neither endogenous nor wholly outside that hand out in layers of the roots. Fungi, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, yeasts. These microbial communities modulate the nutritional state of the orchid. So the orchid is not alone. It is host to, and partner with organisms large and small that boost its health and well being.

The orchid must obtain, distribute, and protect its water and nutritional resources. It is built to collect falling debris that decomposes and adds nutrients. It siphons water, absorbs water, circulates water in its body. Its leaves thicken with maturity and resemble a succulent more than a thin-leafed plant. The shape of the plant body allows for regions of increased humidity among the growing parts of the plant. Pockets of air and water vapor form. The orchid builds itself to make a swiss-cheese like environment where microhabitats of enhanced moisture and nutrition are protected. Wrinkles on the orchid body make for smaller areas of increased moisture. The shape of the orchid in three dimensions forms secreted areas small and large that store resources. This is why a cold wind is so bad for orchids. The storage crypts they make with their bodies are raided and scraped away by the wind.

The orchid grows in modules, like all plants. The modules are controlled by meristem cells that can split and develop into any kind of cell but the meristem tissue continues through the life of the module. It also produces hormones that control growth. There may be many modules to an orchid and the modules may have several meristematic regions, mostly concentrated around the pseudobulb.

Orchids also grow in a roughy linear fashion so there is a kind of “front” and “back” or “top” and “bottom” but these may be ill-defined relative to the shape of the plant. But there can be a “lead” meristem that controls the direction the plant is growing. This control is exerted in response to light, orientation, water, and nutrient availability.

The orchid is active in its environment, not passive. It shapes the environment around it, encompasses that environment, builds water and nutrient catchments, anchoring systems, exploratory extensions, and reproductive structures. As an epiphyte floating through time and space in a three-dimensional body the orchid shapes its habitat and modifies its surroundings.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

My Year of Orchids: How do orchids respond to fertilizer?

I’m curious how orchids respond to fertilizer because of their particular growth style. Most orchids are epiphytes, plants that grow on top of other plants. They have root systems but unlike other terrestrial species the roots of most orchids are not anchored in the ground. So the orchid sits harmlessly on top of its host. It is thoroughly dependent on its environment and thoroughly capable of utilizing the nutrients in its surroundings. It transforms these resources into the orchid body. But does it do so quickly? Slowly? Somewhere in between?

It seems to me that the orchid must be able to withstand periods of drought and low nutrient availability. How else could it survive in the changeable conditions that surround it? By extension I would assume that under certain conditions it can use water and nutrients slowly, going into a kind of dormancy when supplies are short. Does it follow that nutrients might be taken up and used very gradually or is there a kind of one way valve, metabolically speaking, that allows the orchid to absorb and utilize nutrients quickly but lose them slowly?

From what I’ve seen in my orchid garden it appears some species respond to resources quickly, others less so. Hybrids seem primed for quick action, species less so. Rest season means less response and growing season more? Maybe. Yet there’s more to it I think.

Most people I read say steady low level fertilizer over the long haul is best. This would suggest that orchids in nature are used to a steady low-level nutrient diet based on whatever the environment delivers. This makes sense. If you have evolved in a cloud forest your almost day-long misting keeps you bathed in a low level of constant nutrients. We might assume from this that there are few spikes in nutrition and perhaps relatively few low points. The key is constancy.

So if there’s constancy maybe there is no genetically coded instruction for an exceptionally quick response to increased nutrients. Or maybe there’s an inherited response for nutrient flushes so that the orchid can take advantage of them. But conversely the outflow of nutrients in times of stress is slower. Lots of room for conjecture. As well, many orchids evolved in less constant conditions, such as forests with distinct dry seasons. There are even orchids from the arctic, where conditions are very changeable. 

Little “fact” here in my first few months of orchid growing. Lots of conjecture and lots of observation still necessary. And most of the recommendations I see are from people who grow their orchids in pots.

Monday, January 28, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Orchid scents

Visceral and complex even tiny orchid flowers produce a scent. Vanilla-like or pungent, at once ephemeral and present. Ants in the garden seem to be attracted to these scents even before the flowers are fully open. I’ve seen the insects, smaller than a bud, wandering over the flower to be and getting a read on its tonalities.

The scents are not like other flowers or other things in the garden. They are a kind of tiny broadcast that reaches like a pheromone, far beyond its boundary. Or they may be hidden, drawing pollinators or other garden participants by the thinnest trail of molecules to the golden treasure pot inside. It’s in the still garden, not a windy day, that orchid aromas are most sensible.

Some of the orchid scents arise in the cool of morning, others as the day warms up. A flower that smelled yesterday may shut off today but reinvigorate tomorrow. Patience and care and a close reading are what we can offer.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Garden below and sky above

Here in my St. Petersburg garden there is plenty of opportunity to observe the sky. A large space in the middle of the garden that previous owners wanted to excavate for a swimming pool was left blessedly untouched. The shells crunch underfoot and monarch caterpillars munch on native milkweeds. They munch and munch down to the bare stem.

Above, sun and clouds and blue sky and sometimes rain. You can almost see the wind on certain days, when the clouds slide across the sky horizon. Sliding. It occurs to me. Weather is the great sliding and mixing of masses of gas in the atmosphere. Their interactions. Their sliding over or under one another or colliding or spinning. Wind carries weather to us like a great big floating show.

Here on the ground. Or more accurately here in the trees or twigs or shrubs or branches, epiphytic orchids hang on and enroll themselves in the day. Their roots dangle or ensnarl or wander. Sometimes they seem in pursuit of resources along a surface and sometimes they appear like webs just to catch moisture and nutrients in the air. The plant bodies, their leaves and stems  drape themselves along their woody substrate and seem, like the clouds, to float along the surface.

Being exposed to the elements root, shoot, leaf and flower the orchids seem to be a part of this floating mass of weather and nature. They reflect what’s going on above more profoundly because they must cope with it more assiduously than plants that are packed into pots or posted in the ground by their roots. The orchids are like green yellow clouds, a puff of living material, a changeable form, an effervescence that erupts or goes quiet.

The sky above sets the big stage for life in the garden below. The orchids produce an agency of their own as they claim space on a branch and slowly change it. They influence the air in minute ways by the living sculpted form they build, catching wind and moisture from above and making it their own.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

My Year of Orchids: How does the orchid plant experience its immediate environment?

I ask this question because it’s a cool morning, just below 50, and while it’s not that humid lots of my plants, for example the banana leaves, had dew on them. I felt inside a couple of the orchid baskets and they were damp. So my inclination at least for this morning is to not water.

But the orchids that aren’t in baskets look a little dry. Their roots are just off white. They are not hanging but kind of crunched up. And they’re more stiff to the touch than flexible. So how are these plants experiencing the air around them? How much is the breeze affecting them? How are they perceiving the temperature? How powerfully do they feel the sun? To what extent are they drying out?

I like to look at the orchid body as a kind of sculpture in space. I’m drawn to abstract shapes and in a way the orchid is like that. More so than say a bromeliad with its organized rosette. But it would be silly to call the orchid random or disorganized. Of course it is made of roots, shoots, and leaves. But the way these features organize themselves on a growing surface might tend to obfuscate their strict organization.

Some of the orchids look folded, or almost folded, tending to turn in on themselves. Or they make small spaces where the “folds” are or between stems of among leaves. So there are small spaces that form, and are present, where the air is calmer, where some moisture collects, where temperatures are maintained, where sunlight is less direct. The orchid body surrounding these spaces must be reacting to its micro-environment just the way outward facing parts of the body interact with the general environment. So it’s possible isn’t it that the same plant may be experiencing different conditions along different parts of its body. This suggests to me that there are slightly different physiological activities at work among groups of anatomically similar cells.

There are also dark spots and areas of “discoloration” that are a response to the environment. Whether these indicate a difference in tissue types or whether they are regions of pigment, for example red-purple antioxidants like anthocyanins, these “discolored” areas are mitigating the severity of the surface, so that the orchid-environment interface is modified. By the way I put discolored in quotes because I like those spots and blemishes. I want my orchids to hang out the way they do in nature, not like well behaved greenhouse pets.

Another mitigating factor is the boundary layer that every plant surface experiences. The boundary layer is a small space just above the surface of the plant that is slightly less windy/cold/hot/dry than the area just above it. So by the fact of having a boundary layer the orchid body is further protected from the ravages of space around it. Wind decreases the protective boundary layer which is why orchids are particularly susceptible to a cold wind.

So how are my orchids experiencing this cool morning? My guess is that their metabolism is a little slower. They are slower to wake up. They may be a little thirsty later in the day but right now a cold shower of mist, especially one with molecules of fertilizer in it, probably isn’t their idea of a perfect morning. I’ll let them build into the day.

Friday, January 25, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Free range orchids

The orchids in my garden are about as free range as you can get. Other than providing them with habitat, watering and feeding them, I leave them alone. So many people tell me to trim dead parts off, to keep the leaves clean, to cut off old sheaths. Is this what happens in nature?

Yesterday I had a look at the big pendulous cane of my Dendrobium anosum. All the leaves except for two or three at the top had fallen off. Here and there poking out of the surface were little nubs that will soon become flowers.

Of course these flowers interest me. Especially because they’re supposed to have a nice aroma, something I’ve been looking forward to since I got this baby in July. But more interesting than the up and coming buds was the paper sheath covering them.

The sheath seems to be characteristic of Dendrobiums. I have it on all them in my garden, even the rescues that shot up and sang once I added water. This papery layer is so interesting. A close look tells me why. 

As I stared at the surface of the dried up sheath I noticed a whole lot of decorative little dots. They don’t seem to be in any kind of pattern but there are a lot of them. It occurred to me. These are the scars of former lenticels.

I don’t want to get too technical here but lenticels are tiny pores on the surface of photosynthetic parts of the plant. They allow for gas exchange (carbon dioxide in, oxygen and water vapor out) on all the green parts of the plant except the leaves. Leaves have their own pores that do gas exchange. They are called stomata.

But back to the lenticels on the dry sheath of my Dendrobium cane. The cane is a kind of stem, so it makes sense that it would do photosynthesis. Here though th outer epidermis of the stem has loosened and died during growth. It appears to me that this is part of a programmed sequence of events that include elongation and stretching, thickening of the stem, and the development of an alternative outer layer that protects the cane. It means that the “dead” part of this plant, the dried up outer sheath, is part of an intentional, genetically controlled growth process.

The sheath is elegant not just in the way it looks, but in the process it represents. To me, this process and its physical product-the orchid body, are truly a thing of beauty.

Don’t know how to put it any other way. But if you’re gonna understand the orchids in your garden you have to understand all their workings, not just the beautiful flowers they produce.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

My Year of Orchids: The stealth root

I think I told you about Dockrillia teretifolia, the Australian Native orchid that I mounted on a tall stump, roots encaved among large stones. When she didn’t do a thing for months on end I decided to move her into the thin branches of a tall willowy tree outside my bedroom window.

Dockrillia was up in the sun and finally free. Don’t ask me what I was thinking clamming her up initially but I can tell you the utter dearth of information on planting orchids as epiphytes was part of it. High sun low sun dappled shade, watering and fertilizing, and potting media. That was all the info I could find. Who would suspect that these creatures just wanted to have their roots free?

As soon as the cooler weather started and I started to mist with a little fertilizer Dockrillia sent down a few healthy dangling roots. They were a pleasure to see and I sensed I’d done something right since this was the first movement I’d ever seen out of this plant. The long cylindrical leaves grew apace and Dockrillia started to look like a pretty nice specimen, albeit still without flowers.

Well she still is unflowering but here’s the big news. Yesterday as I was misting I spied a gigantic long root, I mean more than two feet long, gliding along the surface of the trunk of Dockrillia’s tree. Anchoring? Gathering nutrients? Or just following the path of runoff? The root was serpentine, slightly branched, and provocatively curved at the point where it met its first branch on the way south. Dockirilla must be in for some big things if she’s growing roots this way.