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.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

My Year of Orchids: A search for beauty

Asking what beauty is is like asking what is art? At first glance it seems to be the most subjective of questions. But are there truths behind it? Is there “true” beauty? I ask the question because I’ve been thinking and writing about it for years. Always inconclusively I guess. But there does seem to be one truth I’ve uncovered. Beauty lies in the moment.

By moment I don’t necessarily mean a moment of time. Moment to me is defined by a curve, a fleeting aroma, a caress. Moment is what we find when we observe carefully and up close.

In the orchid garden and among orchid growers beauty is mostly represented by flowers. Often the larger and more colorful the better. Vandas for example. They are beautiful in a sense. Their color and strength, the boldness of their presence. But. Might these characteristics be interpreted as slightly vulgar? Before you hate me for this let me say I’m just playing devils advocate here. However to be honest there’s more to like in a stunning cascade of Vanda roots than in the flowers themselves.

So much of my time in the orchid garden I’ve spent looking at roots. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen many of my plants flower yet. But even with those that have flowered, I’ve gone back over and over to observe the form of their leaves, the curve and thrust of their roots. So what is beauty?

If we go back to the concept of moment I think we can conjecture that “beauty” is the captured activity of some form or shape, some molecules, or some, or some action. Beauty lies in the small.

And it remains there. The collection of moments may make something less beautiful if it becomes a monument. A monument to beauty? Meant to be torn down and replaced. A moment of beauty? A sylph on a butterfly’s wing or a drip of water on an exposed root tip. Meant perhaps to be temporary. Or with no meaning at all. Intention may have no place in beauty.

So. Something to explore further. To break down and analyze if I can. Something small, smaller than microscopic. Something temporary and therefore something eternal and always around us in the orchid garden.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Something must be going right

So the other day when I what is finished dipping my Bulbophyllum glauca in smelly compost liquid I noticed for the first time something light green at the bottom of the basket. What a surprise to see you that big fat roots were growing downward.

It seems to me that this is more than just a sign of growth. It also indicates that the potting medium is loose enough and that this relatively new orchid is thriving. Watching the orchid roots in general I see that putting out new roots is a kind of claiming new territory. It’s the orchid’s way of extending its body into space, taking on new risks but also encountering unforetold opportunities. Nice that we can use the garden ourselves as a place of risk and opportunity.

Monday, January 21, 2019

My Year of Orchids: When to give your plants a break

I’m still developing my thoughts on orchids and their need to rest. One of my favorites, Broughtonia domingensis, is my teacher. About six weeks ago she put out a whole new set of roots. Her leaves went from thin and green to leathery and brownish. A couple of sets of leaves turned purple-red and set up spikes. Best time to water, was my conjecture.

Then something strange happened. You might think I’m imagining things but here goes. No matter how thirsty Broughtonia looked she didn’t seem to want to drink. OK a quick mist in the warm afternoons when the sun was on her. But please. No soaking! Somehow she seemed to be telling me “I’m napping! Don’t wake me up.” The roots stopped proliferating, the brownish hello leaves stayed that way, and the spikes haven’t grown. Broughtonia (Laeliopsis) is definitely hibernating.

Her neighbor Encyclia tampensis is doing much the same thing, though Encyclia has responded to a bit more soaking and some fertilizing by developing shiny, larger than ever, pseudobulbs. Her leaves are longer than before and also quite stiff and leathery. But no new root action other than a few new ones at the start of the cool season. It might be time to give Encyclia a rest.

My Bulbophyllums are putting out new roots and pseudobulbs. Cattleya & Co. are doing the same. But now my lovely prolific Neofinetia falcata is done flowering and she looks like she could use a breather. Same thing for Kefersteinia, who’s still flowering and putting on some new growth, but who is responding to water and fertilizer also by turning yellow. Maxillaria arachnitiflora, who has not yet flowered, seems to be in the same boat. “Give me a break!,” she seems to say.

Phals are happy right now in their shady nook with big healthy spikes. But with the days cloudy and cool now for awhile I think I’ll give them some time off.

So it goes in the garden. Each species is different. There don’t seem to be hard and fast rules for anyone, especially not at the generic level. It’s more of a guessing game, taking signals from the plants and responding in a way I My hope is appropriate.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Watering on all sides

Well. What do they get in nature? Sometimes an orchid is situated so mist reaches them at every angle. Sometimes not. An older orchid that has grown into a comfy nest of branches and twigs may do better than a new one straight out of a two inch pot. Bottom line is I try but I can’t reach every angle.

I “rescued” a bunch of phals and Dendrobiums just by pouring water over them. It never occurred to me that they might prefer a gentle mist. They responded nicely like “instant orchids...” just add water!

Plant bodies are modular. They grow in sections. You can see this on any multi stemmed orchid. In general they share resources among different parts of the plant body. So one section of roots may get moisture and that moisture is shared with the rest of the plant via conductive and storage tissue in the green part of the orchid.

“All sides” is an ideal I’d like to aim for but seldom achieve. It’s easier when the babies are in a basket isn’t it? Then you can pull them down and soak them in a bucket of water for a minute if you want. But there are no baskets in nature. Only adaptations that orchids acquired over millions of years of evolution for life in an imperfect environment.

Wonderful thing these amazing organisms are hard to kill outright. I think even if you meet your orchid halfway it will do its best to return the favor.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

My Year of Orchids: “Resting” or not resting or maybe just a little resting...

The experts say certain orchids need a winter rest. Rest is supposed to equal no water and no fertilizer. Or maybe a little bit of water and no fertilizer or....maybe just a tiny bit of fertilizer?

There are no tried and true rules for the orchids it seems. Common sense would suggest that we look carefully and act accordingly. Does the orchid look thirsty? When you water it does it look a little happier? Do you even know if this is one of the mandatory “rest” orchids?

The orchids in my garden seem to have sprung into life about the time the days got cool and some of the nights bordered on cold (about 50F). About the same time, I started using some dilute commercial fertilizer and orchids that had been quiescent all summer suddenly started forming root systems, new shoots, even flowering spikes. So. Where does “rest” come in?

To confuse matters a little more, cool days have been interspersed with sunny days in the mid to upper 70s. Perfect growing weather I’d think. Not necessarily a good time to nap. So. Keep watering and add some fertilizer? If it ain’t broke.....

As the light in my garden changes so do the growing conditions. This is almost a daily occurrence and it always catches me by surprise. I’ve watched the orchids carefully for cues and very few of them have had an adverse reaction to watering with some fertilizer. Those I backed off of. But even those, for example the large leafy Maxillaria arachnitifolia, had an excellent response to being soaked for a minute in my smelly home-brewed compost tea. Maybe it was the leaves that were complaining about being sprayed with commercial fertilizer.

Bulbophyllum (both of the species I have) has gone wild for the “growing season” treatment, pushing out new root and shoot. systems. And “cool growing” species like Neofinetia falcata, a native of temperate Japan, has flowered in addition to doubling in size.

Confounding the given wisdom is also the fact that most instructions out there are for orchids grown in pots or baskets indoors. All of mine are outside and most of them are just stuck in trees, not even growing in baskets. Certainly in nature, even in the dry season, there are occasional rains, certainly morning dew, and along with precipitation a steady accumulation of nutrients- dust, falling leaves, dead bugs. So why should we stop fertilizing?

A final thought for now. What role do hybrids play? Even if there were consistency within a particular orchid genus, which there’s not, wouldn’t each hybrid, especially intergeneric hybrids, have its own set of requirements for “rest period?”

I’ve got to think about this a lot more. And I need to watch the orchids. See how they grow, how they change color, whether they retreat, etc. My fascination with these mysterious yet surprisinginly straightforward plants continues to grow.

My Year of Orchids: Some roots dangle, some roots explore, some roots grab

I don’t know why certain roots behave the way they do. And I don’t know whether the roots that act a certain way are different from other roots on the same plant. If I were still doing botanical research I could set out to find the secrets behind root behavior. But what could be more boring than an academic paper on the subject. And could such a paper even find a place that would publish it?

So let’s imagine for a minute that any orchid has the ability to send out dangling, exploring, or grabbing roots. Could there be an environmental trigger for these behaviors? Might root behavior have to do with the age of an orchid or how long it’s been situated in one place? And do all roots start out the same, then specializing their behavior based on the needs of the plant? What about the anatomy of roots? Are dangling roots structurally different from roots that grab? Do they start out differently? Or do they all begin their root life as a similar agglomeration of cells and tissue?

Can a wandering root, one that explores, change its mind and grab ahold of a branch? Can a grabber go dangly? Are there developmental steps that all roots go through before the plant decides (or they decide) how to behave?

It seems that certain species have their own special kinda of root behavior, but if I had a hundred of one species growing in more or less identical conditions would they all act the same, and would the roots of another species times one hundred also all act the same, and would they maintain the same difference from other species in all hundred samples?

What is it about orchid roots that makes them this way? And am I oversimplifying by naming these three categories? I see roots that seem to explode outward. Others run a great distance along a surface. Some face up and some face down. Some want to get out of the confines of their baskets and some seem to want to stay snug. Is there a genetic basis for all these differences?

So many more questions than answers and all we can do is wonder and keep on looking.

Friday, January 18, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Nature dictates form and function

Nature tells us. Dying things take their time. Dead things hang on. A yellowing leaf is sending nutrients back into the plant. A dead leaf or stem may channel water to the living plant body. It may be a hiding place for beneficial bugs and microbes. What looks dead may even have a bank of meristem cells waiting to become activated and form a new flowering stalk or leaf structure. Leave that “dead” branch be.

Papery sheaths that grow around Dendrobium stems are said to be a nuisance by some. Cut them off! they tell me. Thrips may be hiding in there! Fungi can rot the stem! Not in the outdoors where there’s strong sun and a welcome breeze. Those sheaths protect a flowering stem that may pop back. They store a little extra water that can trickle down to the base of the plant. Or they may just sit there and do nothing. Nature doesn’t care. Just leave them there!

Roots may look dead but better to let them remain and dangle. The plant manufactures all its own tissue so better to leave it up to the plant how to use that tissue once it’s gone brown. Let the roots dangle. Let the plant do its thing. Trust the natural processes that orchids developed over hundreds of millions of years. Evolution dictates their form and function and we are but observers.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

My Year of Orchids: The garden breathes and I breathe with it

We teach in biology that there’s no such thing as a “life force.” But working day by day in the garden I start to wonder. Seeing these wonderful plants as they bud, branch, twist and thicken. Seeing the dew in their leaves, the curve of a stem or root, the way they seem to climb and cover their woody substrate. The orchids have a life force that’s amazing to feel.

Being behind this growth, this struggle to survive, this advance of roots through the air or among branches. What a privilege to observe.

Seeing them rest in the cool weather, grow and flourish in the warmth, and persevere in the heat. Seeing the response to a rainfall, sensing the aroma of tiny flowers, watching the ants explore the terrain of an orchid plant. These are wonders without words.

The garden breathes and I breathe with it, a stillness full of life, a movement so subtle but so There. I witness it every day. Could there be a more encouraging sight?

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Green stuff on the roots

I seem to be focusing on roots a lot. Maybe that’s because most people pot their plants or put the in slatted baskets so the roots are out of sight. Mine are as much a spectacle as the green part of the plant. I read that the velamen, the spongy, porous outer coating of orchid roots, provides an environment for various microbes such as fungi and bacteria. Just like in the human gut, these microbes help to break down and provide nutrients, as well as providing protection from pathogenic microbes that might otherwise threaten the plant.

All of this seems pretty important for plants that are stuck in trees without access to nutrients from the soil. It suggests that the orchid body is a type of ecosystem, very complex, and characterized by multiple organisms. So in a sense we can say the orchid is not alone. And when we see green stuff on the roots this suggests that at least in nature, the orchid is not an isolated, singular being. It is involved in numerous symbiotic relationships with various organisms.

It’s possible that none of this makes any difference for people who are growing their orchids to “perform.“ If performance is what you are after, I guess you just want to pump your orchid fall of nutrients so that it will produce the biggest, most colorful, showiest flowers. Kind of strange in my opinion that this goal might preclude the work orchids do in their natural surroundings. So is the flower that we are after still reflective of the orchid’s nature? And do we want that “perfect“ plant, free of browning leaves, with ungainly roots hidden, rather than a living creature performing in its own unique creatureness?

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Wandering orchid roots

A hundred years ago when I used to teach general biology I tried to spend as much time as I could talking about plants. I can’t tell you how much this was a source of dismay for my students. Especially when I started to talk about the strange habits of plants like thigmotrophy, the way plants grow along surfaces.

Of course I had seen many examples of this working in the field and I had plenty of pictures to share, not that it made anything any clearer or more relevant to my students. Now that I have a little more time on my hands I can observe it in spades with my orchids and I have the opportunity to think about it a little bit more.

Thigmotrophy is especially evident in the way orchid roots function. You may see a large root just growing up or down the bark of a shrub that the orchid is growing on.. Slightly more subtle but extremely interesting to me is when I see a root growing straight down the middle of an orchid leaf. It seems to me that this is a perfect way to pick up water that accumulates in these indentations. Sometimes the root just grows down along, but not attached to its host plant. What are these orchid roots sensing?

Similar to the way roots grow on a leaf they may grow up or down the stem. It’s kind of cool to see that this can happen in any position. Roots don’t have to grow straight down.

On some species I have noticed that when the roots are accidentally pushed sideways they try to correct themselves and face downward. So there must be certain cells in the roots that sense things like surfaces, gravity, and perhaps moisture and they influence the surrounding tissue to grow in a particular direction that’s beneficial for the orchid.

Lots more to think about as I study orchid habits. So curious about the way orchid roots wander in an accidental on purpose manner. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Fertilizing ins and outs

I started a new fertilizer regime and I’m not sure where I’ll be going with it. For the first several months I didn’t even think of fertilizing my orchids. The reclaimed water that I use for of them is supposedly high in trace elements as well as more common substances like nitrogen and calcium.

I did finally break down and bought some commercial fertilizer and started spraying with it just before the weather began to cool off. I don’t know what the orchids responded to - the fertilizer or the slightly more comfortable weather, but they really took off. New roots, new shoots, and some supposedly out of the season flowers began to show themselves. Even though this is the official “rest time“ for most of my species it seemed to me that on a warm day with temperatures in the 70s they might enjoy some water and a little bit of fertilizer.

I have to admit I kind of transgressed my own values, because I really don’t like the concept or the reality of commercial fertilizer. For one thing it leaves a salty residue on the plants that they have to get rid of by way of rainfall, which is hard to come by this time of year. But more serious I think is that using commercial fertilizers may alter the chemistry if not the anatomy of the root velamen. If that spongy layer that surrounds every root actually harbors beneficial micro organisms, organisms that fix nitrogen or benefit the plant in other ways, doesn’t the introduction of synthetic fertilizer alter that micro environment? We know that this is the case with field crops that are exposed to fertilizers. Overall they perform better, but the biology of the soil and its ability to support plants and their symbiotic micro organisms is diminished.

Also remember. I’m not asking my orchids to “perform.” Just want to see how they behave in nature.

Long story short I decided to move away from commercial fertilizers and did some reading about “organic” concoctions. Janet got enthused about this too and bought me a couple of pails and a sieve to work with.

I walked down to the landing a couple of blocks from my house picked up some seaweed that had washed up, mixed that with water, and threw in a little bit of our kitchen compost. After a day or two the liquid started to smell kind of poopy and I imagined that things had broken down sufficiently to apply it to the plants.

Along with its smell there was a kind of sticky sweetness (there were some rotting bananas and pineapple pieces in it) and I thought this might be a perfect way to attract more ants. Minus the smell, which kind of gets on me if the wind is blowing the wrong way, everything seemed like a total go. Only one problem. It seems to clog up my sprayer.

Good thing it’s the cool season right now and I don’t have to spray several times a day. I can keep experimenting with concentrations and I can work for a balance that allows me to spray evenly and consistently. I’ll let you know how it goes but right now I have to amble over to my rare Acampe papillosa That is just starting to open up in bloom.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Species and hybrids

Species and hybrids. Hybrids and species. As a botanist I knew there were tens of thousands of species of orchids. But I never thought about hybrids! My first dozen or so orchids were all species. They stood still and persisted all through the hot summer months as I misted faithfully several times a day. They stood by me when I moved them or took them out of the weird arrangements I had originally planted them in. None of them died. A Tolumnia that came to me in spike flowered steadfastly on three long inflorescences no matter how hard I tried to cook it.

My next batch was also all species and with my single-minded focus on caring for my plants I still didn’t give hybrids a thought. Strange how it takes time for things to sink in. Or maybe it’s because I spent so many years embroiled in taxonomy and naming that I willfully ignored the names.

About mid-October we went to a big tent sale down in Sarasota just south of the Bradenton line. It was the first time I saw piles and piles of bare root plants and these were in a sale area because some of them were pretty beaten up. But what could be more fun than to grab the bargains at ten or seven or even five dollars? By now I was starting to feel the cadence of orchid growing and I figured I could find these babies a spot in the dappled shade of our garden and get them established.

This is my first year of orchids and these were my first few months. My experience is so narrow. Maybe it was the slightly cooler weather. Maybe it was because I started to sneak some fertilizer into my mister, but all I can tell you is that a root rampage started among the sale plants I picked up in the bargain tent. Plants that were barely alive, ghostlike roots dangling limp, greenery shriveled to a leathery nub. These babies started producing roots like crazy. Could it be that that’s what they talk about when they say “hybrid vigor?”

I guess I should be gratified to have so many lively additions to my St. Petersburg jungle. But you know me by now. I am just a tiny bit uncomfortable with the whole hybrid idea. I see my friends on Facebook posting gorgeous luscious tremendous spectacular colorful flowers, all of which are hybrids. Yes they are eye candy. And yes my friends have grown them with care and mindfulness. And yes, the growers did a great job of putting together these hybrids.

But do they grow like “real” orchids? Are their rampant roots as sensitive to the environment as their species cousins? These botanical wonders pump out the flowers and the foliage. They are clearly adaptable to the garden, perhaps made for the garden. I wonder how they would make it in the real world? Maybe these questions aren’t fair. You may ask, what’s “real,” and it’s a hard one to answer. A hybrid plant is a piece of art like any painting. Maybe we can stretch it and say it’s a sort of evolutionary product since it’s part of our human evolutionary trajectory. We made it. 

The challenge that I’m after is to see how orchid species can endure and thrive outside of their native habitats, in a habitat that might be marginally too hot, too cool, or too dry. I want to see how well I can care for them to keep them growing and developing as free hanging epiphytes, independent of the soil. It’s not that I’m some kind of purist. I guess it’s just that my experiment is focused elsewhere than most peoples growing goals. I like the species better. Are the hybrids with all their “more,” more growth, more and bigger flowers, actually somehow “less” than their species progenitors?

I might have made a lot of people mad by writing this. I’d love to hear your opinions and discuss more. I told you I’m brand new at this!

But I just want to add that there are positives in the hybrids, even for me. I think there’s a lot I can learn from the hybrids. They show me wonderfully what an idealized root can look like and do. They show me real vigor and health and I can look for those signs in my species to see if they are doing OK. And they can teach me too be patient with all kinds of tinkering, not just the stuff I like to do.

My Year of Orchids: Is there a “right side up?”

Is there a right side up with orchids? I asked the question for a couple of reasons. First when I moved to this house there were some Phalaenopsis clinging to their baskets. The leaves are hanging down to one side and the roots were tightly packed in the baskets kind of like a ponytail. Also, when I put my babies in the trees any of them upside down themselves almost immediately. Comes to mind Dendrobium anosum Who threw her long fronds straight downward, roots up in the air. It’s not just Dendrobium that does it. I had the same experience with my epidendrums, Vandas, and an oncidium. So I wonder. Is there a fixed up or down for orchids?

There seem to be a few things at stake here. For one, we like to assume that or kids, as epiphytes, have invented all sorts of water saving anatomies. For example doesn’t it make sense that the structure of leaves and stems would have evolved to accommodate sending water down to the roots? Doesn’t it make sense that the routes covered up being lower than the rest of the plant would be more likely to get the dribs and drabs of water after a rainfall?

We know that regular land plants have a quality called polarity. We sure this feature with our plant cousins. Polarity simply means we have a top and a bottom. We have one and that things go into another and that things go out have. We spent most of our time with our head about our feet. And plants also keep their roots in the ground and grow their shifts upward toward the sun. We can discern apical dominance in pretty much any plant that we observe carefully. So shouldn’t polarity work for orchids? Or, assuming that polarity is in force in orchids, doesn’t it make sense that there should be an up and down?

I gotta say the jury is still out on this one. So many of my orchids seem to creep along on a branch or spread themselves or her grow roots that are going in every direction.For sure there is a Mira stomatic area that is centered at the base of pseudobulbs. But as in all monocots this meristematic area is not apical. It’s somewhere in the middle of the plants, at the place where the vegetative shoot separates from the absorptive roots.

So maybe we can jump philosophically and say that our kids are built to fill space opportunistically. That is to say maybe they don’t have a well-defined “up“ or “down“. Maybe they grow in the best way they can in a given environment. Like if an orchid falls out of a tree onto a cliff in nature and manages to take a toehold. Maybe it’s beneficial that there is no strict up or down.

I have noted that a lot of my orchids “right themselves,” forming new shoots above the meristematic juncture. So maybe they are exerting some sort of conventional polarity. But a lot of others seem perfectly happy to just hang around, or spread themselves sideways, or kind of just move laterally through space. I guess it would help to see some real orchids in real nature. But until then it’s all guesswork.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

My Year of orchids: I’m not an expert!

OK. Guilty as charged. I have a PhD in botany from Harvard. I am, or I was an expert in a particular genus of lichens. I do a lot of other things well for example I was great teacher, but I’m not an expert. Lucky thing there are so many other people who are.

When I first moved to Florida and with a garden that is mostly native species I got on to a couple of native species groups on Facebook. They are the true “experts“ reside, in all their glory.

One of their acolytes noted that I had signed on and that I shared the same surname with this particular authority.

What a surprise to see that he was quick to tell her, “he’s a fraud and a fake!” I’m not really sure what this fellow is trying to get across, or what turf he is trying to protect. I retired down here without any intentions besides for enjoying myself and experiencing the wonderful year round gardening opportunities that this climate allows. I certainly did not want to set up shop as an expert on anything. My teaching days in that capacity are over.

So I wonder about people’s ego, about their fears, and about their need to “protect” something that they feel needs protecting.

Personally I came from a large eastern university where, gossip, intimidation, and belittling of one’s peers was the way to maintain control. Putting other people down was the coin of the realm. I came here to get away from that as much as I came to get away from the nasty weather in Boston.

So, just saying. I feel pretty lucky to not have any needs or fears. I spend every day in the company of my amazing garden trying to nurture the wonderful plants there, orchids included. Here’s hoping as they mature and gain self-reliance they don’t have any needs or fears either!

My Year of Orchids: Ants

Have you ever noticed the way there are ants running around all over the garden? They are everywhere. Sometimes I dig something up or water a plant and there are ants teeming all over the place carrying eggs. I think it’s a sign of garden health. There is plenty of organic matter around here that they can use and plenty of soil for them to dig around in.

So you’re probably familiar with the orchid Myrmecophila. It’s named for its symbiotic relationship with ants. I got one from Kathy and it spent months standing still on top of the old snag where I placed it. When I started out in July there was plenty of light out there. But I noticed that soon the light changed dramatically into shadow. Myrmecophila needs plenty of light so I got brave and moved it (they say it hates to have its roots disturbed but the poor thing hadn’t grown at all). It probably helped as well that I took it off its “bed“ of Spanish moss, another one of my mistakes trying to supplement what I thought would be the moisture needs of the almost nonexistent roots.

Myrmecophila was placed in a crook of our very sunny Madagascar palm. It didn’t look much happier even though I did see the odd ant running up or down the trunk of the tree. But at the base of the tree there’s gravel, which can get plenty hot. It’s not the nicest place for ants, especially when they have so many other yummy places they can do their work.

The ants are definitely doing something for all of my outdoor orchids, not just Myrmecophila. They transfer nutrients, they bring resources of all sorts, and for all I know they can be carrying beneficial microbes to the plants. This goes for my bromeliads and airplants too. And my huge staghorn fern. When you’re off the ground it helps to have these busy little helpers. I strongly encourage them.

But to get back to my Myrmecophila. It was pretty much standing still on the Madagascar palm even though it was getting plenty of sun and several mistings a day. You might laugh at me when I tell you I think it needed company. We were at a huge orchid tent sale down in Sarasota and I picked up another dozen or so plants, mostly hybrids. I placed a hybrid “Myrmecophila-Schomburgkia” (I thought someone said they were the same genus!) next to my baby plant. The next thing you know it went on that rampage I had promised Kathy a couple of months before. First there was a little nub of growth Which grew apace and before I knew it there were a dozen rootlets coming off the base of that new pseudobulb.

I don’t know if it was the company that I put there, the slightly cooler weather, or the fact that I started watering, not spraying that Madagascar palm, whose leaves had almost all fallen off and which looked pretty punk. But I am happy to report a thriving plant, actually several thriving plants, the new hybrid and that Madagascar palm included. And just like in the rest of the garden there are ants everywhere.

Friday, January 11, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Baby roots and grown up roots

I guess they’re like baby teeth and grown up teeth. But a little different. Here’s my experience so far. When you get an orchid from a grower, it’s been nurtured in a certain environment. The green part of the plant functions primarily to photosynthesize and produce flowers, and to a lesser extent to absorb nutrients. It is also a kind of cell-making factory. Its meristem (a kind of stem-cell tissue) functions to produce and differentiate all kinds of new cells- whatever the plant needs, based on the environment and resource availability.

The roots have a slightly less varied role. They absorb water and nutrients. Some can also do photosynthesis. They may also anchor the plant to its substrate. There are also some meristem areas in the root but they only produce more root cells.

The same as with “regular” plants, the leaves and stems are more in contact with vagaries of the environment such as changes in light, humidity, temperature, and wind. If the plants have been grown semi-hydroponically then the roots are accustomed to a much more circumscribed environment. Pretty much constant humidity, temperatures, and nutrient levels.

When you take these beautiful and tender babies out of their wrapping and put them up in a tree you are changing their universe. Root systems that were pampered in a semi-closed environment are asked suddenly to deal with heat, drought, light, etc. you can mist them all you want but you have yanked them out of their controlled environment into a world of unknowns.

So. Tender roots may absorb some of the water and nutrients you provide them but they are not built to experience these conditions. I don’t know much about their cellular anatomy. I do know about the velamen, which absorbs water and nutrients, encourages symbiotic microbial interactions, and protects the inner root. But I suspect that this tissue is compromised when plants from the grower are put outside. Bottom line is at best, the roots will be less efficient and at worst they may fade and die over time.

But plants are amazingly economical machines. One part dies but its resources are reworked through the system, recycled to other parts of the plant body. So in the new orchid that’s outside for the first time a kind of regeneration takes place. The meristem tissue is in charge of this regenerative activity.

The “baby” roots are recycled through the plant, which manufactures “grown up” roots that are adapted anatomically, chemically, and functionally to the new, harsher environment. I know this isn’t the official definition for “hardening up” but I know it’s vital for an orchid that will make its way outdoors as an epiphyte.

My Year of Orchids: It is possible to focus

Oh the noise out there! The places to go! The errands. They are endless. Even the many corners of the garden, each with its appeal, tear us from the inner landscape. My inner landscape, the landscape of my focus is each orchid I plant. I watch them in the trees and twigs I feel their leaves thicken. I sense the advance of their roots.

This is a game of patience and it’s played every day. I’m watching for the signals that are sent out hourly. Very small responses to the environment. Very subtle impulses of form and growth. What a surprise to find myself alone in the garden with these mute beasts clinging to twigs and branches, drinking the dappled light and dripping dew.

Focus is on the verge of obsession but I look at it as a creative act, a movement away from the noisy outside shells that surround my jungle garden. A movement away from “me” toward the inner world of the orchids.

The curve of a leaf, its hardening over weeks, the appearance of a bud, the sneaky extending of a root of Cattleya labiata groping its way out of the tree crotch into a new exposed position. The slow push outward, full of risk and promise. The gradual enveloping and increasing agency the plant exerts over its environment.

Did you ever see the way orchid roots make a kind of tent? They enclose a space between the wood and plant and create a chamber where moisture persists. I saw this in Broughtonia domingensis, the first orchid I just stuck in place with no string to attach it. I saw it in Bulbophyllum fascinator, whose roots literally pushed the plant up to form their own little scaffolding beneath. Do you see this magic when you pot your orchids?

When you water with focus you see the roots swell and change as water sticks to them through adhesion and drips so slowly down the surface. Or stands still. Or the root turns green. Or the root gets rubbery. Or the root seems barely to respond at all. Like Angraecum sesquipedale. Until one day you see the leaves are not only longer but twisting and becoming wider. You reach out to touch and they are heavy, leathery to the touch not soft like when they first came out of the wrapping a few months ago. Then you notice a millimeter of root that has attached itself to the wood. After months of supposed inaction. You’ve read the Angraecum roots are slow growing. But something is happening.

Some roots seem to be made of segments. More a series of connected knots and balls than a smooth or supple fiber. This is how my Oncidium phymatochilum seems to grow. Its roots stretching from a miniature mass of popcorn-like growth. This orchid jumped out of its basket one day. I took it to my orchid grotto and stuck it on a twig. Its brownish leathery growth holds promise as it does more than cling. It seems to climb.

Climbing, stretching, twisting, covering. A singular focus toward growth and mastery of the environment. Here orchids excel, supple, expanding, hardening, primed for their bold emergence out of the shadows.