Friday, January 11, 2019

My Year of Orchids: There is no message. Only signal.

So many people post pictures of their orchid flowers. They are a study in perfection. Incredible colors, beautiful graceful shapes, a true abundance of luxury. These are orchids ready to be “judged” like purebred dogs. “Best in show.” That’s not where I’m going with my plants.

I celebrate when my orchids bloom. About a dozen of them have so far, not bad considering that some of them were rescues, almost dead when we moved here. But for me, it’s the functioning plant body and not the showy flower that really holds excitement.

Amazing that most orchids get along without soil. The body is a kind of abstract painting, or more accurately an abstract sculpture, which exists in three dimensions and floats along through time, growing, or holding its own, or perhaps shrinking away and dying. Maybe as I gain more experience with my orchids I’ll understand their messages. But I suspect none of us has that great a handle on what an orchid is doing at any particular time. There seem to be no real messages. Rather, there are signals broadcast through color, growth, and some days just a kind of attitude that the plant poses. The tiny advance of a root, the greening of a leaf, or sometimes, a strange twist of a stem or leaf. The appearance of a bud or a swelling or a reddish tinge. These are the kind of signals I’m talking about.

None of them tells us anything specific about the plant. Maybe it’s “happy.” Maybe it’s experiencing stress. My job is to observe these signals and try to interpret them into some kind of usable information for growing a healthy orchid. The range of ecologies and micro habitats these organisms face in their native environments simply rule out any consistent logic for a given genus or even for a particular species. Also, the growing conditions they experienced as babies in a nursery are so much different from what we can give them as mature plants. How can we read their signals?

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