Thursday, February 28, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Keep it easy

Simple. Keep it easy. Easy. Keep it simple. Nice and easy. Nice and simple. 

We tend to fuss and fume over our orchids. But let’s  face it. They’re big kids and they can take care of themselves. I started mine in trees in the blazing heat of July. Probably did everything wrong. “Tried” to kill them. But they lived, thrived, grew, flowered. They prospered just as they would do in nature. 

The orchids (and my other epiphytes too, I’m sure) are equipped with all kinds of defenses that help them thrive in their floating, unattached state. They have evolved and utilize creative metabolic properties that help them maintain their water balance. They produce and transmit sneaky mysterious pheromones that draw partners from outside the plant kingdom (insects, fungi, and bacteria to make a few). In a word, our orchids are well equipped to fend for themselves out there. And let’s face it. Some of the time they’re probably fending off their human stewards (us) along with our good but perhaps misguided intentions. 

So with a few days of blessed rain ahead, where I know they’ll get what they need, followed by a ten day break with my friend Victor in Maine (we won’t see many orchids!), this is the pep talk I’ve given myself. Hope I can take care of self as well as the orchids do!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Things don’t always go the way you expect you expect them to

Janet famously said the other day “things don’t always go the way you expect them to.” It was her usual understatement for a twist of fate in her gardening world. In a word: her raised beds were going from being a giant stack of soil pancakes to a short stack of one or two flapjacks. 

Not to mention the lettuce she lovingly tended was not tough but hard as a rock. Too much sun. Too much heat. But we agree that all this gardening activity, not the first time we’ve undertaken it but surely the first time in the climate of St. Petersburg, is a big experiment. 

Speaking of which. I don’t have any RIPs yet but a few of the orchids I put in the tree last July have seen better days. A good idea I think not to name names for now because resurrection can happen. Last time I looked there were healthy roots so I assume some meristem cells can get activated and start the process of plant regeneration. But for now things look just this side of grim.

We read, we study, we care for, and we coddle our plants. But sometimes it’s the wrong plant at the wrong place at the wrong time. A good chance to step back, consider the enterprise so far, and keep a watchful eye on how everyone is doing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

My Year of Orchids: A clay orchid holder

My inspiration came from the orchids I rescued when we first moved here. They were pushed way back in the shade in decrepit wooden slat baskets. Must have been there for at least the two years the previous owners were absent. Their roots were extensive, hugging the wood and seeking out every corner where moisture might accumulate. In the broken down baskets were equally broken down clay flower pots. The orchid roots were focused there. They ran all over the pots coating them in a thick mat here, a muscular long root there. They enveloped the pots, layered themselves on the pots, searched the pots, made themselves part of the pots.

It was my first lesson in orchid root ecology and it made sense. The porous, untreated surface of an old flower pot was an excellent medium for orchid roots. The slatted baskets, the pots, and the orchids were as one. There was no chance I’d be able to separate them. Just enjoy. 

I had worked with clay extensively a few years back. When my teaching job at Boston University got unbearable thanks to a vicious dean and a destructive chairman, I found solace next door in the Fine Arts building where I went to work pouring energy into clay sculpture. My enthusiasm morphed into a monthlong fellowship at the Medalta clay residency in Medicine Hat, Alberta. That experience is a story in itself but let’s just say for now. I produced loads of work, most of which I just threw away at the end of the residency. 

I experimented with extruding clay through my hands so I came up with a rough surface that reflected my process. I shaped the long thick (or thin) bands of extruded clay around objects like a plastic bag filled with styrofoam packing peanuts. When the clay dried I would cut a hole in the bag and pull the peanuts out one by one. Careful work like this saved many unfired pieces from an early demise. The challenge was getting bigger pieces into the kiln without breaking. I could employ the fired pieces as individual sculptures or pile them together for larger pieces. It was fun and I was happy with the results.

So here I am in St. Petersburg and Janet was worried I wasn’t getting out of the house (garden) enough. She packed me up like a first day kindergartener and sent me to the adult pottery class at Bay Vista park a few steps from our house. People were working on trays and bowls and tiles and pretty things. I went to work on ceramic orchid holders.

Here again, thin hand-extruded pieces surrounding a ball of newspaper, which will burn off in the kiln. The result: a rough asymmetrical clay ball somewhat bigger than your fist. It is more air than substance maybe just like me. You stick it on any branch, plop in the orchid, maybe with a few bits of sphagnum or potting medium (or styrofoam peanuts!), water, and wait for those roots to run their course along the soft, porous bisque-fired clay. My goal is for the piece to disintegrate over the years as Mother Nature does her job and the expanding orchid finds its way to the living branch.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Full moon

The full moon is pouring in from the east across Tampa Bay. It fills the orchid grotto and lights up Rhyncholaelia (Brassavola) glauca. It’s a waxy flower. Looks like many tried and aborted on this same plant but here it is in its magnificent presence. My friend Minh tells me to try smelling it at night so with the moon and all, this is night.

I go into that naturally artificially lit place and I find the flower that Janet had arranged this morning so we might find it when entering the grotto space. Why. Why am I so spatially challenged?!

That flower is a rush. Can I breathe in deeply enough to apprehend the scent? Can I make it enough my air to register and finesse into my brain cortex? That indescribable thing invaded my whole garden and it sits there in the moonlight. Wow this is beyond luxury. This is an organic fuel that takes us to another place.

Boring maybe but as a boy I was taken to the Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago. I smelled an orchid in that humid warmth and I never came back. Or. I came back now can I say half a century , fully half a century later in search of the phial of aromatic dance that fluorescence gave me then?

My Year of Orchids: Serious stuff

Or is it play? The young orchids in the trees are a demanding bunch. The days get longer. The afternoons get hotter. You know you have to do something to keep them going. We were at the beach at 7:30 this morning collecting seaweed for the garden and for my garbage pail full of smelly fertilizer water. The empty long beach at Ft. De Soto, the gentle crash of waves, the flight of hundreds of shore birds. Amazing. And the delicious feel and smell of the fresh seaweed. So many kinds. Delicate, pearl-like, fragrant and mixed with sand and tiny shells. We filled up a couple of big bags and bid the seashore a fond farewell for the day.

At home Janet took care of her raised beds and I tooled over to Yi Wen’s place to look after her garden. The orchids there have been more carefully placed now and some of them are in the most charming miniature landscapes with funny old containers and companion plants. It’s like an old fussy cartoon from Punch Magazine, all doo dahs and curlicues. A couple of heavenly smelling orchids, my mind always with a huge question mark above as I try to decipher the aromas. What do these scents do to pollinators I wonder. Guess I’ll have to go back for more tomorrow and maybe I can beg a little bit of the brown flowered one off her when she gets back. Watering her dozens of orchids is a decently big job. Spraying by hand, dragging her hose around the garden, and fishing out water from her containers. Don’t forget the potted plants and of course give the bird bath a good rinsing out. Could spend the whole day there. But...

Gotta get back to my place and take care of what needs tending. Using the smelly water for the bananas, who are seeming to want more and more these days besides they are still dripping from the morning dew. That moisture gives way in an instant to a searing hot heat. They need water to hit their roots before the stress sets in.

Then the dunking of willing slatted baskets of orchids into the smelly water. And the pouring on of smelly water into the ready pots of begonias and ferns in the shade garden. And don’t forget the little tiny soil dwelling jewel orchids that like their environment moist and rich. Then out into the sun to start misting.

Special attention today to the gesneriads I bought at the State Fair and snipped and gingerly planted with sphagnum in nooks and crannies and as companions to some of the orchids. They need attention to survive but they look like they are doing nicely after the early morning fog.

Yesterday the succulents were fed smelly water and I filled up the bromeliads’ tanks. Both the epiphyte bromeliads and the ones in the ground. They look strong and today they need no attention.

So it leaves just the orchids to be misted and misted and misted until they drip and then the water flows off them in a stream. This is how to teach them to grow and there’s no short cut. After you mist walk away but come back in five minutes with some more and then do it again. Mist until they flow and keep their surroundings moist and wet the wood they’re on and make it a stream, even though this means you’ll have to fill up the sprayer and pump it again and again and again and again.

It’s 1PM and the gardening is done. It’s a sort of hard work but janet rightly calls it my playground. I did it today with loud and crazy Tamil music in my earphones to keep me entertained beyond just the fun of the garden. A place of serious work but more a place of play.

Friday, February 22, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Roots must be for storage too

I’ve started to look at the orchids differently. Part of it is that they’re part of a larger community of epiphytes in my garden. They share the canopy with bromeliads, air plants, cacti, ferns, and gesneriads (cousins of the African violet). There are even epiphytic milkweed relatives called Hoya in my garden. I guess it’s been a busy few months collecting, planting and establishing.

Janet half jokingly admonished yesterday that my kids want to enroll me in Orchids anonymous. I laughed because by the time they find me a chapter it will have to be Epiphytes anonymous. These fascinating plants just get more and more fascinating.

So the question of roots as storage. It began with my Dendrobium anosum, which is developing flower buds all along the big cane. Interestingly they began to enlarge in earnest once the last few leaves at the tip died. I’m sure this is some kind of apical dominance situation, with the last leaves sending a hormonal message to hold off on flowering until they drop off. All a matter of resource management and coordination I guess.

It occurred to me that the cane is an important resource reservoir for the plant and I asked my friend Minh if the canes are perennial, which he confirmed. So canes in the case of Dendrobiums, instead of the pseudobulbs we’re used to considering as storage organs. It’s interesting to me that in all the individuals I have in the garden the pseudobulbs, as well as canes, are robust and plump. And on some very happy Dendrobiums I’ve seen the canes thicken to almost obscene proportions.

I took another look at some of my roots, the wanderers that hold tight to their woody substrate and grow pretty much in a straight line in the direction of water flow (either into or away from the orchid). They are also plump, especially in comparison with other roots of the same plant. It occurred to me that these might play several roles: not just as explorers but also establishers of territory, absorbers of water, and organs of storage for water, carbohydrates, and other resources the orchid plant needs. So storage as well as these other roles, and I have to mention that these wanderers act as a kind of sensory organ too, feeing out sources and the direction of water. More evidence of the “intelligence “ of orchids. Pretty cool!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Mist or dunk?

Calvin asked me this. I was a little embarrassed cuz he’s grown orchids for huge amounts of time more than me. His sense of humor is wry, dry, and sly so I wondered for a minute if he was yanking my chain? Whatever. I took his question at face value and it’s something to ponder over anyway. What might the benefits of dunking be?

Well the accepted canon is never, ever dunk more than one orchid in the same water. Diseases will spread this way. I don’t know. It sounds to me like more of a greenhouse problem. Outdoors there seems to be so much more latitude and complexity of environments. But I could be wrong. My cocky attitude may backfire one day when a dunk-borne virus wipes out my whole orchid patch. But still I admit. I’ve been doing a lot of dunking.

Janet encouraged me to start letting compost sit in water and feed that to the orchids. It’s not as easy as it seems because the water is way smelly and clogs up my sprayer. So I had no choice but to dunk in the smelly miasmic liquid that came out of the garbage pail Jose convinced me to buy for the purpose. Over the past few weeks my recipe has changed to more sea grass, more seaweed, and less kitchen compost so the smell has gotten under control. More comfortably barn-like. And a lot less flies.

So I have been dunking whoever is living in a slatted basket. They get a good long soak, a minute or two, and then I hang them back up in the orchid grotto, careful to dodge the dripping garbage water. Everyone who’s had this treatment has shown a lot of progress except for, notably, Maxillaria arachnitiflora, who had a lot of leaves turn yellow, brown, and go away. She came back quite nicely though when I stopped the treatment.

For the rest it’s been misting, usually with a weak fertilizer mixture and a spoonful of Epsom salts. I wish I could extend my dunking experiment because I think that garbage water is a potent force for good. Better in some ways than misting. And in spite of the smell I do like that it’s all natural and not petrochemical based. But like I say maybe it will backfire one day and make me happy I kept to the misting. We’ll see!

My Year of Orchids: Righting a vanda

It was a victim almost before it got to this garden. Janet found it at a huge tent sale in Sarasota, just when we were starting with the garden. Victor was visiting so the whole scene must have been disarming to him. It was October but it was plenty hot. She threw this giant of an orchid into our cart just as we were about to leave. A sight it was indeed. We checked out and that afternoon I tried to get everyone sorted and into place. It was a little hectic. Maybe Victor was napping after all the fuss, driving through Bradenton and him seeing the Tropicana sign. It was all a bit much.

Not knowing a thing, not a thing! I kind of tossed the Vanda up into a sunny branchlet. Immediately she fell down like some gawky limp giant spider and I let her lay where she landed. Decidedly upside down.

I’ve written before about the question “is there a right side up?” perhaps arrogantly. Because for some orchids, in some conditions it seems like there is definitely a right side up. I had tortured my non-science major students at Boston University with the concept of no rightside up for any molecules we studied and for sure, there was not, no matter how faithfully they were depicted in the idiotic textbooks. But did this matter to my pupils? I think not a bit. They needed to get through this required course please, the less critique of science the better. Sigh.

So I kind of imposed the no right side up on this poor Vanda which, no big surprise, went from being an orchid to an upside down palm tree post haste. Poor thing lost a couple of leaves a day for a good week until I stopped spraying and misting and decided to let it be. And interesting. Once I let it be it stopped dying. But it didn’t do anything else either. Just stood still with the underside of its bottom leaves achieving a sort of homeostasis of sunburn, protecting some barely hidden core of the plant. 

There it hung from October until now, mid February, when the Vanda showed some signs, of not of ruddy good health, at least of life. A stormy night and a cool rainy morning finally gave way to a gray afternoon and I decided to try to right my wrong. Went out in a short ladder and gently placed her back in the crook of the tree where I had had high hopes for her. Placed her gently, carefully, perhaps respectfully in a spot where I hope she can survive and even thrive. 

Did the sane today for three cryptanthus, one of the few obligate terrestrial bromeliads, which I had stubbornly put in slatted baskets. Yes they grew pups and flowered but they weren’t a pretty sight. Why not give them a chance in my shade garden, in the ground where they belong?

Also moved my orchid Bulbophyllum grandiflora. It was on a branch of sea grape but hadn’t attached itself. It had generously thrown two growing shoots from its base in a pretty shaded spot of the garden and suddenly lost one of them. Time to make a change I decided. I moved her to a basket that I can dunk in my seaweed mixture and put her in a slightly sunnier spot next to her cousin Bulbophyllum fascinator, who seems to be enjoying life immensely in her corner of the orchid grotto. Who can blame her?

Need to follow own advice. Observe carefully. Not stick to “rules.” Experience. Experiment. Have some fun. Good thing it’s still cool and we have a chance to make these changes.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Orchid pheromones

There’s a huge amount written about the way orchid flowers produce pheromones. And all this writing and research is focused on the way orchids “fool” pollinators into visiting them, and doing the orchids’ reproductive behest. But wow. Not a word seems to have been written about the other universe of orchid pheromones.

I first suspected that my orchids were using aromas to attract other organisms when I saw an ant marching back and forth on the unopened bud of Acampe papillosa, a good three weeks before the flower opened. That ant sensed something and was there for a reason. How could a human tell what that was?

Eventually Acampe papillosa opened her flowers and as tiny as they were, they were mesmerizing. That is they hypnotized me, her human steward-slash-slave. I came back again and again asking myself. What is this aroma doing to my brain? I hadn’t figured it out more than a month later, when the sixth or seventh flower petered out. But I did notice that the capsule where the flowers had attached was swollen, probably with growing seeds. Something had been accomplished.

Here’s another little piece of the puzzle. Several times a week when I mist my slatted baskets I disturb a certain moth that’s been sitting there. You’ll think I’m weird but the moth looks like a tiny miniature chicken hatching her eggs. Don’t know what the moths are doing there, it’s always this same small dusky species. But I do know that moths are very strongly influenced by pheromones. It is central to their reproductive process. In my case they’re not pollinating the orchids because there aren’t any flowers, or haven’t been. But the moths have come to visit and “nest” because I assume, something is attracting them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about orchids and their many partnerships. Fungi, insects, other plants. All kinds of organisms are attracted to orchids and help them develop a thrumming ecosystem of success. Thing is, we humans don’t pick up the trail.

Is it any surprise? Think about the sounds a dog can hear, way out of our range. Or picture truffles and trained pigs. The truffles in the ground produce an aroma no human can trace. Why can’t Orchids produce molecules that we don’t sense with our limited olfactory senses?

So I did a little sniffing experiment and went around to the different orchids I could reach. Acampe papillosa, her flowers long gone, did produce a fragrance at once subtle, indescribable, and mystifying. Must go back for more. Almost scary was the odor of Maxillaria arachnitiflora, who hasn’t been feeling her best. The past week or so she began to develop yellowing leaves and since then she’s shed a few. The process seems to have been halted but her smell! Do you know the smell of steamed kasha (buckwheat groats)? That’s the best I can do to describe it but with deeper base notes, ketones perhaps, and a heady finish that has me coming back for more.

Whatever she’s doing, Maxillaria is sending a message. Not sure to whom or for what, but I imagine I’ll find out.

Monday, February 18, 2019

My Year of Orchids: No boring orchids

It’s not just that I’m lazy. It’s late morning and I’m about halfway done with watering but I had pulled out my phone to take some pictures and this reminded me. A friend the other day called Phalaenopsis orchids “boring” and I have to say I disagree. Yes they are supermarket orchids. Yes they are hard to kill. Yes they are manufactured for consumption like so many widgets. But they are not boring.

I stuck one in the crook of a thin tree a few weeks ago when she was done blooming. Within days I saw she had set up a new inflorescence bud on the old flower stalk. That’s coming along nicely but the amazing thing I want to talk about for a moment is the interplay between her roots and one of her large leaves. I’ve written a bit about root-leaf interactions, especially the way the roots of so many species seem to grow upward along the middle crease in the leaves. I’ve also written about how orchids develop secret spaces with their bodies that collect moisture, nutrients, microorganisms and larger organisms like ants and moths. This was a new one though.

So this orchid has developed a concave shelter over its roots, the dome-like ceiling being one of its larger leaves. I felt in there one day. It was more than solid. It was hard as a rock. Those roots are packed in and for all I know attached to the bottom of the leaf. They’re pretty cool to observe and they’re a great way to conserve moisture. Amazing to see what a supermarket orchid can do when left to its own devices in nature

Sunday, February 17, 2019

My Year of Orchids: A floral conundrum

Why did orchids species (not hybrids) evolve flowers? For us or for their own reproduction? Easy answer right? It’s funny though that we are so focused on orchid flowers. Not just us amateurs. Darwin was transfixed by their complexity and ingenuity, from which he inferred many of his findings on the evolutionary process.

I have to admit I was pretty excited when I saw the flower of Miltonia spectabilis start to emerge. The pictures I had seen explained the “spectacle” of this flower, which was made even cooler for me by its swelling and pushing through a much-imbricating stalk. At first purplish and droopy like a newborn human baby, today the flower presented itself in its full glory. Only one problem. It was facing “backwards” into the tree it is mounted on.

Backwards is a little judgy of me isn’t it? After all I’m always preaching about leaving orchids in trees instead of pots, letting them establish the way they want, and not fretting about directionality or orientation. Feeling like a big hypocrite I contemplated turning the flower around so it would display outward. But let’s face it. What would twisting the flower stalk do for the plant? Probably kill the flower.

So. Deep breath. Trying to find satisfaction with the whole plant and how well it’s done since August. Celebrating less the flower than the flowering. And waiting eagerly for upcoming blooms that orient themselves the “right” way!

My Year of Orchids: Jewel orchids

Jewel orchid is the name given to a bunch of different genera of small, soil-growing orchids. They are generally grown more for the beauty of their leaves than their flowers. But if you know me you know it doesn’t matter. I grow all my orchids for the joy of watching them survive and thrive “in the wild,” without pots, shelter, or other accoutrements of civilization. The jewel orchids are a little different for me because they do require soil. They are not epiphytes like the rest of my babies.

So, a bit of a conundrum. How to plant these creatures? Yi Wen gave me some of hers that were growing rife and raucous in a pot. Out of six plants she cut (actually tore out of the pot) none had roots. About half of them survived and are sporting large swelling terminal buds that should flower any day. These plants were pretty big. Bigger than your hand let’s say. Then I got the tiny jewel orchids from my friend Ellen at Olympic Orchids. She’s doing a lot of perfume research these days, based on the orchids, so I wasn’t sure if she was in the live plant business. A few phone calls and emails back and forth and we were in business.

I ordered one jewel orchid from Ellen and she substituted a couple more for a species that was out of stock. Man they were small. Maybe the size of your thumb. I was happy at least to plant them on a damp cool day and thankful for the dewy, foggy mornings we’ve been having. But I did despair slightly at the possibility that these babies might just disappear. They were so small and, well, filmy. As in thin.

Back in my postage stamp sized garden in Cambridge Massachusetts, where squirrels did most of the replanting for me and where, looking down at the soil I could easily expect to see a cigarette butt tossed into what my neighbors considered as my “weed patch,” I developed a strategy for planting the delicate ones. The soil there was sandy like here in Florida and like our sea air, there was a presence of salt, although there it came from the tons slathered on the streets and sidewalks during winter.

I had several goals in my planting method. First, I wanted to increase the available organic matter in the immediate vicinity of the plant without plain thumping it into topsoil, which would attract squirrels. Second, I wanted to keep the ambient moisture around the new plant relatively high without overwatering. Third, I wanted to camouflage the plant from squirrels, not only from an olfactory level (no topsoil) but also visually. The less disturbed my planting site appeared, I reasoned, the less likely it was to arouse rodent curiosity.

Oh yes we have those rodents here too. So for my jewel orchids the goals can be said to be identical. So how do I do my planting? I put the jewels on the shady side of large rocks to keep their moisture up and protect them from the sun, which is getting hotter and more demanding every day. I made sure there were some leaves in the vicinity and a few twigs, as well as spare sprigs of sphagnum, which they came packed in. Just a few sprigs, not a bunch. I made sure to mist every day, maybe twice a day if it’s hot.

So far so good and I’ll let you know if anyone survives!

Friday, February 15, 2019

My Year of Orchids: spiders in my orchids

Yes!!!! This means my orchid clumps are little places of life, breathing enough water vapor and oxygen to attract bugs and their predators, the spiders. If you’ve ever seen the way a spider web traps moisture then you can imagine how happy I am. It’s as if another moist biofilm of protection is being established around the orchids. Not to mention the dead bugs that will be dropping by.

So how many partnerships can we reckon for an orchid? The tree it sits on, companion plants like bromeliads and air plants, its internal cellular bacteria like mitochondria and chloroplasts, bacteria and fungi that live on its surface and also harbor themselves in the roots, mycorrhizal fungi, insect pollinators, ants, which accomplish just about everything for the plant, the occasional moth I see flying out when I mist, and now the spiders. A long list by any account.

I begin to wonder how much the orchid is a passive participant in its surroundings versus an active player. What occult aromas is it giving off to attract these partners? How is it building a nest for insects to hide in? Where does the boundary between the orchid and its environment lie? I’m startng to think the orchid, something like a spider, is sending out lots of loose nets that draw in the resources it requires. Sort of strange when I read people are worried about spiders in or around their orchids. Seems pretty beneficial to me.

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.