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?

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