One of the many varieties of Phalaenopsis orchids
at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens
Many years ago a florist neighbor talked me into working for him for a few days before Mother's Day. It was an interesting job and I learned quite a bit about the orchids we made up into corsages that week. Unfortunately, most of what I learned then I have long forgotten. About all I can recall now is a few orchid names like cymbidium and dendrobium and phalaenopsis.
I thought of that experience when I met Joe DiDomenico to talk about three upcoming programs about orchids. I know DiDomenico as a fellow birder, but his main avocation nowadays is related to orchids. He is clearly invested in that hobby. He not only has his own orchid greenhouse, but he is current president of the Niagara Frontier Orchid Society and a member of the board of the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.
Those two roles, DiDomenico tells me, are strongly intertwined as Orchid Society members have voluntarily taken responsibility for the display of these exotic flowers at the Botanical Gardens. While we talked about the upcoming meetings, we visited his greenhouse and then the Botanical Gardens. I came away not only impressed once again with the remarkable beauty of these flowers but overwhelmed with information about what I learned is the largest family of flowering plants. It turns out, in fact, that about 800 new orchid species are identified each year to add to the approximately 25,000 already recorded. And these don't count the 100,000 hybrids and cultivars introduced by horticulturists.
Most orchids I learned are epiphytes, that is, plants that live on other plants, deriving nutrients and moisture from the air and rain and sometimes from debris accumulating around them. Informally, epiphytes are often called air plants. What I saw bore this out. Only a few were growing in pots, most were hanging from other plants or Spanish moss or were growing in open wire baskets.
How you identify an orchid is, I must admit, beyond me. Some characteristics of their blossoms include: side-to-side symmetry and one petal highly modified. But the familiar snapdragons of our gardens fulfill those characteristics and they are not orchids. I have to rely on what others tell me.
Not only are orchids beautiful but they take a wide range of forms. Some of them even look like familiar garden flowers or wildflowers. Thankfully, many have common names to go with their Latin designations. For example, there is the so-called chocolate orchid at the Botanical Gardens, formally an oncidium, its dozens of tiny brown and white flowers distributed the length of a yard-long spray. I had to approach closely to smell the rich cocoa flavor, but DiDomenico told me how that lovely smell would sometimes permeate an entire room.
I saw golden wonders, dendrobiums that grew in profusion out of the bottom of one of those hanging wire baskets, so many of them that their purple-spotted yellow petals pressed against each other. Catleyas, single rich purple flowers that have graced many a formal gown. Rich purple spotted stanhopeas, one with an entire purple petal. And the South American slipper orchids of many families that are related to our own rare lady's slippers. It is clear how these slippers get their name for the lower petal forms a kind of open shoe. But slipper? The tiny pixie who would wear these beautiful flowers must have swollen toes to fill them.
I also learned that orchids have been around for a long time. They first bloomed about 85 million years ago, about the same time that the first primates also first appeared in the fossil record.
There are three meetings involving orchids that will occur soon. The first is the Botanical Gardens' 2009 Gala, the Gardens' annual fund-raising event. It will be held September 26 from 7-9 p.m. at the Gardens. This year the Gala will feature exotic orchids. For more information call 716-827-1584 or visit the Botanical Gardens' website.
The other sessions are the Niagara Frontier Orchid Society's annual show and sale. They are scheduled for Saturday, October 10 from 10-5 and Sunday, October 11 from 10-4, again at the Botanical Gardens. These meetings will provide information and demonstrations about growing orchids and should prove especially interesting to newcomers. For information about these meetings call 716-683-7343 or visit the Orchid Society website.-- Gerry Rising