Orchid Obsession

Orchid Obsession

Kathryn Wadsworth

Kathryn Wadsworth

David has turned his attention to the tropical plants that live in our houses, in particular one of his true loves – orchids.
My first day in Hawaii, many years ago, was filled with orchids. I had stopped to visit David on my way from Australia where I had been leading an eco-tour of the Great Barrier Reef. He lived in a tiny cabin deep in the jungle of the west Maui Mountains, where he headed up a research project in biomass production from tropical trees. A shimmering green light bathed the interior of his dilapidated shack. One of the three or four intact buildings of an abandoned poi factory complex. Of course, I loved it on sight. Surrounded by huge trees — mango, grapefruit, avocado, and monkey-pod — each with its own community of epiphytic orchids and ferns clinging to each massive limb. While I knew none of these plants were native, I was still enchanted.

A gorgeous member of the Cattleya alliance, Laeliocattleya Irene Finney blooms in spring.

A gorgeous member of the Cattleya alliance, Laeliocattleya Irene Finney blooms in spring.

We dropped off my luggage and rushed straight back to town to buy me an appropriate dress for the annual banquet of the Lahaina Orchid Society. In his spare time, David had become an orchid judge and breeder. Hundreds of guests mingled and merged, ebbing and flowing around me. Long tables filled the ballroom, each table festooned with orchid plants – all in magnificent bloom. The heady scent of orchid blossoms filled the air. I listened to bizarre conversations around me.
“Did you see that Ports of Paradise ‘Glenyries Green Giant’?’
“Oh yes, he da kine li’ dat.”
“I no know. What about that Ida Fukumura?”
“Yeah, she really da kine.”
Later I would learn that the first is an intergeneric cattleya hybrid and the second a phalaenopsis, but that night I sat stupefied as the mix of pidgin and orchid-speak assailed my ears. It was like listening to aliens from another planet trying to include me in the conversation. I smiled a lot.

Phalaenopsis Ida Fukumura flowers are large and intensely colored.

Phalaenopsis Ida Fukumura flowers are large and intensely colored.

Many remarkable events took place over the next few weeks of my visit. David took me to orchid shows and orchid ranges (what the rest of us might call nurseries). We visited other judges and experts, all of whom were smitten with orchids, afflicted with orchid obsession.

Paphiopedilums, or lady slippers, are one of the best orchids to grow as houseplants.

Paphiopedilums, or lady slippers, are one of the best orchids to grow as houseplants.

I gradually learned to distinguish between a cattleya and a phalaenopsis. Slowly I could recognize a dendrobium, a vanda, and a paphiopedilum. The orchid maniacs I met were mostly big men with arms covered in tattoos. Men who could easily be mistaken for the goons that gangsters send to break kneecaps. They showed me how to gently remove pollen from the “father” (pollen parent) and place it on the stigma of the “mother” flower (pod parent). With a toothpick!

The flowers of Vanda coerulea are spectacular in size and color.

The flowers of Vanda coerulea are spectacular in size and color.

David showed me his research – volumes of notebooks with orchid genealogies going back centuries in some cases. Research designed to support the breeding program he intended to start. We began touring orchid ranges in earnest with the goal of purchasing “stud” plants – those perfect plants, with the perfect genetic composition for David to use to create award-winning plants. Yes, David had it bad – a serious case of orchid fever. Yet, it never seemed extraordinary to me. It seemed perfectly normal, in fact.

Dendrobiums, like this Jaqueline Thomas, provide long-lasting cut flowers for bouquets.

Dendrobiums, like this Jaqueline Thomas, provide long-lasting cut flowers for bouquets.

We grew orchids in pots, on benches or on the ground beneath the towering trees surrounding the cabin. We borrowed a friend’s laboratory to sow orchid seeds in a sterile environment in specially prepared media inside glass flasks and baby-food jars. I read every orchid book, magazine and research paper David handed me. And the few weeks visit turned into months.
Without quite realizing it, the orchid obsession took over. We moved to the Big Island of Hawaii. We started our own orchid range. Built our own laboratory. Amassed a stunning collection of “stud” plants. We filled every inch of our lives with the incredible beauty of these exotic, luscious plants. Oh, and while we were at it, we got married.
Even though we no longer grow orchids, our love for these plants remains. I do not know why some people succumb – as we did – to orchid fever, but I highly recommend it. I guess for me orchids embody an incredible, wild, effortless ride into joy.

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