A guest once arrived at my home for a holiday party bearing a square shaped decorative box filled with a spongy greenish moss from which a woody, green stalk grew. From atop the stalk a delicate white bloom splashed with fuchsia at its center was seemingly staring at me with its fragile petals, the daunting task of its care looming. I thoroughly read the small instruction tag, placed it by a window and gave it minimal water for several weeks as it slowly wilted away and died. Like so many before me, I had failed the task of keeping the beautiful and exotic plant from withering away. As a gardener I felt undeserving of even the few blissful days of the orchid’s bloom.
Orchids have enjoyed a revered status in various cultures for centuries and their reputation for being fragile and easily killed is somewhat misleading. In the right conditions, an orchid can stay in bloom for long periods at a time, but it took a good deal of study to learn cultivation techniques. During the 1800s orchid obsession reached a frenzied peak when a phenomenon known as “orchidelirium” took hold. During this Victorian period orchids were rare and coveted, and rich collectors would send hunters around the world in search of new varieties to be brought back and displayed in grand greenhouses. Often the flowers would meet the same fate as that hostess gift orchid because so little was known about the native conditions from which the flowers came.
Now, however, anyone can buy and collect orchids and much more is known about the thousands of types and their care, though many still seek advice and camaraderie from fellow orchidophiles. Here on the Gulf Coast, the Greater Pensacola Orchid Society encourages the cultivation and appreciation of orchids and shares knowledge and expertise to the group with anyone interested in the hobby.
“We’re a very friendly society. We welcome anybody to come out and sit through a few meetings and listen; they don’t have to join,” says the society’s president Jim Saxton. “We usually have a little business meeting to begin with, then a program or speaker, then we always have people bringing in orchids to share and talk about the culture of the orchids and how they grew them.”
The group meets the first Tuesday of each month at 7 pm in the conference room of the West Florida Hospital Rehabilitation Institute and all are welcome to join. The membership ranges from complete novices, to garden club members with an interest in orchids to even one member that is a certified judge for the American Orchid Society.
“We have people that have just started and they know absolutely nothing except that they’ve killed ten orchids and they want to know what they’re doing wrong, to people that can look at a plant and say, ‘Well, try this because that’s not working,’” says Pam Saxton.
Jim and Pam became interested in orchid cultivation while living in Hawaii. When the Navy transferred Jim to Pensacola, they brought about 30 plants with them in the move. They got involved with the Greater Pensacola Orchid Society in 2000 and have been enthusiasts ever since. They’re far from alone. Orchids are beloved because of the great variety of species. They can be huge or miniscule and every color under the sun from black to white and the entire rainbow in between. There are hundreds of thousands of varieties that grow naturally on six continents and the exact number is in constant flux because of newly discovered species, some of which are endangered. In Peru, the city of Moyobamba is known as “The City of Orchids” because it is home to about 3,500 native species of the flowers. While orchids may have a reputation for being fragile and fussy plants, Jim says that’s not entirely warranted. Often, he says, orchids will die from over-watering or not being properly re-potted after they’re purchased at a store.
“If you buy one at the big box store it needs to be repotted immediately because it’s not potted to grow, it’s potted to bloom, look nice and that’s the reason you buy them,” Jim says. “But if you would take them, re-pot them immediately and then use the correct potting mix then they would last.”
While orchid cultivation may seem daunting at first, once its ideal conditions for light, water and fertilization are met, the Saxtons say the flowers can thrive. Orchid growers must also know whether their plant prefers to be potted at all, or if it is epiphytic it would thrive if mounted on a branch or other support. There are six genera of orchids that can be grown in the Gulf Coast area with a great many species in those categories. Like many orchid lovers, Jim says his favorite part of growing
orchids is getting them to bloom. While some orchids can continually bloom and rebloom for several years, other species, like the vanilla plant, which is an orchid, only blooms for hours at a time and only at night.
Pam says her favorite part is the great array of colors and sizes of the blooms.
“I like the variety because every time you think you’ve seen them all, there’s one you’ve never seen before,” she says.
Speaking of variety, the couple says their all time favorite is the Pamela Saxton—a Brassolaeliocattleya that has a seven inch pink bloom with a corsage style flower. They cultivated it and had it registered with the Royal Horticultural Society and received an official certificate which Jim gave to Pam as a Christmas present. The Saxtons say interested growers can purchase good starter plants at local home and garden stores, or they can purchase online, as long as they know what they’re getting and make sure to get a type that can live in the local climate.
“It’s very hard to learn how to grow orchids by yourself,” Jim says. “If you have other people that you can talk to about how they’re doing it, you’ll learn a lot faster.”
Those hoping to find out more are welcome to attend a meeting of the Greater Pensacola Orchid Society to ask questions, learn and see some beautiful blooms, or visit pensacolaorchidsociety.org for more information.