Smarty Plants: Why orchid lovers are obsessed with these exotic blooms

Smarty Plants - YAM Jul/Aug 2023
Nursery owner Bryan Emery’s greenhouse is abundant with the twining roots and colourful blossoms of dozens of different varieties of orchids. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

BY WENDY MCLELLAN

You might think of orchids just as pretty plants that can spruce up the powder room or add a little living décor to your home. 

Or, you might fall in love. Orchids have that effect on people.

“It’s a passion, I have to admit,” says Leda Bower, a North Saanich resident with a collection of about 800 orchids. “It’s hard to explain passion. Orchids are intriguing — they are so amazing.”

Bower, who is also president of the Victoria Orchid Society, shares her passion with others who are curious about, or addicted to, these unique plants. “It’s because of the varieties,” she says. “It’s the range and the mystery of the evolution of orchids.”

Smartest of the Plants

It’s not just their pretty looks that make orchids interesting. There are thousands of varieties in so many different colours and sizes and shapes. They can be almost neon or completely white. The flowers can be so tiny you have to squint to see them, or the size of a salad plate. They can grow in the air with no soil.

At this point, experts believe there are somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 different families of orchids and thousands more hybrids. The Royal Horticultural Society in the U.K. has been documenting discoveries and new varieties since the 1800s so orchid people can trace their plants back to the original pair.

Orchids have learned how to survive in nutrient-poor places: tree limbs, cliffs on the edge of waterfalls, swamps and shady forests among other unlikely spots. And they have evolved over generations to attract the right pollinators in order to survive — and thrive — for hundreds of years.

“Someone said the orchid is the smartest of all plants,” Bower says. “They evolved to attract their specific pollinators. It may be ants or flies or tiny flying insects.”

Smarty Plants - YAM Jul/Aug 2023
Phalaenopsis violacea ‘Sky Fall’. Photo By: Patrick Van Adrichem.

Angraecum sesquipedale, also known as Darwin’s orchid, is a good example. The story goes that in 1862 an orchid grower sent the naturalist Charles Darwin a white orchid from Madagascar. Darwin famously hypothesized that the only way this particular orchid, with its large, star-shaped flower, could be successfully pollinated was by a moth with a huge tongue — at least 10 inches long. Nearly a century after he predicted it, Darwin was proved correct: A moth with a proboscis that coils up on its head was observed feeding on the orchid and transferring pollen between flowers. 

Another orchid, Phragmipedium, has long petals that touch the ground so ants can climb in to pollinate it. The bee orchid, Ophrys apifera, uses a trick to attract its pollinators. It has a large petal that looks similar to a female species of bee sitting on the flower. A male attempts to mate with the flower and the orchid’s pollen attaches to it in the process; when it tries to mate with another flower masquerading as a female, the pollen is transferred to the next orchid.

While more than 4,200 orchid species grow in Ecuador and Colombia, the most orchid-rich countries on the planet, you don’t have to travel that far to see them growing in the wild. 

In fact, you may be surprised to learn that B.C. has more native orchids than Hawaii. The province has more than 40 indigenous orchids — including the white Phantom orchid and delicate purple Fairy Slipper — that grow in bogs or dry or moist forests. In comparison, Hawaii only has three. 

Smarty Plants - YAM Jul/Aug 2023
The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) seduces its pollinators through a clever disguise. Photo From: Wikimedia Commons.
Smarty Plants - YAM Jul/Aug 2023
The Fairy Slipper orchid is one of several native to B.C. Photo By: Thomas Goldberg.

Orchid Fever

Orchids have fascinated people for generations. There was even a word for the intensity of emotion these plants evoked in the 1800s when rich collectors hired explorers to seek out new varieties: orchidelirium.

For Bryan Emery, the fascination for orchids began when he was a kid.

“I was a typical 10-year-old boy — I started growing orchids and joined an orchid society,” he says with a laugh. His grandmother had a few of the plants on a windowsill and that was all it took. “I remember going to an orchid show when I was 10 years old. There was one plant, a perfect little triangular flower covered in itty bitty dots.” 

He still loves orchids that are triangular, but he grows dozens of different varieties in his backyard greenhouse. He likes other plants, too, particularly succulents and unusual pelargoniums, which he sells wholesale from his North Saanich nursery, Bryan’s Specialty Plants.

Among the orchid collection in Emery’s greenhouse is a Masdevallia veitchiana, which has  a hot orange triangular flower with a purple haze (actually fine hairs) around the edges. There’s also a Masdevallia Winter Blush, a soft peach-coloured flower with tiny purple spots, and a Restrepia that has yellow and red stripes and is shaped sort of like a beetle.

“There is some sort of mystique around orchids,” he says. “It’s fun growing something you know comes from the 1800s, and there is great reward when you get something to flower. I’ve been growing some for 10, 15 years and I’m still waiting to see them flower.”

Bower was a little older than Emery, in her early 20s, when she fell in love with orchids. Stuck at home with two young toddlers, and by nature a “science-y” person, Bower read piles
of books and joined the local orchid society.

“Orchids appealed to me as a challenge. I had gardened a bit, but I didn’t have a lot of perceptions to lose. Orchids grow in a different environment than plants in the ground,” she says. “I’m one of those people who doesn’t start knitting socks — I knit a Cowichan sweater. I aspire to the highest level.”

While Bower has hundreds of different orchids, she notes that some people in the Victoria Orchid Society have only a few. “There are people I know who can stop — I have yet to discover how,” she says. “They are all really quite different. The range of flowers in orchids is incredible. There are thousands. One genus can have 3,000 different varieties.”

Anticipation of Beauty

The orchids you know from the grocery store and local flower shops are the Phalaenopsis genus, also known as moth orchids. Historically very expensive, they have become affordable now that commercial growers have learned how to push the plants so they flower more quickly than they would naturally.

Smarty Plants - YAM Jul/Aug 2023
In his Deep Cove greenhouse, Patrick van Adrichem breeds popular Phalaenopsis orchids as well as more unusual varieties. Photo By: Jeffrey Bosdet.

Patrick van Adrichem, an orchid breeder and owner of Kingfisher Orchids in North Saanich’s Deep Cove, specializes in Phalaenopsis orchids, but also grows more unusual varieties. They may be fragrant or have smaller flowers and a wide range of colours and markings. When he offers orchids for sale to private collectors, he sells out in a couple of hours.

“My favourite orchid changes daily,” he said, adding it takes five to seven years to grow an orchid, and longer to see it flower. “My favourite ones are the ones I’ve bred and they haven’t bloomed yet. It’s the expectation.”

Smarty Plants - YAM Jul/Aug 2023
Masdevallia veitchiana. Photo From: Wikimedia Commons.

His father was a gardener at The Butchart Gardens and van Adrichem grew up on the grounds, but it was a trip to Hawaii with his wife where he first encountered orchids.

“I got intrigued with orchids, and the idea that they don’t grow in soil,” he says. “You buy one, it lives, and it goes from there.”

Where it goes can lead you to selecting a pretty plant, or two, to brighten a room. Then again, it can lead you to a lifelong passion for the cleverest, most intriguing of flowers.

Orchids for Beginners

Phalaenopsis orchids — the ones found in grocery stores — are fairly easy to grow, making them a good starter orchid.

These plants need indirect light or direct light that is filtered through sheer curtains. An east-facing window or a windowsill is a perfect location. 

Our indoor temperature is usually comfortable for orchids, too: not too hot, not too drafty.

Orchids prefer to be watered when they’re almost dry — overwatering will kill them. Hold the pot over the sink and run water through until it flows freely out of the bottom and the potting mix is wet.

Fertilizing orchids weekly will help them grow and bloom. After the plant is finished blooming, cut back the stem to about two centimetres above one of the nodes — they look like little green scales.

It may take more than a year for the plant to rebloom because of the forced growth to make it flower quickly, but once it recovers, it should bloom every year.

Re-pot every couple of years, after flowering. But remember that orchids don’t grow in soil — they need a special medium, available at most garden centres.

A Bounty of Orchids

Supermarket orchids are a good start, but to expand your world of exotic blooms, check out these sources.

Smarty Plants - YAM Jul/Aug 2023
Phalaenopsis hieroglyphica ‘Vi-Cli’ FCC/AOS. Photo By: Patrick Van Adrichem.

Victoria Orchid Society holds monthly meetings where members bring in orchids to show and to share information. The group also opens their greenhouses and mentors new members. victoriaorchidsociety.com

Orchid shows are held on Vancouver Island — the most recent was in Nanaimo in February — as well as on the mainland. The Canadian Orchid Congress lists many of the shows across the country. canadianorchidcongress.ca

Patrick van Adrichem, an orchid breeder at Kingfisher Orchids in North Saanich, shares photos of his orchids on his website and has a mailing list for people who want to buy his plants. kingfisherorchids.ca

Paramount Orchids in Parksville grows a good variety of orchids for sale to collectors across the country. The website includes photos and pricing. paramountorchids.com

Orchid Lovers and Growers of Canada shares tips, information and photos on Facebook. facebook.com/groups/OrchidLoversAndGrowersofCanada/

The American Orchid Society provides lots of information about growing orchids, and members can access an extensive photo collection. aos.org

The Royal Horticultural Society has abundant information about orchids on its website, as well as the international orchid register. rhs.org.uk