Making a Case for Investing in Plants with Immediate Rewards
GROWING ORCHIDS IS DIFFERENT from such short-term horticultural pursuits as vegetable gardening and the culture of flowering annuals. Even perennial gardening in temperate climates rewards its devotees with a spectrum of floral color within the period of a partial year, and flowering-size perennials of many types may be produced in a comparatively few growing seasons. Orchids, on the other hand, are plants for the long term, and the most thrilling examples are often those with many years of good culture behind them.
Recently, talented orchid growers have perfected the cultural techniques for some popular types of orchids to the point that a flowering-size plant may be produced in two or three years, rather than five or six. Phalaenopsis hybrids, in particular, are among this group of rapid growers, and flowering specimens are readily available and affordable. Still, the norm for many orchids, particularly those without generations of hybridization behind them, is six or seven years from seed to flower. This would include many of the popular members of the Cattleya alliance.
Unfortunately, many orchids seem to grow in slow motion. I am fairly certain that I have spent hours watching some orchid roots emerge and grow, a millimeter at a time across the medium. You have to be an orchid enthusiast to appreciate the wonder of it, but then too, I suppose I’m rather easily entertained.
Many orchids seem to exist in suspended animation until that com-paratively short time each year when they grow and flower. It can be remarkable how rapidly some types produce a new growth and hopefully, an inflorescence. As far as I am concerned though, the waiting game is bad enough without the added frustration of starting with a young plant and nurturing it with the hope it will reach flowering size within my lifetime.
It can be a challenge to bring a blooming-size plant back into flower, let alone supply a young plant with the ideal conditions necessary to grow it along to flowering size. I suspect that many beginning hobbyists, especially those with a bad case of “orchid fever,” purchase small plants because of their affordability. I’m frequently concerned that their interest will wane before those plants ever flower (which could take years). Perhaps in such cases their interest would have been sustained if they’d selected a few larger plants and enjoyed the satisfaction of successfully reflowering them. It is hard to say.
In reality, it seems that most kinds of plants, orchids included, have a minimum size at which their vigor and sustainability is assured. There is a point at which they reach a critical mass that enables them to easily produce the foliage and root system necessary to flower successfully and predictably. Some young plants that are able to flower may still not have reached this stage, and smaller plants can take many years to reach this plateau.
Perhaps the most frustrating phrase in the world of orchid growing is “near blooming size.” It is a favorite among mail-order suppliers, yet I have had some “NBS” orchids that have remained that way for several years. I will admit that most of the NBS plants I have ordered have flowered within two years, but the exceptions tend to drive you crazy. Every year you wonder what you should try next to coax the plant into bloom, when in reality, it may simply lack maturity. Admittedly, it has often been the species orchids that have been the most frustrating for me in this way, and that is likely because their flowering requirements are more exacting than those of their hybrid cousins.
At present I have in my collection two favorite species, Cattleya ac-landiae and Cattleya schilleriana. I have had these NBS plants for more years than I care to admit, and hope that each new growth will be the one that blooms. Despite my failure thus far, I continue to keep them both and believe that the plants are healthy and will eventually reward my perseverance. Nevertheless, I’ve determined that the best way to ensure that a plant is flowering size is to buy it in flower. (A fact that took me an embarrassing length of time to realize.) Nota bene: Plants with evidence of past blooming may be recent divisions of a blooming-size plant that may have to reestablish itself to a certain size in order to again flower reliably.
There is no question that flowering-size orchids cost a lot more than their juvenile counterparts, but I suspect they’re worth it. I personally became involved in this hobby for the pleasure of producing and enjoying orchid flowers, not baby plants. The plants I purchase in small pots are primarily those that I don’t think I will be able to find in larger sizes, and there may be many of those. Although it is obvious that there is always room in a good collection for some young plants that are coming along, I must admit that I have little interest in orchid breeding, or flasks and compots either, and that is undoubtedly my own peculiarity.
I am not advocating that every plant you acquire should be flowering size. There is much to learn and excitement to be had from the experience of growing a young plant from immaturity to the day it produces its first flower. As you build your collection, however, treat yourself, when possible, to some orchid plants in sizes that will provide you with instant gratification, and help to encourage you to keep those youngsters growing.