Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Rambling Tale of Woe

First of all, I need to talk a little about our native orchids. Given enough years, most of us tend to accumulate mental drawers filled with file folders of worthless knowledge on obscure subjects. For instance I have one labeled "North American Native Orchids". There are about 250 species of orchids in North America. Half of them are only in Florida and they tend to be a bunch of epiphytes, which I really don't care about. All of the orchids up here in the north are terrestrials, they grow in the ground. Most of these are small plants, like Goodyeras, that you would step on in the woods or swamp without even noticing, but some are pretty flashy, for instance our state flower, the Showy Ladyslipper, a plant which grows in two feet tall clumps, each stem with a number of "ladyslipper" blossoms almost the size of hen's eggs.

Terrestrial orchids have developed a symbiotic relationship with very specific mycorrhizal fungi. The orchids have wiry roots with no fine feeder rootlets. The fungi form a web under the soil and grow into the roots. I am not certain what the fungi gets out of all of this, but it's how the orchid gets it's food. A number of the orchids have pushed this relationship to the point where they are saprophytic and don't produce any chlorophyll at all. Anyway, I had to learn all this because I was growing them in my backyard garden.

One time a friend and I were camping up in northern Minnesota. At the time he was growing tropical Paphiopedilums under lights in his basement and we were both growing native orchids, so we were looking for them in the woods, NOT to dig them up, but to see first-hand what ideal growing conditions were. I won't say where, but we hit the mother-lode. There were Ladytresses, Goodyeras, two or three saprophytic Coral-Roots and a lot of Stemless Ladyslippers. (A couple of years ago Lorna and I saw Showy Ladyslippers in the same vicinity.) He said, "This shouldn't be too hard to replicate, cold spring water continuously draining down a cool pine-shaded solid granite slope, all covered with three inches of loose, acidic pine needle duff."

My answer back home was to make a bog (see Holman bog). I sunk a plastic child's wading pool into the ground with holes punched half way up the wall. I filled it with a combination of leaf mold and pine needles to get the pH right and watered it frequently. I couldn't grow the real boreal species. Sometimes growers lay refrigeration lines under the artificial bog to keep it cool, but that was out of my financial reach. Over time I got things sorted out and grew a number of species quite well. I did lose a couple of Showy Orchis once when the sheetrockers disposing of their limey wastewater threw it on what appeared to them to be a weed patch, which seemed to jack the pH beyond repair. Oh, I forgot to mention orchids also decided they didn't need the baggage of seeds with a food supply, so now the seeds are like powder that must fall on exactly the perfect place - perfect pH, perfect fungus, perfect moisture and then sprout immediately and grow for about ten years before they set their own seeds. The point of all this is simply to point out that they are damned fussy things to grow. Tissue culture has changed the rules a little, but they still tend to be expensive plants.

Orchids are the most highly evolved plants, almost to the point of becoming so specialized some may have reached evolutionary dead ends. Once I had figured all these things out and learned to meet them on their own terms, I became calloused. I started to think anyone could grow the damned things, at least those that were more or less local and didn't need terribly acid soil. So when we moved to Oakwood under the oak trees, I thought, this should be easy. I dug in ground up oak leaves and transplanted Showy Ladyslippers, Small Yellow Ladyslippers and Large Yellow Ladyslippers. The elderly lady next door was a wildflower lover, so I gave her an extra Large Yellow as a gesture of neighborliness. The plants, in general, did not like their new home, they missed their home fungus and they languished as their energy slowly ebbed away. All gone except the one I gave to Maude. As is the way of life Maude died and Lorna's sister and her husband bought the house as their weekend place on the lake. Now they are retirement age and considering tearing it down and building a new year-round home on the site where the last Ladyslipper now stands blooming on this fine May day. It'll have to be moved (cringe).

Large Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium pubescens)


gabriel said...

I met an orchid explorer in search of new sub species in the cloud forest of the Andes in Ecuador. He had found and named a couple already. It was interesting hearing about certain ones were local to just a side of a single mountain speaking to your claim of intense specialization. What was also interesting is that he led private birdwatching tours to support this exploration.

Anonymous said...

It's so cool to read about how much effort and perseverance it took to cultivate your orchids. Kind of sad to know that you're down to the last survivor. Yet I hear acceptance in your voice. Bittersweet. ~Roma

Gunnar Berg said...

What hurts me is that my negligent killed them, and it's not like killing some weedy composite. They are complicated, long-lived, beautiful things.

Justine Valinotti said...

I don't think anyone ever gets used to the idea that something so beautiful can also be so temporal--and unappreciated by others. I loved reading about your passion for the wildflowers, which led you to put such care and effort into them.

I, too, am sad to read that you're down to your last survivor. But it sounds like you and they had a good relationship.