Harnessing the charm of the orchid at home

By LISA KLEIN

The orchid is one of the most highly prized blooms, grown and revered for its good looks and sometimes elusive nature.

Although they have a reputation for being fickle, there are so many varieties of orchids that they can be grown in nearly any greenhouse and even in outdoor gardens outside of tropical climes.

Orchidaceae are the largest and most diverse family of flowering plants on Earth with over 28,000 species,” said Bruce Rogers, author of The Orchid Whisperer: Expert Secrets for Growing Beautiful Orchids, the title of which includes his nickname in the industry.

“Over the centuries every culture around the world has idolized orchids for their beauty, mystery and also medicinal use,” he said.

Flower powers

Wild orchids have been around for nearly 200 million years, spreading to every continent besides Antarctica. Humans have been admiring them since at least 500 B.C. in China, Greece and Rome.

The flowers have been prized for centuries thanks to their distinctive features such as insect mimicry and their bilateral symmetry that gives them a “face,” along with a vast array of hues from golden yellows to every shade of pink imaginable to the rarest blue.

In the wild orchids can grow for up to 100 years and are thought to have medicinal properties that can help with everything from diabetes to fertility to youthful skin.

No wonder there seems to have always been a craze for the plants.

Many varieties of orchids can be grown outdoors. Image courtesy of Bruce Rogers

“Throughout history different orchids have been in vogue at different times, usually for reasons of size, color, fragrance and rarity,” Mr. Rogers said.

In the 18th century explorers brought new varieties back to their home countries in Europe, and by the 19th century the continent was in full-blown “orchidelirium,” a phrase coined at the time to capture the zeitgeist.

Royals and other wealthy orchid lovers would commission the collection of rare varieties from all over the world, and often waited decades for new flowers to add to their trove.

Fast forward to today, and “the popular orchid genus Phalaenopsis that we see in the nurseries and grocery stores originated from Asia and is propagated by the millions and shipped throughout the world,” Mr. Rogers said.

Mr. Rogers himself caught the orchid bug as a hobby in his youth, and it blossomed into a career consulting on and selling orchids around the world under Bruce Rogers Orchids in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The expert now specializes in growing and hybridizing the genus Sobralia, which originated in Mexico and Central and South America, and even has one named after him – the Sobralia Rogersiana.

Garden gold

Although many orchid species are easy to get nowadays, collectors continue to fill greenhouses and gardens with them, many still searching for the rarest of the bunch and trying their hand at hard-to-grow varieties.

“Although modern orchid breeders strive to make orchids easy for the layman to grow, many other popular orchids come from environments around the world such as jungles and rain forests that are difficult to replicate at home,” Mr. Rogers said. “Turning your living room into a rainforest can be hard on the carpets.”

Bletilla Striata growing outdoors. Image courtesy of Bruce Rogers

Many orchid enthusiasts choose to grow their collection in a greenhouse, which allows for a tropical atmosphere, no matter where they are located. They still have to tend their plants with the seasons and depending on their varieties may have blooms most of the year.

Orchids can even be grown outdoors nearly anywhere, so long as the right types are planted.

“A good understanding of where an orchid grows is crucial so you can mimic as closely as possible their native environment,” Mr. Rogers said.

Tropical orchids from all over the world can grown outdoors anywhere that has a hot, humid and wet environment. Other varieties hail from high-altitude forests and can grow well in Mediterranean climates such as the Bay Area.

Orchids such as Lady Slippers (Cypripediums) can even flourish in cold, snowy areas.

“An orchid that can be grown in gardens virtually anywhere is the Bletilla Striata, which is also the foremost medicinal orchid in the world,” Mr. Rogers said.

Mr. Rogers advises, however, to be cautious about where their plants come from, as many naturally growing varieties are being over-harvested.

But, since there is such an interest in orchids, hybrid varieties are constantly being bred to be easy to grow and most are raised from the start rather than taken from the wild. There is an orchid for everyone, from the basic to the ultra-rare.

“You’ve got to find one you really like,” Mr. Rogers said. “If someone likes an orchid, they can usually grow it really well – they go after it. You’ll be swept away the more you get into it.”

For more garden inspiration, read “Planting ideas” in the latest issue of Luxury Portfolio magazine.

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