Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Second Chance

Nature has a way of correcting Man’s mistakes when Man doesn’t stack the deck against it and throw things out of balance.

A few years ago, my friend in Bernardsville, NJ, decided I needed an orchid. A moth orchid, to be precise, the one you are likely to see for sale in supermarkets, Home Depot and on windowsills or tables in Chinese restaurants.

My friend has been growing orchids for years and has several. She keeps them on a shelf over her sink where the humidity is high and the light through the window behind them is bright but not direct.

Orchids, Duke Farms orchid house, June 2012
They’re easy to grow, she said. You’ll enjoy it.

I know there are people who are obsessed with orchids. Books have been written on the subject.

I am not that person.

I like to think I have a green thumb. I grow flowers and vegetables around the outside of my house, and have had flowering or leafy indoor plants for even longer.

But the orchid was different. My kitchen doesn't have a lot of light and, this plant coming to me in winter, I needed to buy orchid food AND a humidifier.

Worse, the plant wasn’t in soil. The peat it grew in seemed to be wet all the time, even after two weeks without water. (The pot had a plastic liner.)The beautiful flowers lasted over a month and when they dropped off I cut the plant back, as directed.

Instead of the expected new set of flowers on the stem, it grew new leaves. I had helped create a baby orchid.

Then the plant seemed to stop growing altogether.

I thought it had rot and so dumped the peat it was in, trimmed back the roots and put it in a bigger pot with bark.

I nearly killed it.

Orchids LIKE all that moisture. They thrive on it.

When Doris Duke decided to open a small part of her estate to the paying public (including me) to view her exquisite indoor gardens, one of the biggest hits was the orchids. Now, Doris long gone and the battle over her estate (including what to do with the Hillsborough, NJ, property her father - JB Duke of Duke tobacco, Duke Energy and Duke University - built into a huge self-sustaining farm) settled, nearly all the NJ property (except the mansion where Duke lived) is open to the public as a lovely, free park (which is very good for birding, by the way).

The Duke mansion, as reclusive as its owner.
June 2012
 The only part of the old indoor garden kept (but moved to a different part of the estate and into a more energy-efficient greenhouse) is the orchid house. You go in and it is very humid and warm, although not uncomfortably so. The orchids attached to the trees seem to be holding on by the most spindly of roots.

Just like the ones I’d cut back on my orchid, thinking I was helping it.

I am happy to say that despite my mishandling, the orchid stayed green and did not die. I did not give up on it and it did not give up on me.

Hanging on by the most delicate of roots.
Duke Farms, June 2012
 I put it back in its original lined pot and the bark remains wet. I cut off the stem with the baby orchid and put it in a vase. They’ve been out on the back porch since mid-May in the heat and humidity.

I feed both of them and now both appear to be growing again - a new root and leaf on the parent and, incredibly, a tiny root on the baby. When the baby’s root gets big enough I can take the plant off the rotting stem and put it in a small pot of bark and hope it attaches itself and continues to grow.

Maybe they'll even flower again.

A couple of times, before I put them out on the porch, I admit I came close to dumping the orchids into the compost pile.

That might not have been as cruel as it sounds. In early spring I divided two pots of cannas, planted what I wanted and put the rest - dead matter, I thought - into the compost pile. After weeks of rain and warmth and being left alone, I discovered quite a few growing canna plants. I've since pulled them up and planted them elsewhere.

The orchid might have done better - in the compost pile or on my table - had I just left it alone and not messed up nature's balance and nearly killed it.

I’ve been given a second chance so I’ll try to do better.