Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The La Boheme orchid

Everybody has something that stops them in their tracks, that they can't overcome, no matter how hard they try.  Hey, even Superman had kryptonite.  When it comes to orchids, there is always at least one species or hybrid that you kill, over and over again, despite proper care and attention, the best advice of friends and family, deep and passionate attachment . . . it's all to no avail.

You try to stay away -- for her own good, because you can't take care of her, and you don't want to cause more harm, you don't think you can take the pain again -- but like Rodolfo and Mimi, you keep coming back to each other, even though you know the two of you are doomed from the start.  She looks well for a while, then goes into decline.  You weep, you pray, you cut back withered leaves and water gently, you try enclosing her in a clear plastic bag (the orchid version of an ICU) but alas, one morning, she is gone, with only an empty pot and a forlorn plastic label to remember her by.  Ahhh, l'amour!

My first La Boheme orchid is Macodes petola, a jewel of a jewel orchid:

Its veins are electric gold, looking like lightning close up:

Given good lighting, this species is nearly impossible to resist on a sales table at an orchid show or meeting.  It's small, it's cute, it's gorgeous, and it's usually not too expensive.  So I bought one, years ago.  I'd had ludisia discolor and other jewels, and thought I could handle Macodes.  I was wrong.  I forgot to water for a couple of days in summer, or maybe I was on vacation, I can't remember -- I can remember the collapsed stem, the dried up leaves, how quickly it went from jewel orchid to ex orchid.  So I bought another one.  And I neglected that one only slightly.  And it died, too.  And the next one, that I bought at the World Orchid Congress and looked so vital and alive when I brought it home.

My second La Boheme orchid is trichocentrum lanceanum, which in my informed-but-not-expert opinion is one of the most striking orchid species around.  First you've got those big, mule-ear shaped leaves (hence the common name for many trichocentrums is "mule ear orchids.") which are grey-green, spotted with purple.

Pictures don't usually do justice to the way the leaves look in person.  They do, however, show just how cool the flowers are, with a Mardi-Gras-worthy purple and gold color scheme and full, fat presentation.  Oh, they're fragrant, too.

Taken together, they form a graceful, harmonious whole that is not always present in orchid plants. 

There's only one problem.  It is very, very sensitive to how you water it.  In its Caribbean homelands it grows in pretty hot, exposed situations where it drenches and dries so quickly that watering by rainstorm works just fine.  But in the home you can easily rot out new growths by letting water sit inside developing leaves or letting the roots stay too wet during colder winter temps, and once it starts rotting, that's all she wrote.  Here's what my baby looks like now:

But don't cry for me, Argentina -- whoops, sorry, wrong musical reference -- but my point is that the death of these orchids wasn't high tragedy, or the price of love, or anything dramatic, I just hadn't learned to give them what they needed.

Macodes petola is a warm temp, high humidity plant from the steamy rainforests of Java, Malaysia and Borneo.  In urban apartment conditions it's very hard to keep both temperatures and humidity at Java levels, so it does best in a terrarium or similar enclosed environment, which is why you sometimes see it for sale at vivarium and reptile supply shops.  In particular, careless watering during the winter that spills drops inside the developing leaves is the kiss of death.  Next time, I'll be sure to water from the side of the pot and put it in my old Beta fish bowl for added humidity.

The trichocentrum?  If I try it again, which I probably will despite my past record, I'll probably put it in a hanging basket with a chunky mix, and never, ever water it past 3pm if the weather is not positively tropical.

And love may bloom again.