Sykesville couple with 450 plants discovered 'you can't just buy one orchid'

March 23, 1994|By Ellie Baublitz | Ellie Baublitz,Contributing Writer

Helen Pepperney compares her orchid collection to children and potato chips.

"They're like spoiled children -- they only do their thing when they're good and ready," she said of trying to get her plants to bloom.

"The plants bloom at different times -- sometimes I don't have anything blooming, but I noticed some plants blooming earlier than they did last year."

Having orchids is also like eating potato chips, she said: "You eat one, you have to eat them all. You can't just buy one orchid, you've got to have more."

That first plant is the most expensive because that's the one that hooks the buyer on orchids, she insisted. Actually, it took five plants to get Mrs. Pepperney, now 70, and her husband, Robert, 71, addicted to the exotic flower in 1981.

It was in Hawaii that the Pepperneys, who live near Sykesville, fell in love with orchids while visiting a grower who was having an open house.

"We bought five plants and had them sent home -- they were waiting for us when we got back," Mrs. Pepperney said. "They were very healthy plants, but we killed them with kindness because we didn't know how to take care of them."

She acknowledged over-watering the plants. But since then, the couple has learned how much water, light, humidity and air the different varieties of orchids need. They are now "parents" to some 450 orchid plants kept in a small greenhouse connected to their bedroom.

And like children, the plants have names -- Cattleya, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Paphiopedilum, Phalaenopsis and Vanda. That's only a few of the 25,000 varieties of this colorful flower that are available. One variety even bears Mrs. Pepperney's name -- Pepperney's Choice, variety "Helen" -- a Phalaenopsis that is white with a red center.

"That was a fluke," Mrs. Pepperney said. "We went to an orchid show and there was a salesman putting out orchids, and he told me to put my name on the one I wanted and he'd sell it to me after the show.

"The judges pulled it out of the exhibit and gave it a blue ribbon and gave it so many points they said I could name it, so I did," she said.

Even with the number of plants the couple has, they don't spend a lot of time caring for the orchids. Mrs. Pepperney conceded she should do more, such as repotting some of the plants.

To make caring for the orchids easier, Mr. Pepperney has built temperature controls and an automatic humidifier into the greenhouse. He also has a shade cover he puts over the top of the greenhouse in summer to keep the plants from getting burned.

"I couldn't do it without Bob," Mrs. Pepperney said. "He takes care of all the heavy work for me."

After the Pepperneys got their first orchids, they plunged into the plants wholeheartedly. They joined the Maryland Orchid Society in 1981 and faithfully attend monthly meetings in Baltimore. They've attended orchid shows from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, winning numerous awards.

Orchids come in various shades of most colors, including yellows, pinks, purples, oranges, reds and white. Some have polka dots or stripes and some are multicolored, Mrs. Pepperney said. Some have no odor, and others smell like tea roses or raspberries.

And some are worth money. "Some Cymbidiums can go for $5,000 -- like the lady slipper Cymbidium or a rare Cattleya," Mr. Pepperney said. "They just found a lady slipper orchid in China that's real expensive."

"You can see why it's such a fascinating hobby -- there's so many varieties and so many colors," Mrs. Pepperney said.

The couple hopes to have some orchids in bloom for the Maryland Orchid Society Show, April 15-17 at Golden Ring Mall. "We'll go if we have the time," Mr. Pepperney joked. "Now that we're retired we're so busy."

Besides being up to the ceiling in orchids, the couple belongs to the Gingham Square and Four County Square square dance clubs, the Knights of Columbus, Liberty Lake Golden Age Club, Carroll County Seniors in Action Recreation Council and the Rockdale Garden Club in Randallstown.

If that's not enough, Mr. Pepperney is president of the Carroll County Chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons. Mrs. Pepperney is "cheer" person -- the one who sends greetings to sick members and birthday cards.

"We have to live three lives to do everything we want to do," Mrs. Pepperney said. "You grow old because you stop doing things. You can keep your mind young doing things."

In August, the Pepperneys will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

"We went to grade school together, so I never even got the chance to play the field," Mr. Pepperney observed.

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