The word "orchid" immediately conjures up images of the exotic -- fragrant tropical nights under the stars, or dodging snakes up the Amazon while marveling at Dr. Seuss-like flowers and foliage. It isn't just the blossoms' opulent colors or fabulous shapes, which can echo everything from ducks and donkeys to butterflies and shoes. It's their intrinsic otherness, the sense that orchids have been created purely for the world's wonder and amazement.
"I have a yellow Oncidium 'Sweet Sugar Emperor,' which looks like a cancan dancer," says orchid aficionado Susan Agriopoulos of Tunis Mills in Talbot County. "And I have an Oncidium 'Sharry Baby' that smells like cherries and chocolate and roses, and if you get too close it smells like Robitussin. The flowers, which are burgundy and white and pink, look like little Samurais with huge fat pants."
Although they're wonderful to behold, orchids have also been used medicinally for millenniums. The Greeks ground Orelis maculata tubers to make an aphrodisiac. Native Americans used lady's-slipper orchids to treat everything from skin, lung and urinary tract infections to a wilting love life. And the Tarahumara people of Mexico use Oncidium cebolleta as a religious hallucinogen; orchids are full of alkaloids, which affect the human nervous system and can be highly toxic.
Orchids are the largest group of flowering plants on earth -- more than 20,000 naturally-occurring and 100,000 human-engineered species. They can live in trees, drawing nutrients from bark-enriched rainwater (epiphytic), on rocks (lithophytic), or in earth (terrestrial) and one, the peculiar Australian Rhizonthella, discovered in 1928, even grows underground. They are native to every continent save Antarctica.
"There are about 58 native orchids in Maryland," says Merritt Huntington, owner of Kensington Orchids and a Maryland Orchid Society judge. "All are endangered." No orchid can be legally taken from the wild. All orchids have to be artificially propagated, whether from seed or cloning.
Propagation takes care, and many orchids have finicky tastes. For example, many of Maryland's native lady's-slipper orchids (Cypripedium), which grow in hardwood forests, survive only in conjunction with a particular hardwood forest soil fungus.
Some fanciers say that orchids are demanding to raise. Others insist it's just a matter of finding the right conditions and letting the plant get on with it. One key is to start with a hardy variety.
"The best one for new collectors is Phalaenopsis," says Huntington.
"Phalaenopsis requires the same conditions as an African violet," explains Tom McBride, owner of the Little Green House, an orchid nursery on Harford Road. "They can flower for two to three months or up to eight months. It's not unusual for them to stay in bloom for half the year, [though] they are generally winter-spring plants."
Although orchids in general need humidity, McBride says that Oncidium and slipper (Paphiopedilum) types are reasonably adaptable to dry home environments.
"If orchids are grouped with other plants, the humidity will be naturally higher," says McBride. "Some people have humidifiers or a small pebble tray underneath the plant, but the plant should never sit in water. They prefer 50 percent humidity around them, though rises and drops in humidity aren't bad."
Another relatively easy variety to cultivate is Cattleya, which includes the large corsage orchid.
"Basic Orchids: A Step-by-Step Guide to Growing and General Care" by Isobyl la Croix (Sterling Publishing Group, $11.95) lists specific orchids for a variety of growing conditions.
"The main thing is to buy one from a dealer who knows about orchids," Huntington says. "Talk to the dealer. And get a culture sheet."
3301 Plyers Mill Road
Kensington, Md. 20895
Little Green House
9845 Harford Road
Baltimore, Md. 21234
Maryland Orchid Society
Meets at the First Christian Church on Roland Avenue on the third Thursday of every month except for July and August. For information, call Tom McBride at Little Green House, 410-661-4748.