Orchid Mania

Green thumbs create splendor in the glass.

It all started with a Lady Slipper orchid and the foundation of a greenhouse in the backyard of a midtown home. "It was a perfect combination," says Charles Wilson, retired director of the Memphis Zoo. "I restored that greenhouse and got into orchids big-time."

Over the past 30 years, since a friend gave him the Lady Slipper, Wilson, with help from his wife, Susan, has acquired some 500 orchids representing at least 80 countries. (There's also a euphorbia, a type of African cactus. "I've had it 32 years," says Wilson. "Longer than I've had my wife.")

When the Wilsons moved from midtown to a farm in Millington, the orchids went with them, flourishing for 10 years on windowsills. Then one day Susan said, "I want my windows back," and she gave her husband an 8-by-14-foot greenhouse. "Do you think it will be big enough?" she asked him. "Certainly," he replied. Three years later he emptied that full-to-bursting structure and gave it to his father-in-law.

Today, in the backyard of their Hernando, Mississippi, home, Wilson tends a 14-by-20-foot fiberglass-and-aluminum greenhouse equipped with a misting system that "rains" on the orchids each morning in the growing season, generally March to September. In addition to the mister, Wilson has installed an evaporative cooler that maintains the right temperature and humidity. And like any wise greenhouse owner, Wilson owns a backup generator, which he uses at home when the power goes out, and on the road when he and Susan pack up their motor home — or "orchid mobile" — and go to shows sponsored by the Memphis Orchid Society.

For anyone considering a greenhouse, which you can buy in kits or build yourself, Wilson ticks off three points to remember: Choose a locale with plenty of sun. Know the minimum high and low temperatures your choice of plants will require, and, perhaps most important, know how you want to grow the plants: on shelves, in hanging baskets, or both. "This will tell you the size, height, and insulation requirements," says Wilson. To accommodate hanging baskets, Wilson had a three-foot wall built and moved the greenhouse on top of it, raising the height to 11-feet-6-inches.

Brimming with facts about his favorite flower family, Wilson tells the story behind the best-known orchid, the Cattleya. John Cattley, a nineteenth-century British plant grower, had ordered some ornamental plants from Brazil. Mixed with them as packing material were other small plants, plucked from the jungle floor. "During the long sea voyage," says Wilson, "these smaller plants grew spikes. And months later, when the people opened the crates, they found orchids in bloom. Which just goes to show you, orchids are one tough plant."

Tough, yes. And also very "specialized," adds Wilson. "Each species — more than 25,000 of them — is pollinated by a different species of bee. Every bloom has a different shape, so it stands to reason that a different insect will fit in that shape." To help Mother Nature, since many of the bees required for pollinating orchids aren't native to this country, orchid growers pollinate with toothpicks, lifting the pollen from one flower and putting it on the stigmatic surface of another. This process can produce hundreds of thousands of tiny seeds and some eventually become hybrids.

Some of Wilson's hybrids have been "awarded," that is, selected as the best of their kind in the nation. To the "awarded" plants, growers are allowed to attach their names — in Wilson's case, "Chasus," which stands for Charles and Susan.

Wilson credits another orchid grower and the Memphis Orchid Society's historian, Dr. Fenwick Chappell, for much of what he's learned about their mutual hobby. Chappell has two 8-by-12-foot greenhouses in his midtown backyard, and about 500 orchids in all. Words of advice: "Don't let them sit in water. And don't plant them in soil. Plant them in chopped fir bark mixed with charcoal and perlite, so the water can drain rapidly."

And, Chappell adds, accept the fact that some won't make it — "An expert once said, you can tell a professional orchidist by how many plants he's killed" — although the specimens in his and Wilson's greenhouses are lush and thriving.

One last fact makes this flower especially appealing. Says Wilson: "Every month of the year, there's an orchid in bloom." M

for information go to www.memphisorchids.org.


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