There's Something About an Orchid

Don’t be scared away by its reputation for being difficult to grow: If you choose the right variety for your home, you’ll surely see an orchid blooming inside this winter.

It was late in the afternoon of the last day of the old year, and Wendy Oliver agreed to meet me at Frosty Hollow, her greenhouse on Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs. Entering the greenhouse was like coming into spring. Soft lavenders, brilliant yellows, pale and vivid pinks – color was everywhere: in hanging baskets, in pots on counters and ladders, large and impressive, small and delicate, often hidden behind the hanging strands of Spanish moss. It was beginning to get dark when I finally made up my mind to take home a deep purple Phalaenopsis (fayl-eh-NOP-siss), an orchid with many buds, promising blossoms for a long, long time, and considered easier to grow than some.

Different kinds of orchids are found all over the world, and about 150 species are native to North America. Many varieties come from tropical regions in Asia and Central and South America, where they live in the rich humus of the forest floor. More, however, grow on trees in their native habitat, where there’s light, and wind provides air circulation. They grow in tropical rain forests around the world, as well as in alpine meadows, bogs, and desert areas, at sea level and in mountains 14,000 feet high. One aquatic species lives in water but holds its flowers above the water line; another species blooms entirely underground.

 Contrary to some stories, they are not parasites, and they are not carnivores. (The insects that disappear into the long throats of some species come out covered with pollen to bring to the next orchids to be visited, and thus pollinated.) Orchid sizes go to extremes – from miniatures a half-inch high to massive plants four and five feet tall. Six wild orchids, including the pink lady-slipper, grow on the Vineyard and are considered rare and endangered.
People have been growing orchids for hundreds of years. The ancient Greeks connected orchids with virility. The Aztecs in Mexico combined vanilla, which comes from tropical orchid seeds, with ground cacao to create a drink promising power and strength. Some Chinese believe that the seeds of the orchid plant can cure lung illnesses and coughs.

Tales of intrigue and adventure in the search for rare exotic orchid plants have captivated people through the years. Books and movies make orchids somehow mysterious, maybe even dangerous. Remember Susan Orlean’s best seller The Orchid Thief and its sister movie Adaptation? Or the novel by the Island’s own Cynthia Riggs, The Cranefly Orchid Murders, about a rare orchid that, by its presence on the land, saved a large property from development?

In the early nineteenth century, wealthy individuals in England, seeing the plant as a symbol of luxury and status, financed collecting expeditions to equatorial regions around the world. Since these colorful, exotic plants came from the tropics, people thought they must need hot, steamy, dark growing conditions. Despite efforts to duplicate these conditions, thousands of the beautiful plants died. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, plant enthusiasts had enough experience to know that, basically, orchids require what people require: light, water, and good air circulation.

Today, orchids are more available, but they have a reputation as a plant almost impossible for the average person to raise successfully. Success comes with knowing your own home conditions and selecting an orchid that will thrive there. Some orchids thrive in warm locations; others need the cold. Some do well with full sun; others like filtered light. The Vineyard is home to several knowledgeable orchid growers with extensive experience with and love of these plants. They offer a wide variety of orchids and are willing to take the time to help potential buyers select just the right orchid for their home conditions.

Over the years, Wendy Oliver’s collection of orchids expanded beyond what her house could hold, so about ten years ago, she and her sister, Chris Arenburg, built a greenhouse. What started out as a “fun hobby” grew and grew. Several years ago they built a second greenhouse; in all, they have more than one hundred plants of varying shades and shapes, sizes and colors. “Each orchid was so unique, so special, that it became my favorite of the moment, and I didn’t want to think about parting with it. But reality reared its head in the form of the expense of heating the greenhouses, and I began to sell my orchids at the Farmer’s Market in the summer,” says Wendy. She has the best selection of their orchids for sale at the greenhouse, though, and Frosty Hollow orchids are available at SBS and Morrice Florist in Tisbury.

In the tropical greenhouse at Donaroma’s in Edgartown, Mariko Kawaguchi presides over hundreds of varieties of orchids, plus Bromeliads, palms, ferns, and other plants that need warm temperatures. Twenty years ago she came to the Vineyard seeking a change from the summer heat of Baltimore and a change from her previous career as a commercial photographer. She combines growing and breeding experience with a flair for artistic design. Decorators looking for the right color to match or to complement a fabric come to her, as do individuals starting with their first orchid and serious orchid lovers with their own greenhouses.

To find success in parenting an orchid, both Mariko and Wendy emphasize the need to know your own house – which basically means the light and temperature. They talk to the possible purchaser of an orchid to find out something about the home conditions: Is the thermostat set for the high sixties to seventies? Or is the house likely to be cool, going down into the fifties at night? Are there sunny windows? When they know something about the house conditions, growers are better able to advise potential buyers.

My Phalaenopsis orchid has a reputation for being easier to grow because it needs a warm to intermediate temperature – 60 to 70 degrees during the day and 10 degrees cooler at night – comfortable for most households. The plant also needs bright, filtered light, as opposed to direct sun. At the cold end of the spectrum, Mariko mentions the popular Cymbidium (sym-BID-ee-um) orchid, noting it is harder to grow. It originated in the cool, mountainous regions of Asia and requires a lower temperature to bloom, so a garage with a temperature of approximately 40 to 50 degrees at night and a window with bright outdoor light would be right. Mariko says that if you can leave your Christmas cactus outdoors in April and bring it back in the house in October, watering and fertilizing as needed, the same regimen would work for Cymbidiums.

There is a very good reason that orchid shows take place in late winter and into spring. Most orchids bloom then, though there are several varieties that bloom in the fall and early winter. The colorful blossoms can last one to two months or longer, given the right amount of light, humidity, and water. Generally, orchids bloom only once a year, but there are some species that can bloom more often, and a few that are in flower most of the year.

In addition to being difficult to grow, orchids have a reputation for being expensive. Price depends on many things, including rarity, pot, and presentation, but Mariko compares the price of an orchid with the price of a dozen long-stemmed roses. Of course, for the same price, the orchid will give you flowers for weeks, long after the roses have wilted and been discarded. Also, despite Islanders’ claims that everything costs more on Martha’s Vineyard, after a buying trip to New York, Mariko says that, on the whole, orchids were pricier in the city.

You can buy cheaper ones at places like Home Depot and even some grocery stores off-Island. However, the plants are generally mass-produced in Florida or South America and shipped north, where they must struggle to acclimate to the cooler, drier climate. Better to buy a plant grown in a New England greenhouse, already acclimatized to our weather, and to buy from a person who will take the time to help you select the orchid that will thrive in your home and give you blooms for a long period of time.

The world of orchids is continually changing. More than 30,000 wild species have been named, and there are over 60,000 hybrids that growers have developed and named. Species are plants from nature, untouched by man. Hybrids are those plants that have been cultured by humans to create a different color, size, or a totally different plant. The number of hybrids continues to grow as plant hybridizers cross different species.

David Geiger, a sculptor who lives in Chilmark, nurses an impressive orchid hobby. He has registered a number of hybrids with the Royal Horticultural Society in London, and some have been named after family and friends; a successful pink hybrid was named in honor of singer-songwriter Carly Simon. He is also interested in breeding a miniature version of a Southeastern Asian lady-slipper called a Paphiopedilum (paff-ee-oh-PED-ih-lum). David raises more plants than he can keep and sells some of his overflow to Heather Gardens in West Tisbury.

Everybody, it seems, is curious about orchids – if not about the idea of owning one, at least to the extent of admiring them at orchid shows. The former Martha’s Vineyard Orchid Society, now called the Cape and Islands Orchid Society (CAIOS), meets in Falmouth monthly on the second Sunday of the month (except in summer), and sponsors an orchid show in January. (For more information, visit

Visiting an orchid show is a great way to learn about these magnificent plants, and it takes great restraint not to go home with at least one. Now that I’ve had success with my purple Phalaenopsis, I want to get a gleaming white and a brilliant yellow.  And I’m tempted to give my favorite cousin a gift of an orchid for her birthday. Mine bloomed throughout the winter, bringing joy every time I looked at it. A pleasure I want to share.