In the Garden

By staff October 1, 2004

Flamboyant and fabulous, more graceful than other plants yet prized for their quirky humor and extraordinarily fanciful shapes, orchids are the sophisticates of the horticultural kingdom. Often mistakenly thought of as temperamental beauties that required the ultimate in kid-glove care, they are in fact the undemanding divas of the garden.

Ask anyone who becomes attached to them and they'll tell you: Orchids (Orchidaceae) are much more than botanical curiosities- they are an intoxicating way of life. Paul Van Helden caught what he lovingly calls "orchid fever" by accident. It began with one plant five years ago. Paul had always given his wife Carolyn flowers for her birthday. "Of course, they would only live for a few days," he explains. "One of my sons had been raising orchids for awhile, and his interest got me going. An orchid seemed like a good idea." Little did Van Helden know how appropriate his choice of a gift was: Legend has it that orchids represent a deep inner need and desire to keep a romantic relationship gentle and thoughtful.

"My big mistake was to start visiting nurseries brimming with a plethora of orchids, one more spectacular than the next," he says. "Before I knew it I got the fever. Their care is actually quite simple. Love them, but don't love them to death." Today the Van Heldens' Siesta Key garden is home to more than 300 orchids, casting their colorful sprays from oaks and palm trees (orchids are epiphytes and often grow in trees) and basking in the nurturing environment of a 500-square-foot greenhouse.

Arthur Lopes, the chef/owner of Zoria, says he has been "a confirmed addict" since his very first encounter with orchids in 1999, when a friend introduced him to Karen Harper's nursery, Orchid Mania, in Myakka City. Harper has had an infatuation with orchids since her husband Jack presented her with six plants as a gift many years ago. Since her initiation to the exotic beauties, her passion has blossomed into more than 50,000 orchids in 15,000 square feet of nursery greenhouses. "When I saw their loveliness and diversity I was hooked," says Lopes. "Karen helped me to identify the varieties from cattleyas to dendrobiums, oncidiums, phalaenopsis, and vandas, and taught me about their specific needs. "

For Lopes, orchids are a relaxing diversion from the demands of his job and a never-ending source of pleasure. "They add so much to the garden," he says, pointing out brilliant clusters arching gracefully under the dappled light of tangerine, orange and grapefruit trees. "I often bring a number of them to the restaurant when they are in full bloom. That way I can enjoy them both at home and at work. Once you understand their requirements they are very easy to care for."

"Growing these fascinating plants is less of a challenge than getting to recognize the different species of this extraordinarily diverse family," agrees John Beckner, curator of the Orchid Identification Center at Sarasota's Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and an accredited judge of the American Orchid Society for 36 years. The area's orchid aficionados draw upon the resources of world-renowned Selby Gardens for advice on plant care and the opportunity to enjoy its collection of rare orchids from around the world.

"Except for a few areas, orchids grow in almost every part of the world from Siberia to the southern tip of South America and range in sizes from minute [microscopic pinheads] to majestic, with large showy blossoms towering 20 feet high," says Beckner. "The incredible variety of wild and hybrids {25,000 named wild species and 150,000 hybrids] and the beauty and curious character of the flowers offer an inexhaustible choice and hold a lifetime attraction. Not all orchids have the same growing requirements. Once you identify the plant, you can identify its needs. Generally speaking, most respond very well to a weekly dose of a soluble fertilizer at a fraction of the recommended strength, moderate light shade, and watering when dried. "

Orchid Mania's Harper concurs. "While easy to please, orchids do best in a warm, moist environment. Cattleyas, dendrobiums and oncidiums are best suited for outside in warm weather and need light. Phalaenopsis make an ideal houseplant as they only require watering at five- to 10- day intervals and indirect light. Vandas, on the other hand, like humidity and a high degree of light and do not respond well to indoor conditions. Another aspect to consider is that although not every variety is fragrant, the aromatic ones mimic fruit, spice, even chocolate scents with uncanny accuracy. That's a wonderful bonus for both the garden and the home." 


Orchid enthusiasts can feed their fever at the annual Sarasota Orchid Society Show and Plant Sale, this year moving to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Thousands of plants will be displayed, many of them for purchase. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 29 and 30, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 811 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota. For more information, contact Selby Gardens at (941) 366-5731 or

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