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Amherst Orchid Club takes mystery out growing the temperamental bloom

  • Maryanne Laukaitis holds an SC.Crystelle Smith 'Aileen'. <br/> JERREY ROBERTS
  • Maryanne Laukaitis stands beneath a Laelia Anceps in her greenhouse at home in Sunderland Thursday, Feb. 14.JERREY ROBERTS
  • Paphiopedilum Donna Hanes 'PA' X Alex Szabo '#5' <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Adaglossum 'Summit' 'French Town' <br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Zygopetalum Mackayii<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Brassavola Memoria Bernice Foster<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • SC.Crystelle Smith 'Aileen'<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Orchids can be seductive. Their exotic blooms evoke warm climates such as tropical isles and rainforests — even though not all orchids originate in the tropics. Orchids come in myriad colors and shapes, and different kinds require surprisingly different growing conditions.

There will be temptations galore to admire and to buy at the annual show of the Amherst Orchid Society Saturday and Sunday at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. (See box Page C2.)

The show features a central display mounted by the local orchid society, and orchestrated by Maryanne Laukaitis of Sunderland and Marc Gray of Vermont. In addition, there will be smaller displays by other orchid societies and vendors. There will be demonstrations on orchid care and plenty of orchids to buy.

Laukaitis says she never expected to grow orchids.

When her husband, Mike Walunas, a woodworker, built a small lean-to greenhouse on their early 19th-century home about a dozen years ago, she wasn’t thinking about orchids. “I envisioned citrus and jasmine,” she said, plants with lovely scents. Her previous experience with orchids had ended in disaster after a friend sent her one from Hawaii.

“I had no idea how to take care of it,” she said.

Now she believes she killed the plant with kindness by overwatering it. “That’s the No. 1 reason why any plant dies,” she explained. “Orchids seemed like a big pain.”

However, a friend at the University of Massachusetts Amherst kept urging her to accept a gift of an orchid from her own greenhouse.

Finally, after six or seven refusals, Laukaitis reluctantly agreed to take the plant. She came home from her friend’s house with a cattleya, which she later identified as ‘Land of Enchantment’. She was enchanted. Today she has perhaps 100 plants in her greenhouse that measures 9 feet by 12 feet, and most of them are orchids. She primarily grows cool-loving orchids but she also has Vandas and Phalaenopsis, which prefer warmer temperatures. Her original ‘Land of Enchantment’ plant measures 4 feet across and may be blooming in time for the show this weekend.

Sharing tips

Although Laukaitis fell in love with orchids, she says at first she was frustrated trying to grow them. Then she joined the Amherst Orchid Society, which holds monthly meetings.

“Every month they have some informational thing and you learn,” she said. Among the experienced growers are Bill Hutchinson of Larch Hill Orchids in Amherst and Roger West of Conway. “When Roger and Bill speak, I always pay attention. They give pretty good advice.”

Attending shows is another great way to learn, she says. “When people come to our show they bring their problems.” There will be fact sheets available for purchase, and club members and vendors can offer advice about how to care for the types of orchids.

“You can tell the club members are super-enthusiastic because a whole group will gather around to analyze the problem,” Laukaitis said, adding that it’s important to do your research before buying an orchid.

“Pick something for which you can provide the right environment. Find out where it grows and what conditions it needs,” she said. Many can be grown on sunny windowsills so a greenhouse is not essential, she says, but plant choices will be greater if yo have one. Laukaitis recommends a lean-to greenhouse attached to a house, rather than a free-standing one. The greenhouse benefits from the shelter of the main house and heating it is much easier and less expensive, she said.

Hot air heat can be a problem for house plants, especially orchids. “Humidity — that is the key,” Laukaitis explained. At first she simply splashed water from a small hose on her plants every day, which was possible because the floor is concrete.

However, her husband had a brainstorm. Walunas installed a misting system, placing plastic tubing along the glass ceiling panes to which he attached “these cute little” misters, she said. Now she closes the door to the adjacent kitchen and turns on the misting system at least once a day.

On a sunny day the temperature in the greenhouse can rise into the 80s, she says, and at night it can fall as low as 40. That drop in temperature is critical for good blooms, Laukaitis says. Often orchids fail to bloom because they need that dramatic temperature change to initiate flower buds.

Adaptations

Another method of coaxing some types of orchids to bloom is to provide a prolonged dry spell, imitating natural conditions in the rainforest. For instance, in Thailand, home to many splendid orchids, there is no rain from November until March or April. Then the heavens open in April and monsoons descend for months, flooding the rainforest.

Orchids have adapted to such conditions, especially those that live in trees, and are called epiphytes. They endure without soil, their roots getting drenched by the monsoons daily and then drying out until the next storm. They are accustomed to being dry for months at a time.

Not all orchids, however, come from the rainforest. A beautiful hanging orchid in Laukaitis’ greenhouse is Laelia anceps, which is growing on a wooden log. It has stunning purple and white blossoms and comes from the Mexican desert, so it is accustomed to wide variations in temperature between night and day as well as erratic water. Growing next to the Laelia is Sc. Crystelle Smith ‘Aileen’ in a wooden basket. This small plant has lovely sunset-colored flowers.

Not all orchids are epiphytes, either. Paphiopedilum and Cymbidium orchids are terrestrial plants, growing in the ground in nature. If an orchid is languishing, it may be in the wrong kind of pot or growing medium, Laukaitis said.

A quick glance at the orchids in her greenhouse reveals plants in clay pots, plastic pots, mounted on logs or bark slabs or growing in wooden baskets. She has carefully chosen each method based on observation.

“Half of gardening is observation. ... Orchids let you know what they want,” she said. Those that like moisture will grow in plastic pots. The ground dwellers like to grow in soil, actually a mix of soil, ground bark and perlite. “This provides more aeration than strict soil,” Laukaitis explained.

She added that many people forget that roots absorb oxygen and epiphytes require a great deal of oxygen because they are growing in air, not soil. If grown in pots of soil, their roots may rot.

Laukaitis puts her plants outdoors for the summer, where she gives them extra food and water. She withholds fertilizer in the winter, and when the plants are resting. When she does feed the plants she uses a mixture that includes nitrogen from ammonia.

She tries not to use pesticides but insects can be a problem, especially mealy bugs and scale. When necessary she uses Neem oil or horticultural soap with alcohol.

Lots to love

Orchids can be challenging to grow in our dry houses, Laukaitis says, but they reward us with their long-lasting blooms. And, she adds, they come in such a variety of colors and shapes, leaf arrangements, growing conditions and scents that they can be appreciated at many levels.

Zygopetalum mackayi, for example, is lavender with little green and maroon spots. Another of Laukaitis’ favorites is Adaglossum Summit ‘Frenchtown’, with unusual burgundy and orange blooms. Some orchids will stay in flower for as long as six months before taking a rest.

Laukaitis has two forms of Paphiopedilum. One has fairly tall stems with medium-sized greenish flowers. The other with large yellow blooms is ‘Donna Hanes PA x Alex Szabo #5’. Yes, orchids have rather complicated names. Some are simple species like Laelia anceps but others, like the hybrid Paphiopedilum, have long names because they are crosses between two parent plants.

Another of her plants is a Brassavola with pale yellow and pinkish starlike blooms. Its thin foliage is succulent but quite different from the usual thick leaves rising from pseudo bulbs in other species. Laukaitis says the plant, BL Memoria Bernice Foster, “is tough as nails. You can burn it or you can freeze it. You can dry it out or drown it.”

A very different plant is Dendrochilum, with a mass of grass-like foliage and hundreds of arching sprays of cream-colored tiny flowers. You can’t even see the distinctive orchid shape of the blossoms without a magnifying glass. Laukaitis say that the flowers mimic the shape of an insect that is necessary for pollinating. The male insect thinks the flower is a female partner, but instead of finding love, he ends up pollinating the flowers.

Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at valleygardens@comcast.net.

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