Beating the Summer Doldrums

This is the summary of the talk given by Conrad Coenen at our November 2017 meeting and carried in the December newsletter but, given the long spells of heat and humidity we’ve been having, I thought it might be useful as a ‘front-page’ post.

Conrad was addressing how to care for orchids over summer. Please bear in mind that urban Tauranga has been on water restrictions since December 16 – that means no watering outside the hours of 5am-8am and 7pm-10pm. Read the full details of the restrictions here.

Warmer temperatures: Plants control their temperature by respiration and transpiration. Just as we sweat, the plant gives off moisture from holes (or stomata) on the underside of their leaves. Our task is to provide moisture, shade and air movement as close as possible to their natural habitat.

The shape, texture, and colour of the leaf can give guidance to the placement of the plant in your orchid house – plants with large, soft leaves, usually a lighter green/yellow colour (eg, Lycaste), prefer less heat and lower light levels, while smaller, stronger leaves (eg, terete (pencil) foliage types) can handle heat and drier conditions.

Humidity: Many of the problems around temperature can be solved by raising the moisture levels in your orchid-growing area, be it a shade house, courtyard, shelves against the wall, or in your garden.

Damping down (watering floors, benches or walls) regularly on hot summer afternoons will lessen the stress on your orchids, as will providing shallow trays of water, misting, spraying water on the outside of the orchid house. Try not to ‘water’ your plants too often as the roots need the opportunity to dry out. More orchids are killed by over-watering than anything else. One heavy ‘monsoon’ every 4-5 days will be better than a light water every day. Try to organise your orchids into groups that have the same water requirements – dry, medium and wet, to simplify your watering programme. Air movement is very important, so open vents and doors, buy a fan, or hang and place your orchids outside under trees.

Longer sunlight hours: The greater warmth and longer growing time is used by plants to initiate flowering and the plant will require more watering and food. Our NZ summers and early autumns are generally hot and dry, while the natural habitat of most of our orchids is monsoonal, hot and wet. But as many of these orchids are growing higher in the valleys and hillsides, it is hot during the day and cool at night, which are the perfect conditions (around 15-18C) to develop flower spikes. Many orchids can handle high light levels, but remember NZ’s ‘high UV levels’ and protect from burning afternoon sun. Cymbidiums will definitely produce more flowers outside, but make the change gradually to prevent sunburnt leaves.

Drought: A long, hot summer in a black plastic bag or pot, with little water, will dry out and permanently damage the orchid root system.  This can kill or severely retard growth and the production of new shoots or flowers, setting you back many years.

Desiccation: Hot dry winds will force plants to close stomata, to prevent loss of water, so ensure the wind can collect moisture as it moves around the orchid house (water-filled trays).

Feeding: Conrad advises watering plants the day before feeding them. When the bark and roots are damp there will be no chemical burning to the roots and your fertiliser will go much further. Do remember to water your pots regularly with just plain water to flush out any lingering fertiliser salts.

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Winika orchid

If you go into the bush this summer you might be lucky enough to see a Winika in flower. Native to New Zealand, it is an epiphytic orchid with the sole species Winika cunninghamii (syn Dendrobium cunninghamii). It is commonly found in rainforest in the North, South, Stewart and Chatham islands and usually flowers in summer and early autumn. Its common names are winika, pekapeka (confusingly, also the word for a bat in te reo), Christmas orchid and bamboo orchid (owing to the bamboo-like stems).

Winika cunninghamii was first catalogued by Daniel Solander (who voyaged with Cook and Banks) as Epidendrum pendulum.

Botanist Richard Cunningham (1793-1835) collected a specimen in the Whangaroa area in 1833-34, and it was subsequently named Dendrobium cunninghamii by botanist and orchidologist Professor John LindleyRead more about Richard Cunningham and his botanist brother Alan here.

Australian scientists Mark Clements (M A Clements) and David Jones have more recently (about 2007) removed it to form Winika cunninghamii. Read more about the re-naming of NZ orchids here.

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Winika in bloom in East Harbour Regional Park, Wellington. With a diameter of 2.5cm, the flower is the largest of New Zealand’s epiphytic orchids. Image: Kotare (Wikipedia)

The orchid gave its name to a Waikato war canoe – legend has it that in 1838 once the totara for the hull was felled “masses” of the orchid was found on the tree.

Te Winika, which was buried during the Land Wars, was restored in the 1930s by a team including carving student – and later renowned opera singer – Inia Te Wiata. The waka, again refurbished in 1972, was used ceremonially from 1938 to 1973. Now on display in Waikato Museum, Te Winika was gifted to Hamilton city in 1973 by the Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu.

New Zealand Post released a native orchid miniature sheet to mark the 1990 World Stamp Exhibition in Auckland. Winika was a 40c stamp, alongside the sun orchid (Thelymitra pulchella), spider orchid (Corybas macranthus), greenhood orchid (Pterostylis banksii) and odd leaved orchid (Aporostylis bifolia).

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Te Papa Museum’s Herbarium has various specimens of Winika cunninghamii, several with images.

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Vale Alec Roy

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Alec Roy, pictured in 2013 in his orchid house. He designed and made the terracotta pots so they took up as little room as possible – meaning he could fit in more plants. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Alec Roy, who died on December 22 aged 77, had at various times served Tauranga Orchid Society as president (15 years), secretary and treasurer and in 2017 was a committee member. He was also the ‘brains’ behind many of the annual show displays and those mounted for the national expo, including the 2016 Auckland expo.

Alec joined the Tauranga society in about 1982 having previously been a member of the Otago Orchid Society and shipping his orchids north.

Until his illness Alec and wife Lynley cared for the Bromeliad section at Te Puna Quarry Park and were both also members of the Quarry Park Society and the BOP Bromeliad Group.

Alec was a keen artist in several media, including metal and clay, and enjoyed making art from recycled materials. He had exhibited his work at every Tauranga Garden and Artfest from the event’s beginning in 1996 until the most recent biennial festival in 2016. He took up potting at night school after an early retirement from almost 40 years in banking and was an award-winning member of the Bethlehem Pottery Club.

A man of many, and diverse, talents, Alec had been a longtime Scoutmaster and had also been a keen weightlifter, serving with weightlifting organisations, as well as at one time holding a North Island record. He was also involved with the organisation and running of the weightlifting competition at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games.

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Merry Christmas 2017

Yesterday’s annual Tauranga Orchid Society Christmas lunch was a chance for a good chinwag on a gloriously fine day at Te Puna Quarry Park. Thirty-five members enjoyed a potluck lunch with barbecue sausages cooked by Barry and then a fun exchange of gifts, courtesy of Secret Santa.

Many thanks to the worker bees who made it happen – Conrad, Brian, Barry and Laurie; and the all-important dish-washers and dryers Wilma, Emma, Pam, Rosalie, Libby, Noelene and Winsome. Photos by Sandra.

(And the power cut didn’t affect us one bit. Good work, team.)

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Bob’s beard and cheerful demeanour made him the obvious choice for the Santa hat.

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The cherry trees beside the Gallery created welcome shade and there were plenty of takers. From left, Isobel, Bertha and Dale.

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Audrey (left) and Jan.

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Ute (left) and Elizabeth.

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Erica (left) and Diane.

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Adding to the festive spirit was Jill (right) with her Santa sunglasses, pictured with Jocelyn.

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Winsome and Craig brought their biggest smiles.

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Libby (left) and Avis in conversation.

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Conrad had hoped to win the raffle himself – a canvas photo of Kaiete Falls generously donated by Jocelyn and Bob – but the prize went home with Craig.

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The lunch table – filled with beautiful food and a large bouquet of sweetpeas brought by Dale and Jack.

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Orchid news

Palmerston North is to be the venue for the next New Zealand Orchid Expo in September 2019, jointly hosted by the Manawatu and Hawke’s Bay societies. Well done them! The good news was released this morning by the Orchid Council of NZ.

The Waitakere Orchid Club yesterday won Silver for its display in the Community Gardening tent at the New Zealand Flower and Garden Show, which opened today at the Trusts Arena in west Auckland and runs until Sunday.

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The Silver medal Waitakere Orchid Club display. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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A steam engine emerges from a tunnel …

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… heading for another tunnel. Photos: Sandra Simpson

Tucker’s Orchid Nurseries have a retail sales stand on site.

The NZ Flower and Garden Show is something of a replacement for Ellerslie, which has gone into abeyance in Christchurch, although that city still holds the naming rights for the event. Kate Hillier, director of NZFGS, says it’s been 11 years since Auckland had a major garden show.

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Bouquet fit for a princess

November 20 marks the 70th wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip – and to mark the occasion we’re going to look back at the 1947 wedding bouquet of the then Princess Elizabeth.

Martin Longman, a London florist, submitted five designs to Buckingham Palace. The bouquet chosen was all white, was described as “a modern type”, made up of three kinds of British-grown orchids – Cattleya, Odontoglossum and Cypripedium – and was a gift to the bride from the Worshipful Company of Gardeners.

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Unfortunately, detail of the bouquet is hard to see against the dress.

Among the orchids was a sprig of myrtle from a bush at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s house on the Isle of Wight. The bush had been grown from a piece of myrtle given to Queen Victoria by her husband’s grandmother. A sprig was used in the wedding bouquet of Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, thus beginning a tradition that is still followed.

In 2007 Martin Longman’s son David recalled that his father regarded the wedding bouquet as the pinnacle of his career, despite also making the Coronation bouquet and  wedding bouquets for Princess Margaret and the Duchess of Kent.

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Florist Martin Longman with the bouquet he created for Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, also featuring orchids.

Martin made the bouquet overnight in his shop in Ludgate Hill and delivered it personally to Elizabeth’s apartment at Buckingham Palace on the morning of November 20, 1947. (Bouquets for the eight bridesmaids were made by Moyses Stevens florists using white orchids, lily of the valley, gardenias, white bouvardia, white roses and white nerine. They also wore wreaths in their hair made by Jac Ltd of London using miniature white sheaves, lilies and London Pride, modelled in white satin and silver lame.)

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Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary on November 20, 2017 – setting a new record for British royals.

In stories about the wedding there has always been an acknowledged hiccup when Princess Elizabeth’s wedding bouquet was misplaced before the Westminster Abbey ceremony – a footman had put it in a cold cupboard and forgotten it before, fortunately, remembering!

Besides that, a frantic dash had to be made for the bride’s pearls which had been left elsewhere and her tiara snapped and needed urgent repairs just before the ceremony so it was an eventful day … and it wasn’t over yet.

Princess Elizabeth and Phillip Mountbatten are photographed leaving the church with the bouquet and it’s in official bride-and-groom photos at Buckingham Palace. However, the bride doesn’t hold a bouquet in the wedding group shots – as apparently it had been lost again, this time for good. And there’s a possibility the portrait photos showing her with the bouquet were taken a week later!

In a 2007 story David said that a week after the wedding his father was asked to make an identical bouquet so the bride and groom could be rephotographed as they passed through London after the first part of their honeymoon. No way of knowing if this is what happened, but it’s a curious story – and apparently since the 1947 wedding Buckingham Palace has always ordered two identical bridal bouquets, which adds some credence.

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The silk replica bouquet made for the 2007 60th wedding anniversary exhibition at Buckingham Palace.

For a display at Buckingham Palace to mark the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary, and just as Longman’s was closing its doors for the last time, the mannequin wearing the wedding dress held a silk bouquet made by Martin Longman’s granddaughter Lottie.

According to Terry Simmons who runs the Flowers for Royal Weddings blog , the 1947 bouquet was made by wiring and taping each individual blossom, and sometimes each leaf, separately so the flowers could be manipulated into the desired placement.  ‘This is a very daunting task considering how many individual blooms may be contained in a royal bouquet … [and] it does present some challenges. For instance, since each flower is cut from its stem before wiring/taping, water supply is cut off to the flower, starting the inevitable “death of the flower” process.  Therefore, these bouquets have to be made as “last minute” as possible to ensure they will last through the wedding day schedule.’

Who supplied the orchids for this late autumn/early winter wedding? I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer, but have come across some likely candidates.

McBean’s, established in 1879 and claiming the title of Britain’s oldest orchid nursery, says on its website that it ‘has served the British Royal family with orchids for their homes and weddings for many years’.

Another intriguing reference was to American businessman Clinton McDade. Included in the opening paragraph of a 2012 magazine article about the donation of McDade’s orchid collection, some 5,000 plants, to the College of the Ozarks is: ‘McDade was a successful businessman … [who] became an orchid grower, and his collection grew into two orchid houses, one in England. A selection of his orchids in England were used for the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II.’

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Cattleya Bow Bells. Image: Chadwick Orchids

Mr McDade brought the white-flowered Cattleya Bow Bells to the attention of the American Orchid Society in 1945 – he had purchased a number of unflowered seedlings from Black & Flory nursery in Slough, England and when they began to flower the AOS went mad, scattering awards like confetti. (Black & Flory was the result of the famed Veitch nursery selling off its orchid section. It operated until the 1960s.)

Why does C. Bow Bells get a mention? Because it is an autumn/winter-flowering plant and so there’s the possibility, perhaps remote but still, it might have been the Cattleya used in the royal wedding bouquet.

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Orchid Fancier: Nero Wolfe

American crime writer Rex Stout (1886-1975) penned a series of books featuring the overweight and eccentric New York private detective Nero Wolfe, a dedicated orchid grower with 10,000 plants in growing rooms on the rooftop of his brownstone building. He visits the plants twice a day, 2 hours at a time, and employs a gardener.

By Rex Stout*

Wolfe’s flowers go all the way from the showiest to the shyest. He has a Cattleya hybrid, bred by him, which threw its first flower last year, that is twice as gaudy as anything you ever saw in a florist shop, and he has a Cymbidium hybrid, ensifolium x Sanderae, bred by him in 1953, so coy that it makes one little flower each year: off-white, the size of a dime, hidden down in the foliage. Once I saw him scowling at it and muttering, “Confound you, are you too timid or too proud?”

If he ever talks to himself he keeps it strictly private, but I have often heard him talk to orchids. He’ll cock his head at a bench of Miltonias in full bloom and say distinctly, “Much too loud. Why don’t you learn to whisper?” Not that he ever whispers.

Wolfe started on orchids many years ago with a specimen plant of Vanda suavis, given to him by the wife of a man he had cleared on a murder rap. He kept it in the office and it petered out. He got mad, built a little shed on the roof and bought 20 plants. Now the plant rooms are 34 feet x 86 feet, the size of the house. He hasn’t bought a plant from a commercial grower for 10 years, but he sells some – 100 or more a year.

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Not much can get Wolfe to leave his home, but a rare black orchid lures him to a flower show (Black Orchids, 1942). Unfortunately, the event is overshadowed by a murder.

Of the four hours a day he spends up in the plant rooms – 9 to 11 in the morning and 4 to 6 in the afternoon – not more than 20 minutes is spent looking at flowers. First he makes a tour through the aisles, which are 30 inches wide instead of the usual two feet – the tropical room, the intermediate, and the cool – and then on to the potting room. He nods to Theodore, the gardener, and says, “Well?”. Theodore says either, “Well enough”, or something like, “A pod of Coelogyne will be ready in two days”.

Then work. It may be real work, like bringing a dozen old plants from one of the rooms for dividing and repotting, or opening a bale of osmunda fibre and inspecting it; or it may be merely getting a tape and going to the cool room to measure the panicles of Odontoglossums. It can be any of the thousand chores that orchids take –  mixing fertiliser, labelling, presoaking new pots, checking ventilation and humidity, adjusting shade screens, stripping bulb sheaths, chipping charcoal, and so forth, forever and ever with no amen. Except spraying. Wolfe hates it, and Theodore does it when he’s not there.

Of course, most of the chores are for breeding, not growing. Buying a dozen or so orchid plants and keeping them going and blooming in a house or apartment is no trick at all, but hybridising is a career. Usually an orchid flower is both male and female, so deciding on father and mother is up to Nero Wolfe. Having cross-pollinated, he waits seven months to a year for the seed pod to mature and ripen. A large pod will have a million or more seeds. They are among the smallest of all plant seeds.

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Despite the cover, the first Nero Wolfe mystery published in 1934 is centred on golf.

The preparations in a hospital operating room for an appendectomy are nothing compared to the fuss of planting a batch of orchid seed. What Wolfe has to keep out is fungus. If one microscopic fungus cell gets in a bottle with the seed, it goes to work on the nutrient jelly in which the infant flower is planted, and goodbye seed. If he does it right and is lucky, in nine or 10 months he scoops the tiny half-inch seedlings out of the bottle and plants them in community pots. A year later he transplants them to individual three-inch pots and in another two years to 4½-inch pots, and crosses his fingers. Then five or six or seven years since the day he put pollen to stigma, he sees an orchid no one ever saw before. It is different from any orchid that has ever bloomed, including those in the Garden of Eden. The differences may be very slight, or there may be flaws, but about once in every five times his orchid will be worthy of dad and mom, and there is one chance in 10,000 that it will be a absolute stunner. Since he has seen only a fraction of the many thousands of named and listed hybrids, he can’t be sure until the day some grower takes a long hard look at his baby and says casually, “Interesting little plant. I’ll give you $400 for it”. Then he’ll know that in a few years orchid catalogues will list one more named for him, or at least by him.

In the past 20 years Nero Wolfe has had that happen 14 times, and he has on his benches a total of 112 unnamed varieties bred by him and good enough to keep. Okay, that’s very satisfactory, and it’s one of the reasons he grow orchids; but it’s not the main one. He grows orchids chiefly for the same reason that he wears bright yellow shirts: for the colour.

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The novella published in 1941 that the next year was extended and renamed Black Orchids.

I said he spends only 20 minutes of the 4 hours looking at flowers, but that’s a lot. Anyway he gets some special kind of kick from colour. He says you don’t look at colour, you feel it, and apparently he thinks that really means something.

It doesn’t to me, but maybe it does to you and you know exactly how he feels as he opens the door to the plant rooms and walks in on the big show. I have never known a day when less than a hundred plants were in bloom, and sometimes there are a thousand, from the pure white of dainty little Dendrobium nobile virginalis to the yellow-tan-bronze-mahogany-purple of big and gaudy Laelia tenebrosa. It is unquestionably worth a look – or, if you react the same way Wolfe does, a feel.

One question I don’t know the answer to and can only guess at is why he cuts the ones he brings down to the office every morning for the vase on his desk. Why not bring the plant, since then the flowers would be good for another week or more? Because he would have to take it back up again? No; he could just add that to my daily chores. Because he thinks that particular spike or raceme has been around long enough? No; sometimes it will be a very special item, like the dwarf Vanda with green dots that a commercial grower offered him $1,200 for. Because he hates to carry things? That could be, but he carries plenty of them from the growing rooms to the potting rooms and back again. The best guess is that he doesn’t want to give a plant a shadow of an excuse not to go on blossoming at peak efficiency. If a Zygopetalum has a cluster of eight flowers this year, and next year only six, he could blame it on the day in the office – not enough light and the temperature and humidity wrong; and although you can say pfui to an orchid plant, and Wolfe often does, there’s no real satisfaction in it.

How does he decide each morning which one he will cut for his desk vase that day? I have had various theories, but none of them has stood up. One was that it depended on the bank balance. If the balance was high, say 50 grand, he would pick something extra flashy; if it was low, down to four figures, it would be something subdued like a brown speckled Dendrobium. That theory lasted three days. When I told him about it he grunted and said, “The flower a woman chooses depends on the woman. The flower a man chooses depends on the flower.”

*This article was originally published in Life magazine on April 19, 1963 and is available online.

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Published in 1949, The Second Confession sees a gangster try to intimidate Wolfe by shooting out the windows of his orchid rooms.

Wolfe had once remarked to me that the orchids were his concubines: insipid, expensive, parasitic and temperamental. He brought them, in their diverse forms and colours, to the limits of their perfection, and then gave them away; he had never sold one.

— Archie Goodwin in The League of Frightened Men (1935).

Entering from the stairs via a vestibule, there were three main rooms in the orchid house — one for cattleyas, laelias, and hybrids; one for odontoglossums, oncidiums, miltonias, and their hybrids; and a tropical room (according to Fer-de-Lance). It must have been quite a sight with the angle-iron staging gleaming in its silver paint and on the concrete benches and shelves 10,000 pots of orchids in glorious, exultant bloom.

— Dr John H Vandermeulen writing in the American Orchid Society Bulletin, February 1985, ‘Nero Wolfe — Orchidist Extraordinaire’.

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The Father Hunt was published in 1968.

“If Wolfe had a favourite orchid, it would be the genus Phalaenopsis,” Robert M. Hamilton wrote in his article, ‘The Orchidology of Nero Wolfe’, first printed in The Gazette: Journal of the Wolfe Pack (Volume 1, Spring 1979). Phalaenopsis is mentioned in 11 Wolfe stories, and Phalaenopsis Aphrodite in seven — more than any other species. Wolfe personally cuts his most treasured Phalaenopsis Aphrodite for a dinner table centerpiece in Poison à la Carte (contained in a 1960 collection). In The Father Hunt (1968), after Dorothy Sebor provides information that solves the case, Wolfe tells Archie, “We’ll send her some sprays of Phalaenopsis Aphrodite. They have never been finer.”

Wolfe rarely sells his orchids — but he does give them away. Four or five dozen are used to advance the investigation in Murder by the Book (1951), and Wolfe refuses to let Archie bill the client for them. In The Final Deduction (1961), Laelia purpurata and Dendrobium chrysotoxum are sent to Dr Vollmer and his assistant, who shelter Wolfe and Archie when they have to flee the brownstone to avoid police.

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