Garden, gardening, Greenhouse, Philosophy

Live like an Orchid

I was reading a book the other day that mentioned a hothouse. It was a British mystery, and the hothouse did actually play a role… and if you like Brit mysteries I can highly recommend this series which starts with A Man of Some Repute and is set in the Cold-War Era (just don’t bother with her other series, nowhere near the quality of this one).  In it, the main characters are displaced and feel themselves at odds with their surroundings. The hothouse is a minor point, but this morning I was thinking about my phaelenopsis and something gelled in my mind.

Moth orchid, phaelenopsis.

I have two orchids over my kitchen sink. I’ve been fascinated with orchids, just as those Victorians were who built the hothouses so remarked on, since I was a girl. Orchids have a reputation for being delicate, finicky plants who need that sheltered warmth to survive, but the reality is somewhat different. Orchids can and do grow on six continents. I have collected specimens in Alaska and New England, and although most of them are smaller, less noticeable, in the Northern climes, they are still as unusually shaped and interesting as the more showy tropical blooms most people associate with orchids.

It was the phaelenopsis over my sink that got me thinking. One is in bloom, earlier than I had anticipated, and the other one is about to bloom, good timing since it will pop out of bud about the time the first one is spent. I bought both of them from a supermarket, not together, and one was on markdown since it hadn’t been selected by another customer while it was in it’s prime. But here it is, in the little pot it came it, blooming again less than a year after I got it. I haven’t pampered these plants. The opposite, in fact.

This last summer I put them outside with all my other container plants, the Christmas cactus who is a clone from my great-great grandmother’s plant, and the herbs and vegetables. The orchids in their small pots nestled in with the big pots, and one of them blew over in a windstorm to my consternation because it came unpotted and I didn’t know where it had gotten to until I realized it had caught up in another plant while the pot fell to the ground. Put it back in the pot, gave it a little water, and went on. I don’t have time for pampering.

And the orchids rewarded me with blooms this winter. They throve on the benign neglect. I hadn’t abandoned them, just didn’t do more than give them lots of indirect sunshine (they weren’t in the full sun) and understand what they needed. Phaelenopsis are epiphytes in the wild – they cling to a tree trunk, where a bit of organic matter has become wedged, and live on air and sun and water. Like most orchids, they don’t need rich dirt and would most likely die if planted in it. What they do need is a snug pot for their roots and not too much water.

You can kill a plant with over-caring for it. Just like you can damage a person by being over-protective. I have been watching a shift toward a nanny-state, to wanting everything to be made safer, wanting everything to be regulated. So we don’t have to live with the consequences of our actions? I’m not sure what they want, the people who ask for more rules, more regulations, more protections. They are building their hothouses and withdrawing into them, while the reality of sun, wind, and frost is still there. It’s never going away, the reality of setbacks and accidents and mistakes. But if you aren’t prepared to deal with them, you’ll die as fast as a hothouse plant set out with no hardening.

When parents let their children venture out, keeping a watchful but distant eye, they aren’t being neglectful, they are preparing them for a real world. When they step in and do the hard things for their children, not making them learn on their own, you are handicapping them. They need to lean into the wind to develop the strengths that are inherent in them, and sheltering them in safe spaces all their life leaves them weak and unable to deal with the windstorms they will encounter. Not might, will. Hardships come to us all.

Live like an orchid. Not shut up in a hothouse with the mold and windlessness and overheating, but clinging to a place, knowing if you’re blown down, you can send out new rootlets and anchor yourself in place again. Orchids are tough plants, in the wild. Most orchids in the wild have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus, just like I have with my friends. The fungus helps with absorbtion of nutrients, friends help a person adapt and overcome through listening ears, sympathetic words, and sometimes a kick in the butt to do what needs to be done. So while the orchid doesn’t need the hothouse, that doesn’t mean it’s out there in the cold tough world all alone, either.

Don’t let them build that hothouse around you. Spread your leaves to the sun, hang on to your fungus, and bloom hard when you can. Live hard, love hard, be free.