Wednesday Weed – Moth Orchid

Moth Orchid (Phalaenopsis sp)

Dear Readers, until fairly recently orchids were strange, exotic things, desperately expensive and the preserve of the very rich. And then, suddenly, they were everywhere: in the plant sections of supermarkets, in garage forecourts, on top of the upturned crates in front of the local all-night shops. But we’d better make the most of them, because I read an article earlier this week that suggests that the heyday of the cheap orchid is going to end very abruptly.

Phalaenopsis or moth orchids come from a swathe of India and the rest of south east Asia, with many species in Indonesia and the Philippines, and some in Papua New Guinea and Australia. They are epiphytes (they live on other trees) or lithophytes (which live on rocks) and they are pollinated by a variety of bees and moths, although they don’t provide nectar – many are thought to resemble female insects, and so the males rush in and attempt to mate, getting dusted with pollen in the process.

Producing flowers is extremely expensive for the plant, and so one species of Phalaenopsis recycles the flowers once they’re pollinated and turns them into leaves instead, which is a near trick if you can pull it off.

Phalaenopsis with flowers turning to leaves 

In general, moth orchids have proved to be pretty tolerant in the conditions in your average house. They are tropical species so would probably prefer us to keep our houses a bit warmer, they like high humidity but seem to be able to cope without, and they thrive in relatively low light, ideal for that bathroom shelf or darkish patch in the corner of the living room. However, they must be kept at at least 60 F, and herein lies the rub. In an article by journalist and scientist James Wong in The Guardian this week, he reports being taken to a Dutch bulb grower who was shutting up shop after decades of flower-growing. He walks through a room where there are no less than two million orchids in a steamy room the size of an aircraft hangar. This is where the plants that are bought in their thousands every week are not only grown, but also propagated – every week there seem to be new varieties and new colours.

However, the rising costs of energy are thought to be about to put at least half of all orchid growers in the Netherlands, the epicentre of the potted plant, out of business. An orchid can sell to a supermarket for a euro, but cost five euros to raise.

I’ll leave the summing up to James Wong. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

I have always been torn about plant prices. On one hand, the drive to make plants cost ever less has meant the increasing dominance of a few industry giants that stock an ever-more narrow range of mass-produced offerings. On the other hand, it has meant that species such as moth orchids have been turned from collector’s item for the wealthy to something within reach of almost anyone at supermarket checkouts.

However, the downside of this is, much like fast fashion, these artificially low prices have created a throwaway culture where once-prized plants are just binned when they stop flowering. With the current cost of living crisis, it’s difficult to argue that we should all be paying more for luxuries like plants, yet it’s years of undervaluing their true cost that has got us to a very precarious place. While the knock-on effects haven’t been seen on our shelves yet, maybe over the next few months we will begin to learn to truly appreciate these everyday wonders.” James Wong

It is possible to bring orchids back into flower again, as my Mum could testify. There are different techniques, but the plants often need a bit of a rest before they decide it’s time to get going again. As with so many flowering household plants though, I suspect that many of them end up in the bin once they’ve ‘gone over’. Maybe, as they become rarer and the price goes up, we’ll give the ones that we have a little more tender loving care.

Phalaenopsis hieroglyphica.

And of course, here is a poem. Jackie Kay is a Scottish poet, who was adopted as a baby and who met her mother much later in life. I love this, and it deserves a couple of readings. See what you think.

Keeping Orchids by Jackie Kay

The orchids my mother gave me when we first met
are still alive, twelve days later. Although

some of the buds remain closed as secrets.
Twice since I carried them back, like a baby in a shawl,

from her train station to mine, then home. Twice
since then the whole glass carafe has crashed

falling over, unprovoked, soaking my chest of drawers.
All the broken waters. I have rearranged

the upset orchids with troubled hands. Even after
that the closed ones did not open out. The skin

shut like an eye in the dark; the closed lid.
Twelve days later, my mother’s hands are all I have.

Her voice is fading fast. Even her voice rushes
through a tunnel the other way from home.

I close my eyes and try to remember exactly:
a paisley pattern scarf, a brooch, a navy coat.

A digital watch her daughter was wearing when she died.
Now they hang their heads,

and suddenly grow old – the proof of meeting. Still,
her hands, awkward and hard to hold

fold and unfold a green carrier bag as she tells
the story of her life. Compressed. Airtight.

A sad square, then a crumpled shape. A bag of tricks.
Her secret life – a hidden album, a box of love letters.

A door opens and closes. Time is outside waiting.
I catch the draught in my winter room.

Airlocks keep the cold air out.
Boiling water makes flowers live longer. So does

cutting the stems with a sharp knife.

2 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Moth Orchid

  1. Anne

    I too read the article you mention with interest for I am hopeless at keeping indoor pot plants alive – would far rather tend to the potted beauties outside! The poem you have chosen is well worth more than a single read: so much is being implied in those few words … ‘baby in a shawl’, ‘broken waters’, love letters’ …

  2. Claire

    This post is so moving, the poem too. My mother too, knew how to make orchids flower again; she was a real plant wizard with all plants. None of her children has inherited this gift, but my daughter has what we call « green thumbs » ( les pouces verts). So this too is comforting ! I am sharing this poem with her.


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