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Ex-Flier Savors Role as Midwife for Orchids : Fussy Plant Offers Peaceful Oasis and Living Relationship That Needs Love but No Words

PLANT PARENTHOOD: This is the first of four stories that will appear in the View sections during the next few days.

July 27, 1988|BILL MANSON

SAN DIEGO — Don Bloom does it standing up. Twice a day. He loves gardening.

Irina Gronborg lets her garden fight it out , and may the best plant win.

Rudy Lime takes cactus and grows it into something Salvador Dali might have carved.

Peggy Winter doesn't go to the flower shop to stock her garden, she goes to New Guinea.

Bloom, Gronborg, Lime and Winter are San Diego County gardeners--gardeners by choice and with passion--who look at plant life in four completely different ways. Free-lance writer Bill Manson has been known to look at life in different ways, too, and for this assignment he has gone to the roots of these four gardeners' obsessions.

Remember Donald Duck and the comic strip where Uncle Scrooge sends Donald down to the wilds of South America to search for the rare black orchid?

Well, Donald Bloom says, hooey! There's no such thing as a black orchid, Bloom says. Purple, yes. Deep red, uh-huh. Hawaiian pink, royal blue, no problem. There are even striped hybrids of all of the above. But the black orchid is so rare it doesn't exist.

Don Bloom knows. He is a former jet pilot who has been babying orchids for 30 years, with the same meticulous concern for detail that he had when landing S2F Trackers on a pitching aircraft carrier. And here he is with a dozen of his best orchids entered at the Coronado Flower Show, a tented little world where Daughters of Job are serving tea amid a riot of floral colors.

Families wander through the blazing patches of red carnations and snowy white Sarem Lilies, dipping their noses to the roses to see whether the aromas are original or being emitted from man-made hybrids.

Clever Signs

It's not all serious. "This bud's for you . . . " reads a sign beneath a just-opening rosebud. Two Bird of Paradise plants rise from the next pot over in an apparent erotic clinch. "Dirty Dancing," the card below them reads. A live yellow banana slug is drooling its way through another flower arrangement. "Our State Slug," the card reads. "If you can't beat 'em, treat 'em."

But don't be deceived. You enter at your own risk. It's a jungle in there. These seemingly benign citizens guarding the displays are representatives of powerful tribes, each with its own god: the Rose Fanatics, the Bonsai Priesthood, the Orchid Organization, the Lotus Lovers.

Then, there are the cultural chasms. On one hand, there are the Back East gardeners who bring their gardens with them, fighting the climate with lots of water and artificial atmospheres and shouldering off local bugs with sprays in a kind of SDI (Spray Defense Initiative) to protect an incongruous English Country garden.

On the other, there are the naturalists, the back-to-earthers who grow dry and natural and let harsh nature limit and define their garden. The cactus folk and the succulent seekers. They all mix in, keeping a wary eye on the espousers of Other Forms of Plant Life.

Take Bloom. With a name like Bloom, what else could you spend your spare time on? Bloom has babies. Hundreds of babies. His orchids. He's just about driven crazy wiping them, feeding them, stopping them squabbling and tangling with each other. There in the nursery, he spends the better part of his day. And he means that.

'Best Part of Day'

"Actually, this is the best part of my day," he says. The rest is taken up with Don's Appliance Service, a fridge-fixing business he took up in Sleepy Hollow Coronado after he left his Navy flying career. With this, he's never far from his little movable nursery he has lugged with him everywhere since he moved from Florida.

Orchids of all sorts are growing into copies of the cousins they left in the depths of the Amazon jungle and atop the Himalayan foothills. The world, literally, is in his nursery. About 1,000 babies are burgeoning from racks in this home-made plexiglass greenhouse. Each

one demanding constant attention.

Little green-leaved orchids, either sitting on bark in pots or piggy-backing bits of rotten tree bark, hang on the walls--about one in every dozen flowering. Bloom contents himself with mainly yellow and white blooms--a rich bloom of white "just reeks of wealth and prestige somehow." He fixes to mist them with a specially purified pH-balanced food-water.

"These guys live better than I do," he says, looking down at a little pot filled with pine-bark chips and a green plant sort of sitting on top with its white air roots crawling around the surface like anemic caterpillars. "Now this little guy, I could cross-pollinate him. I have both parents. I know both of them."

But are all these related, or are they from completely different families?

"Most of these are Cattleyas, named after a Mr. Cattley. He was an English horticulturist back in the 1820s who traveled like Darwin and accidentally brought back an orchid in the hold of his ship, which he took home and propagated. You know where you find most orchids in the United States?"

"Uh, Hawaii?"

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