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Poor Man's Orchid

Epidendrums Don't Cost a Fortune, and Even the Novice Gardener Will Find Them Forgiving

June 09, 2002|SUSAN HEEGER

Among noble orchids, which can demand months of misting, feeding and fussing before their blooms appear like gaudy queens in stiff gowns, reed-stem epidendrums are the proletarians--the noisy, penniless cousins who keep showing up en masse, cheerfully looking for the party. In fact, the "poor man's orchid," the commonest of its common names, evokes just this humble charm: Compared to other orchids, epidendrums are not expensive. They're not exclusive. In Los Angeles, they blossom outdoors nearly year-round in teeming hordes with minimal care. Though they flower most from spring to fall, December still finds clouds of them in Bill Marshall's Pacific Palisades garden. Which is why, nearly 40 years ago, he blew off cymbidiums and went epidendrum-wild.

On a deck outside his living room, edging a broad, flat ocean view, clutches of red, orange, gold and violet blooms sway in the breeze: the two-toned Epidendrum radicans, the fiery 'Notre d'Or,' 'Maili Pink,' 'Kauai Streaks,' and others he knows only as 'Red,' 'Lavender' and 'Fuchsia.' "The common types have been crossed so many times you don't necessarily know what you're getting," says Marshall, a retired salesman of fiberoptic telecommunications systems who has given years of his leisure to "epi's," as he and other devotees call them. Generally, he notes, the plants are sold by color. Novel bloom shades also arise naturally in his garden with its busy pollinating hummingbirds.

In the tropical Americas, from South Carolina down to Argentina, nearly 900 epidendrum species grow wild, in settings ranging from sea-level woodlands to lofty meadows, humid jungles and cloud forests. Their name, which derives from a Greek word meaning "on a tree," describes their tendency to sprout in forked trunks and other high spots, and to take their nourishment from the air. But they're content in gardens, too, doing best, in Marshall's view, when grown in pots, where it's easy to meet their needs.

To get the most copious blooms, start with strong plants, he advises. Look for vigorous stems, uniformly green leaves and robust roots that might be breaking the soil surface or poking through a pot's drainage holes. Don't be a snob about sources. One of Marshall's pets--a floriferous salmon-pink plant--was a grocery store find. He has spotted other treasures at farmers' markets and Home Depot. "If you know what plants need, they'll thrive," he says. But they might even if you don't. "These guys are forgiving," he adds.

All orchids need lots of air around their roots, he explains. Their preferred potting soil is open and fast-draining--a blend, say, that's half bark chips, a quarter perlite and the rest high-quality, organic commercial planting mix. Epi's will, however, accept a wide variety of soils, simply "heaving up," or baring their thick white roots, faster if the medium is too heavy. Likewise, though it's recommended, you don't have to feed them. The organic compost in Marshall's potting mix gives his plants a strong start. He only fertilizes those he takes to orchid shows, using an all-purpose, balanced food at half-strength once a week from spring through fall. "Without food, epi's bloom and bloom well," he notes. "But if you feed them, wow!"

Less negotiable is sun. They want hours of it, morning and/or afternoon. (Just be careful in summer heat that their leaves don't burn; spritz often to keep them cool; and in hot valleys, grow plants in part-shade.) Water weekly, protect plants from frost (more than a night or two may kill them) and cut them back when they get ratty. Marshall admits, "They're not pretty if you let them go." Spent flower spikes will splay like straws, roots push up everywhere, and old and new stems compete for space with offshoots called keikis--Hawaiian for baby--piggybacking on mother stalks. To avoid this mess, clip spent stalks to their second ring-mark above the soil. When keikis come off easily in your hand, detach them and pot them and they will bloom within a year. Repot mother plants when they become unsightly. Watch for pests, especially aphids and spider mites, both of which can be controlled with horticultural soap or by spraying with water.

Marshall, whose epi collection once exceeded 1,000 plants, has recently cut back to a few hundred, which spill down from his deck into a lath house, with more pots parked along his hillside paths. Sitting alone in its own bed on a lower terrace, his prize mother plant, E. elongatum 'Jacques,' which has been in constant bloom for 30 years, rises six feet above its pot. It produces at least 100 keikis a year, and while Marshall allots some for garden club charity sales, he gives most away to friends. Such generosity is so common among epi growers that over time, he says, the plant is losing its "poor-man's" designation: "More and more, it's just called the friendship orchid."

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