“My American Orchid Society”   Leave a comment

This essay won the American Orchid Society’s Dillon-Peterson Essay Contest in 2009.  It was published in the May, 2010 Orchids Magazine, along with some of my photos, also reproduced here.  I thought I would reprint it for your enjoyment.  Click on the photos for a full view:


     It began in the winter, when I was 14 years old.  I was a boy, fascinated with the natural world.   My days were spent wandering the woods, collecting plants and animals, and growing things.  My mother approved, and saved the jars from olives and pickles and the boxes from shoes so that I could have the tools of any young naturalist’s trade. 

     Then it happened.  My mother took me to a mall on a weekend shopping trip; where unbeknownst to me an orchid show was being held.  I was immediately fascinated and seduced by these plants.  She had encouraged my love of nature and horticulture, and knew what was coming next.  I spent the next two hours agonizing over the one plant I could buy with the twenty dollars she had reserved for this event.  I settled on a Neolehmannia porpax (syn. Epidendrum peperomia), with glossy maroon flowers that looked like beetles crawling all over its tree fern mount.  I placed the plant in a converted aquarium in my bedroom, using a 60 watt incandescent bulb for light and heat.  I checked it constantly, watered it every time I checked it, and watched as the plant slowly and miserably lost every flower, then every leaf, then every stem.  I had loved it to death. 

          It was Charleston,West Virginia in 1983, and I had very little access to the academic world of biology that I felt close to.  There were no orchid groups that I belonged to; no local orchid society that I knew of.  There was no internet, email, nor message board to follow.  I knew no one else who grew orchids, and there was no communication for me.  I lived in isolation.  But my fascination with these new plants held me close.  I scoured the libraries and devoured every piece of literature concerning orchids.  I was determined to know them, and grow them well.  But I had no practical knowledge, nor connection to those who did. 

     Then I found an AOS Bulletin tucked into the reference section of the Kanawha County Public Library, with more new information in a single issue than I had every had access to previously.  I began begging my mother immediately, and was given a membership as an early Christmas and birthday present.  The Bulletins that arrived monthly were cherished, spreading the knowledge of orchids from as far away as south Florida and California to me.  The index of professional growers amazed me, and soon I had catalogs from Hauserman’s, Jones and Scully, Stewart’s, and every other firm I could find.  I tucked in to the literature like a starved waif, perusing the various magazines and catalogs until the dog-eared pages fell from their bindings and I could recite the page numbers where my favorites were pictured.  I schooled myself in nomenclature, and memorized the Golden Guide to Orchids that I purchased from Kensington.

     From that humble beginning, I have pursued orchids down just about every avenue.  I have grown Cattleyas and Miltonias in greenhouses, and Masdevallias and Paphiopedilums in my basement.  For the first ten years or so, I grew only species.  The knowledge I gained through the Bulletin enabled me to discover what was right and what was wrong, and provide the conditions my plants would flourish in.  I learned not only what to do to grow orchids, and how to do it, but why my orchids needed such specific culture.

     The knowledge I gained in those early years was critical to my competence in growing orchids, but I was also encouraged to pursue orchids beyond the greenhouse.   In college my honors thesis research involved plant tissue culture, with the goal of producing inter-generic orchid chimeras by fusing cells from vastly different genera.  In this endeavor I had the privilege of the advice of Rob Griesbach at the USDA.  Our conversation during my brief visit impressed upon me the need for more research into orchids, and their importance as a hobby and an industry (Tangentially, his first question to me was, “Are you a member of the AOS?”).  My research produced no significant results, but Dr. Griesbach’s encouragement impressed upon me the enthusiasm that this organization has for its members.

     I am involved in a hybridizing program of my own design, crossing various Cattleyas in the hopes of producing a pink flower with an all-white lip.  I grow the offspring from seed myself, performing flasking and oryzalin tetraploid therapy in my own meager lab.  Again, my interest in this path would be absent without the influence of those AOS members involved in their own programs.  I have met some of the great minds of hybridizing and growing, and have read the advice of others now gone.  The Society has allowed me to network with a large group of people whose knowledge far exceeds my own, and promoted my own personal success in this endeavor.

     I continue to actively pursue my orchid education, and once again the American Orchid Society has paved the way.  Three years ago, I entered the AOS judging program.  This program is designed to award the plants and growers that are magnificently head and shoulders above a group that is merely spectacular. Training to be a judge is rigorous, time-consuming, and requires dedication.  My reward for this work and dedication is an outlet for my intense curiosity of these plants.  Education of new judges is based in large part on the past experience of existing judges.  Without the community of the AOS, this oral tradition would be lost, awards to deserving plants would go extinct, and my education would go wanting.

     But the knowledge provided to me by the American Orchid Society is only part of my mentorship.  The community of people that the AOS draws together is as diverse as the plants themselves.  Membership spans scientists, hybridizers, judges, and professional and amateur growers from around the world, as well as hobbyists like me.  I have met some of the best people I have ever had the honor of knowing, and been granted access to their full experience.  Whether learning new growing techniques, finding rare and desirable plants, understanding the subtle intricacies of judging a flower, finding an audience for my photography, or planning my next hybrid, there has always been an AOS member with the experience I need and the generosity of spirit to freely provide it.

     The mission statement of the American Orchid Society is “to promote and support the passion for orchids through education, conservation, and research.”  My career within the world of orchids is an example of how the AOS pursues this mission, both through the organization and through its individual members.  Many years have passed since I purchased that first plant, and I have participated in just about every activity related to orchid culture.  The American Orchid Society and its members have been there as my mentor all along the way.  The community of the AOS reaches far more broadly than its name would imply, and more than matches its mission statement.  Without the American Orchid Society, my career would have stopped with the death of that first plant.


Posted July 21, 2011 by brianmonk in Orchids

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