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3 July 2006

The orchidhunter does ONT2006

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"I was so delighted with the plant and flowers that I caught orchid fever, which I am happy to say is now prevailing to considerable extent in this country, and which I will trust will become an epidemic."
- General John F. Rathbone


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It was a grey day; the vitality had been sucked out of the world. Clouds the colour of concrete blanketed the suburbs as I drove to the Safari Garden Centre on the corner of Lynnwood and Rubida Road. This was the venue for the annual winter show of the Orchid Society of Northern Transvaal. A R10,00 ticket bought me entry into a tropical paradise in the middle of the Highveld winter. The theme for this year's show was Orchids on Safari and the displays were all quite tasteful, compared to the 2005 show which featured an inordinate amount of garden gnomes. The exhibition hall was filled with light, colour, perfume and the delicate sounds of piped-in recorded bird noises. Oh, and pensioners aplenty.

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The little old ladies and I did the rounds. Right by the entrance was a magnificent display of Paphiopedilum Ho Chi Minh en masse, constructed by Plantae nursery. I'm convinced that these are some of the very first plants of this hybrid between Paph. delenatii and the newly discovered Paph. vietnamense to enter the country.

In the middle was a grand central display containing a number of plants owned by the blue-eyed, swoop-haired Herman Steyn, the chairman of ONT. These are always instantly recognizable by their bent wire supports and strapped-in appearance. Cattleyas and Dendrobiums march like SS combat troops across the staging in Herman's super-neat Faerie Glen greenhouse, which often flies a German flag from its flagpost. This central display hosted an incredibly beautiful citrus-coloured vandaceous orchid called Vanda Kultana Gold x Thanamchai, wih superbly rounded and very flat flowers.

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A Cymbidium Claude with enormous burnt sienna blooms of perfect stature was elected class winner and reserve champion.

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Predictably, the ONT judges gave the grand champion ribbon to a Paphiopedilum. Surprisingly, it was actually a beautiful plant, instead of the inbred bullfrogs that usually get the top award. It was an elegantly proportioned Paphiopedilum mastersianum with a deep green dorsal sepal fading to pure white around its edges and a bronze self-coloured pouch. No gross veins or resemblance to a scrotum this time around, thank you very much. Both grand champ and reserve were grown by Van Rooyen Orchids from White River.

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The East Rand Orchid Society had made a large table display sagging under the weight of pink and white Cymbidium hybrids, green Maudiae-type Paphiopedilums, a yellow softcane Dendrobium and something I had never seen before.This plant is called Robiquetia compressor and was awarded a red 1st class ribbon. It had purple strap-shaped leaves alternating along a compressed monopodial stem, from which emerged a single pendent inflorescence of minute, deep-red, berry-like flowers. I envied the anonymous grower who managed to flower such a splendid exotic thing.

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The tiny triangular display by G&S Orchids was crammed full of plants to resemble a forest floor of office plants. This was constructed by my friends Christian and Dirk and featured quotes from Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and not entirely un-kitsch 'artefacts left by a band of Victorian explorers'. Maybe I'm biased, but I thought this display was best at capturing the spirit of this year's safari theme. An eye-catching Paph. armeniacum nodded in a nest of Spanish moss, and Dirk's gorgeous velvety-red Miltoniopsis Redford Glory attracted many admirers of the hip-replacement-and-purple-rinse variety.

Mounded in a corner, the display of award-winning Phalaenopsis attracted several journalists with tripods and cameras with macro lenses to put the Hubble to shame. These people had no qualms about moving annoying flower spikes out of their perfect shot. While mothers were telling their offspring to look with their eyes, there was nobody to berate these people for deconstructing delicate displays that took their owners a full day to put together. Even though I couldn't read the obscured name tags of some orchids, I didn't lift a leaf of a plant that didn't belong to me. Evil growers have been known to steal pollen from award-winning plants at shows. I definitely did not want trouble.

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The most photographed orchid was a soft pink Phalaenopsis with a highly complicated Chinese name. This cultivar was apparently flowered by Herman Steyn's wife. I do not know how the people who hybridised it managed it, but each flower had an almost perfect inverted equilateral triangle of purple spotting on it. With this kind of line breeding in mottled moth orchids, the individual flowers on a plant usually show much variation on the basic pattern of spots. All the flowers on this plant were identical however, and the plant was rightly selected as the winner in its class.

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My favourite part of any orchid show is always the sale area. It's the place where I spend most of my time, agonising over whether a particular orchid is worth spending my hard-earned cash on. The sale area hummed with commerce. Some of you may not realize this, but orchids are BIG MONEY. Rare specimens are known to sell for anything up to $25,000. The global mass-market orchid trade is worth millions of dollars annually. Asian orchid nurseries are measured not in the numbers of plants they cultivate, but by the kilometres of greenhouse space required to house them. I saw Roelie from Van Rooyen Orchids idly chatting to Nollie from Plantae (those really are their names), and you wouldn't notice that they are in fierce, cut-throat, back-stabbing competition with one another if you weren't looking at their eyes. Their eyes were constantly scanning the crowds for that rich psycho woman who's got orchid fever really bad and needs an immediate fix. For you see: the sight of all these lusciously sexual flowers on sale turns people into raving lunatics. Christian told me that a woman started trembling uncontrollably when she entered the sales area at the Witwatersrand Orchid Society show this past May.

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Personally, I saw a woman point her finger encrusted with Jenna Clifford at hideously overpriced, mass-produced, over-hybridised mutants, going 'Oh honey, and I'll take three of those!' with the husband trailing behind, pushing a trolley overflowing with purchases, obviously dying for a smoke. The impulse to buy something before someone else gets it, this desire to own something exclusive no matter how ugly it is, is a big driving force in the economics of luxury, I'm convinced.
Freakonomics of the orchid world.

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So whereas all the bourgeois nouveau riche walked away with orchids dripping with overblown (pun intended) purple blossoms, I tried to take time in making my selections. In the end, only three of the ten plants I bought were in flower. An orchid sale is a difficult thing to browse through when you have the completist gene and you see so many curious and lovely things to want. Serendipity Orchids were selling Aspasia lunata and the Chinese nursery from Bloemfontein had some amazingly flat white and cute green Phalaenopsis (their business card had purple print that read 'Marvilous Orchids' in typical Engrish). As usual, most of my budget was blown at the stand operated by the friendly people from Afri-Orchids. They have an excellent selection of strange miniatures and weird species from the Neotropical cloud forests. I also managed to find a flowering-size red Phragmipedium hybrid at a stand operated by a hobby grower called Lukas Coetzer. My Phrag was overlooked by all the punters, possibly because it doesn't seem like much when not in flower. But oh, the promise it holds! Here then is the obligatory list of things I bought:


Species
-Pleurothallis truncata
-Pleurothallis prolifera

-Dendrobium glomeratum
-Dendrobium lindleyi
-Rhyncolaelia glauca
-Cochleanthes amazonica
Hybrids
-Masdevallia Orange Ice
-Epidendrum Pacific Girl
-Phragmipedium Mem. Dick Clements
-Potinara Jong Jou Moat

All in all a most pleasurable experience. My thirst for beauty has been slaked for now. The National Orchid Show is coming, though: 7-10 September 2006 at Casterbridge in White River. What wonders will the future hold?

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"The flower is a leaf mad with love."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

13 comments:

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

A big thank you to gm for helping me realise that the web has a myriad of photo hosting options.

Lexi said...

WoW........who knew that there was so many different types of beauty under one name.........the purple spotted one was amazing..........seems like you had fun :)

gm said...

Anytime, EOH!

Cool posts! En die ONT2006 klink nogal soos 'n ervaring. Sal wil gaan, maar ek is nou bang ek kry die "o-jy's 'n joernalis" disdainful look... ;-)

arcadia said...

opwindende tye! klink soos 'n goeie plek om 'n orchid-obsessed sugar mommy op te tel...

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Orchid Shows are the coolest thing. I really want to go the the Tokyo Grand Prix one day (yes, that's really what their orchid show is called). It is the world's most-visited plant show, even topping the amount of people visiting Chelsea!

En ek dink die harige bo-lippe sou enigiemand afsit om 'n bietjie good lovin' op te tel...

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

I have since found out that the winning Phalaenopsis is called Phal. Leopard Prince. I must have misread a tag somewhere. My apologies to Herman Steyn.

FJ said...

I came accross your site after googling Afri Orchids, which led me to the Epidendrum blog. Been looking at it for the past two days and really enjoy your comments (literary reviews too). A bit of a plant collector myself. And I know some of the people mentioned in the ONT show bit. Really funny. Thought I'd drop a word or two.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Greetings, fellow collector! I'm glad that you like my posts. I do feel that the South African orchid world does not have enough of a web presence - so that's what I'm doing here. ONT2006 was a lot of fun and I always enjoy chatting to all the growers (even if some of them are a little scary).

FJ said...

Eish. ONT was crazy. Many glazed-over geriatric faces. I almost had to trample three Nigerian women to get my hands on one of MC Orchids' white Phalaenopsis hybrids. There was a slight moment of panic there... Are you studying botany? The biotech link suggests as much. Ever heard of a Phragmipaphium?

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

I'm finishing up my Master's degree in Genetics (cereal genomics, specifically) at UP. Yup, Phragmipaphiums, like other unlikely crosses such as Ansidium (Asdm.) = [Ansellia x Cymbidium], hold a mystical fascination for hybridisers. www.phragweb.info had a particularly good article on the subject, but it seems to be offline at the moment. While not exactly pretty, these things are interesting at the very least.

FJ said...

I tried to access phragweb a few days ago to see what a Phragmipaphium looks like. And it was off-line then too. In a Google image search something looking very much like a Chinese Paph. hybrid comes up.

I hope you don't mind me picking your brain, but your interest in orchids seems to be more than scientific or aesthetic. Any thoughts as to why it seems to be a hobby for males over 50? Is it just the boredom and expendable income of retirement, or something more specific? I've got some crazy theories...

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

I'd like to hear your theories.

Personally, I think a lot of pensioners assume they're supposed to like gardening when they reach a certain age, and possibly there's some guilt about still liking more active pursuits... rock climbing, say. Madam, it's okay if you have no interest in roses! You don't have to become a stereotype as soon as the first grey hairs appear. There's no shame in base jumping at 65! Put on those goggles, tighten that girdle and go!

Luckily the orchid world has a lot to offer: the quiet, bookish gathering of botanical knowledge; active nature conservation of the tie-yourself-to-a-whale-but-buddy-I-hope-you-can-hold-your-breath-that-long activist kind; the purchase of luxury items with your expendable income; the stimulation of the brain's reward centres when patient coaxing ends up in eventual flowering of a stubborn prima donna; the exploration of jungles unknown Victorian-style(just hope you've got enough porters if your knees are playing you up a bit); etc. etc.

I also have a theory about an orchid show being a venue for older gentlemen to show off their prowess, like a peacock display. Now that the trim abs and chisled jaw lines have given way to beer gut and liver spots, growing perky flowers might just be a proxy for something else...but more on the subject at a later stage, maybe.

FJ said...

The last part of your comment is where my suspicions lie. Obviously the lure of the exotic plays a part, and so does a degree of exlusivity, but more than that, these are suspiciously kinky things. "Lusciously sexual"? I'd like to hear you elaborate. And not just for kicks.

When I recently got back into the orchid scene after a break of more than ten years, a friend of mine commented that most of the flowers resemble female genitalia. I won't repeat the exact Afrikaans word he used on a decent blog like this one, but the thought remained with me. But it also raised a few questions. Flowers are the reproductive parts of plants and are charged with amorous associations by default, but what makes orchid flowers more overtly sexual than any other? And here I am obviously excusing scrotum-like Paph pouches from the equation.

Do you think there's something about the shape of orchid flowers (Paphs and Phrags excepted) that is somehow more obscene than your regular garden variety daisy? I think this may be a rhetorical question... Don't hesitate to get technical if you feel like replying. I'm not a botanist, but I have a vested interest in the subject.