3 July 2006
The orchidhunter does ONT2006
"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
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.
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.
A Cymbidium Claude with enormous burnt sienna blooms of perfect stature was elected class winner and reserve champion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
-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?
"The flower is a leaf mad with love."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe