Best way to grow orchids is to mimic nature

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It is easy to become hooked on orchids, members of the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania say of the theme of its 2013 orchid show: An Orchid Obsession.

"They are addictive; when you see one, you cannot leave it on the sales table," Arlene Ricker of North Strabane said of her collection of 46 orchids. "Having the collection I do, something is always in bloom, and the flowers are absolutely beautiful, lasting several months."

The organization's annual show will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. March 23 and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 24, at Phipps Garden Center, 1059 Shady Ave., Point Breeze.

The free show will feature orchid exhibits, judging by a team of certified American Orchid Society judges, educational seminars, plant raffles and sales.

Ms. Ricker, a retired nurse and national sales account manager, said the biggest misconception about the plants is that they are hard to grow and finicky.

It's untrue, she emphasized.

"You have to understand where they grew in nature and mimic that," Ms. Ricker said.

Nancy Kline of Pine attributes her love for the plant to "being able to grow something here in Western Pennsylvania that normally wants to be tropical."

She will conduct the 2:45 p.m. seminar March 23 titled, "History of Orchids." She will point out that orchids are one of the oldest-known plant species; they are found on every continent except Antarctica; and there may be as many as 50,000 species.

While Greeks named the orchid in the fourth century B.C., Chinese described orchids in accounts dating back to the 28th century B.C.

A former registered nurse and a part-time fitness instructor for water aerobics, Ms. Kline said her secret for maintaining her 250 orchids is duplicating the conditions in the world from which they hail.

"I grow some in my basement under high-intensity lighting; I grow some in my warm laundry room under warm fluorescent lights; and I always have a bay window which is the closest thing to a greenhouse that my orchids ever see," she said.

Founded in 1954, the local orchid group is a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the propagation, horticulture and preservation of orchid species and hybrids through research, education and scientific endeavors.

It has 250 members, including 48 family memberships. Members' ages range from teen to late 90s.

Gary VanGelder, an industrial engineer, cultivates 200 orchids of various colors and patterns in a temperature-controlled solarium and two greenhouses at his South Park home.

"It is a very nice plant that can provide flowers at different times throughout the year," he noted. "They're not that difficult to grow."

His favorite is the cymbidium, a plant that can weigh 90 pounds.

"When you get five to six stalks on one plant, it is spectacular," he noted.

Most of Mr. VanGelder's orchids are hybrids, meaning they were produced by crossing two species or varieties within the same species of orchid.

"Species are native to particular climates and very fussy as the environment must match exactly," he said. "Hybrids have greater tolerance for temperatures, light and humidity."

Mr. VanGelder spends 30 minutes a day watering, pruning -- and delighting in -- the fruits of his labors.

"You get dark days and think winter will never end, but looking at orchids makes winter go faster," he said.

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Margaret Smykla, freelance writer:


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