I live on a very tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We are 3 1/2 miles long and ½ mile wide. We don’t have a mall, fancy restaurants, cell phone towers, or cable TV. We don’t have nurseries, or garden stores. We do have lots and lots of palm trees, sea lettuce, sea grape, pandanus, breadfruit trees, plumeria trees, and orchids.
To those who have never grown one, the orchid is a beautiful mystery. It is something they see in the "special" humidified room at a botanical garden or in movies about Hawaii. The prevailing attitude is that orchids are very temperamental and fragile…remember Nero Wolfe and his orchid garden at the top of his apartment building? Eccentric millionaires with lots of time on their hands will grow orchids in exotic greenhouses that make visitors drip with perspiration and gasp for air. When you do a little research about growing orchids from seed, (after all, most gardens begin as seed, don’t they?), you will see scientists in white lab coats using glove boxes and tiny tweezers moving a brown powdery substance into beakers and flasks of agar. Ah yes, the orchid is beautiful beyond words, and obviously so delicate, difficult, and requires so much special treatment, that only those truly gifted gardeners should even attempt the endeavor.
But nobody told us. Just about every other house on our island has at least one orchid. Most have several. Some have hundreds. To some of the folks out here, the number of orchids you have determines your status within the community. To others, they are just another beautiful flower to add to the garden. Coming out here for the first time, one is amazed at the fragrance in the air from the plumeria, and dazzled by the beauty of the orchids.
We read about all the special materials needed to grow orchids, the growing medium, the light intensity and humidity levels. We live on an island covered with coconut palms, with bright sunshine and sometimes you could swim through our humid air. The orchids grow. Use only natural materials for your containers, the experts all tell us. Well, the only containers available for purchase are plastic, and not everyone wants to make their own at the hobby shop. Consequently you will see many beautiful, healthy orchids growing in plastic pots, old oil drums, handmade baskets, and in hollowed out coconuts, nailed to palm trees. Walk by a garden with beautiful orchids, and if the gardener is home, chances are you will be given a cutting and his/her own directions for planting it.
The growing medium is another area where our location plays havoc with the rules. Fir bark, peat moss, sphagnum moss, perlite, vermiculite, cork, and charcoal…sorry, we just don’t have access to any of that stuff. In 1980 the Women’s Club here on island put together a pamphlet about gardening on Kwajalein. This is an excerpt from that pamphlet:
:…a lush dendrobium orchid plant with perhaps 50 flowers per branch in three different clusters. Potting ingredients:
Bottom layer: 2 inches crushed rocks
Middle layer: 1 to 1 ½ inches of potting soil
Top Layer: chopped coconut husks pressed down into rocks and soil.
The owner did not want her name used due to what she considered the unorthodox use of potting soil."
Her orchids were, and still are, absolutely beautiful, yet she didn’t want her name given out in writing because she felt she was "doing it wrong". How could it be wrong when the result was so beautiful?
The point I am trying to make by all this is that if the conditions are right for what you want to grow go ahead and grow it! Don’t let all the details of needing this special medium, or that special fertilizer discourage you from trying. Plants have been on this planet for a lot longer than specialists have, and somehow they managed to survive without all the sprays and solutions, pellets and potions. Life – especially plant life – will find a way to live.
You won’t find many members of orchid "societies" out here. Not many of the residents of our tiny island enter their orchids in floral shows, or competitions. They don’t give lectures on propagation, or create websites dedicated to the glory of the orchid. They just plant them in plastic pots filled with rocks and coconut then sit back and enjoy the show. When a new one blooms we too feel like the proud grandparents of a child prodigy, after all…it’s an Orchid!
(Editor's Note: this article was originally published on August 4, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)