By Lauren Wustenberg
Walking through the rows of flowers sold at the Evanston Farmer’s Market, the stand of Klehm Grower, Inc. jumps out from the masses of geraniums and wave petunias lining the stalls with a large selection of exotic orchids. An imposing myth of fragility surrounds these tropical house plants, but I’m here to urge you look past that misconception and consider them as your next floral acquisition.
According to the stand’s proprietor, David Manning, orchids are hardier than one would expect. Manning tends this stand for his brother-in-law, Arnold Klehm, who 40 years ago returned from a stint with the Peace Corps in Southeast Asia accompanied by a collection of orchid species packed for cultivation. Klehm’s collection eventually grew into its own business: Arnold J. Klehm Grower, Inc. Based in Hampshire, IL, Klehm continues to maintain large greenhouses, cultivating indoor plants year-round. To this day, his main priority is growing orchids and peonies sold all over Illinois.
But why should YOU be interested in orchids? The flowers look like they’re made of plastic, the plants are relatively slow growing and they all have a bad reputation as nit-picky house plants. Here are some reasons why orchids deserve a bit of consideration:
1. In their natural environment, they are basically magical
Orchids are epiphytes – a kind of plant can grow in the branches of other plants and feed themselves from the air. They use little bits of soil that get caught around their roots, but mostly are self-sustainable. (Unfortunately, Chicago isn’t in a tropical rainforest, so they can’t do that here) Even more amazing is that orchid seeds are about the size of a grain of dust and one seed pod can hold over three million seeds. Just another part of their wizardry.
2. Orchids are found all over the world
Certain species of orchids are pantropical – meaning they are found all over the tropics – and other are endemic – or found only in very specific countries and habitats. While most species group in tropical climates, others can be found in semi-arid deserts, near oceans or in the tundra. In fact, the state flower of Minnesota, the Pink Lady Slipper, is a species of orchid native to the Midwestern temperate climate.
3. There is a TON of variety in orchid appearance
There are 25,000 – 30,000 different species of orchids. If you don’t like the one that you see right away, there’s almost certainly going to be a different kind that will catch your eye. Some of these species are more difficult to care for than others and some may not be domesticated at all, but the species discussed in this article are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to orchid diversity.
4. Their flowers are STUNNING
Fully-grown orchid flowers can range in size from the head of a pin to the size of an orange, and come in shapes you’d never expect from a boring old house plant. One orchid sold by Klehm and Manning at the Evanston stand goes by the colloquial name “Witch Doctor Orchid” because of its spidery legs.
How to Get Your Orchid On
It’s pretty clear that orchids deserve some respect as major players in the indoor house plant world. But how do you know which type of orchid is for you? I would recommend talking to Manning at the next farmer’s market to pick a specific type of orchid, but here are some easy tips to help get started caring for orchids:
Orchids prefer diffuse early morning or afternoon light. Manning explained that orchids prefer eastern or northern windows.
These plants are generally used to tropical or at least wet climates. If you have a bathroom with southern or eastern windows letting in lots of light, that is a perfect place to keep an orchid. If that isn’t a possibility, make your own humidity tray using a small dish and some rocks. Set the plant on the rocks and keep a small amount of water in the bottom of the tray. Works like a charm!
Orchid roots like to have a lot of air (remember: they’re used to living on ONLY air most of the time) and there is special, inexpensive dirt sold especially for these awesome plants. What’s more? They don’t require repotting more than once every year or two.
Because I want you to be successful if you decide to get an orchid, here is a special orchid watering tip given to me by my mother: For good orchid watering, place three ice cubes on the top of the pot once or twice a week. The ice cubes will gradually release water throughout the day and keep the soil at the appropriate dampness. Orchids like staying damp, but not flooded, and this will just about do the trick.
You’re officially prepared. Get your start right here in town at the Evanston Farmer’s Market this upcoming Saturday morning. Go forth and begin exploring the wonderful world of orchid cultivation!