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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Orchids by the Bunch

A very big show is coming to the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens bringing orchid lovers from across the country and offering you a chance to embrace this diverse and dazzling plant family. If you are a casual orchid fan, with a couple of moth orchids (Phalaenopsis) in your window or fond memories of Grandma’s corsage, prepare to be amazed: There is so much more to orchids than the grocery store or garden shop models, no matter how exquisite those may be.

Several kinds of orchids can grow wonderfully in your heated Western New York home - they’re not just for plant geeks and collectors. Go to the Botanical Gardens, 2655 South Park Ave. for a day of tropical comfort among the plants. You will leave smarter and just possibly hooked on orchids.

The show, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 12 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 13 , is the MAOC, the Mid-Atlantic Orchid Congress, an organization of 55 orchid societies from 17 states and Canada. The MAOC members are dedicated to propagating and breeding orchids, preserving orchid habitats, and educating growers and the public.

Our Niagara Frontier Orchid Society (NFOS) was selected to host this conference, inspired in part by the special relationship with our Botanical Gardens and its orchid collection. NFOS spokeswoman Donna Lipowicz said, "Many MAOC members will be coming to Buffalo for the very first time from all over the U.S. and Canada. We are excited about showing off our city and its resurgence ... We are also hoping to get some national recognition for our Botanical Gardens and show people we can grow orchids in Buffalo despite our snow!"

While the regional orchid society (NFOS) hosts lovely shows usually twice a year, this time the public will have access to inspiring plant displays, orchid products and orchid vendors from around the world, for the price of admission to the Gardens. Additional fees apply for speakers at the Botanical Garden or the Hyatt Hotel, including keynote Jose Portilla (Ecuagenera Orchids, Ecuador). See buffalogardens.com for details.

Extraordinary plant family

With all these orchid people gathering around Buffalo we’d do well to know a little about their chosen plants. Orchidaceae is one of the two largest plant families in the world, the other being Asteraceae (aster or daisy family). Botanically, the orchid family comprises about 763 genera that include about 28,000 species. To put that in context, there are about twice as many orchid species as known bird species and four times the number of mammal species. Compounding the challenge of orchid identification, in the last century horticulturists have produced at least 100,000 hybrids and cultivars. If you’re not into plant nomenclature trivia and these numbers sound daunting, you can become orchid-savvy by boning up on a few orchid types.

A note on some plant classification basics: A "genus" - plural "genera" - usually contains many "species" within it. Species are further broken down by "varieties" (occur naturally) or "hybrids" or  "cultivars" (manmade.)

Orchids you can grow

Several kinds of orchids grow well in most home conditions with just a few requirements. These are some of the most familiar and popular:
Phalaenopsis (Moth Orchid) is considered the entry-level orchid, producing large, beautiful flowers once or twice per year. " Phals," to their friends, tolerate most home conditions very well.

Dendrobium is a large genus with many of the most popular, show-stopping orchids. Learn which species you are considering--requirements vary. Most require very bright light but many tolerate low humidity and a wide temperature range.

Cymbidium orchids have huge, showy and colorful flowers, as many as 30 per spike. They require cool temperatures to bloom - below 70  degrees at least.

Cattleyas are the traditional corsage orchid. They grow well with medium light and like heat, actually tolerating what you might call a stuffy room.

Lady Slippers refers to several genera, but the term describes their obvious feature: a pouch-shaped "slipper" that attracts (and often drowns) pollinating insects. A popular slipper type is Paphiopedilum, good in low light and easy to grow.

Oncidiums are epiphytic - with roots that grow in the air. They produce hundreds of flowers per spray; require lots of water as well as air circulation. The Brassia or Spider Orchid is a similarly dramatic plant with long narrow plant parts that reach out like spider legs. They’re often crossed with Oncidiums.

Miltonia orchids have large, fragrant, flat flowers, and are often confused with Miltoniopsis, the Pansy Orchid. They are relatively easy with medium light requirements. Like most epiphytes, they shouldn’t dry out but quickly rot from overwatering.

My choice of these orchids is elementary, so let experts help you choose your own new treasures.
Learn orchid care

As a plant person who deals in soil and compost, I killed all my first orchids, mainly because I didn’t understand the importance of bark or sphagnum-based potting material. After you get that right (not that difficult) you’ll need to learn to water. Some tell you to run tap water through the orchid but never let it sit in water; others put ice cubes on top of the potting medium. Light is a make-or-break factor. It’s all particular to the species, but with some basic instruction all of us can grow an orchid.

To learn more, go to the MAOC show, "Orchids Under Glass" (niagarafrontierorchids.org), or join the friendly local organization. Members work among the orchids at the Botanical Gardens from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays and welcome your visits and questions. At the show you’ll find all the plants, the supplies, and the help you’ll need from members, growers and sponsors such as Marlow Orchids of Scottsville.

Vendors include Piping Rock Orchids, Windsept in Time Orchids, Roberts Orchid Supply, Orchid Artwork, and Hydroponics of Buffalo (most helpful about lighting plants.) For online learning the American Orchid Society (AOS) website is most helpful, specializing in education about orchids since 1921. Their care sheets, video, and A to Z glossary help greatly.

If love of plants is part of your life, don’t fail to know and grow orchids.

Details: The Orchid Show at the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 12 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 13. The Botanical Gardens are located at 2655 S. Park Ave. Tickets are included with Botanical Gardens admission: $9 adults; $8 seniors (55 and older) and students (13 and older with ID); $5 kids ages 3 to 12. Garden members and kids age 2 and under are free. In addition, an all-day speaker pass is available for $25 to hear presentations on Nov. 12 in a separate building on the campus. For a list of the speakers and other information, visit buffalogardens.com. Tickets are available online now and will also be available at the door.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant

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