For centuries orchids have been a hobby of the very wealthy. Orchid collectors, like the Rothschilds in Europe, have mounted expeditions to far-off places like Africa, Asia and South America in search of the finest, most exotic specimens. Now, with the advent of cloning and decades of commercial breeding, orchids are one of the best-selling plants in America.
A search for orchids today will likely lead you to the aisles of Trader Joe's or Home Depot. But, like too much of any good thing, accessibility and popularity have a downside.
"We figure that probably 90 percent of the orchids that are bought in the big-box stores end up in the trash," Mark Pendleton, orchid aficionado and managing grower of Brookside Nursery in Menlo Park, said. As anyone who has tried to keep an orchid alive knows, orchids are complicated plants. You can't just stick them in a sunny corner with a little water and expect them to flourish.
"It's relational," says Pendleton said. "They're the plants that are most like people. If you want to see them grow and bloom, you have to get to know them."
The desire to rescue orchids from the trash bin and to teach people the art of science of caring for them are the reasons that Pendleton teaches the class, "The Basics of Home Orchid Care" at Filoli in Woodside. Pendleton has spent more than half his life growing orchids, first as a hobbyist and then for 27 years in a commercial environment.
Pendleton's fascination with orchids began many years ago in Los Angeles when he took a different route home from high school and happened upon the greenhouse of an old, mainline orchid grower. The exotic looks and wonderful smells of the orchids captivated him. He began collecting and experimenting with orchids, attending orchid society meetings and reading books to educate himself about the plants.
Pendleton got a job at an orchid nursery, but soon quit and for several years made orchids his hobby. He later returned to commercial orchid growing, where he has worked for most of the last three decades. In that time, Pendleton has published photographs of orchids in journals and books, created and registered more than 200 new orchid hybrids and given talks to orchid societies across the United States and Canada.
"I try to acquaint people with guidelines, not with a formula. My personal view is that we are addicted to formulas. With our emphasis on science, we believe a formula will take care of everything and orchids aren't that way," he said.
"There are so many different types of orchids and hybrids that each person has to invest themselves and find out how the guidelines can be met for their particular location and their particular plant. One of the reasons that growing orchids should appeal to people in this area is you have to think about it."
Pendleton suggests a catchy mnemonic, "A Little Wine Makes Friends Talkative," to recall his six guidelines for orchid care: air, light, water, medium, fertilizer and temperature.
The biggest cause for orchid death at home is over-watering.
"Over-watering is not a quantity issue, it's a frequency issue," he said. The signs of over-watering, including shriveling leaves, make it look like the plant has dried out.
"If the leaves are shriveling up, it's because the roots have died and they have no way to pick up water. Better to make a mistake on the dry side, because the cure is water. If you make a mistake on the other side, the cure is usually to start over again."
When is it best to re-pot an orchid?
"Just as it begins to put out new roots, but that isn't always the most convenient time," Pendleton said.
"Often the most convenient time is when it has stopped blooming. The best rules are to re-pot a plant when it reaches the edge of the pot or the medium it's planted in becomes broken down -- probably no longer than a year or two. There are a few orchids that seem to dislike being disturbed, but many actually seem to benefit from being given a fresh start."
Pendleton's class provides a hands-on experience, including guidelines for different types of orchids and a re-potting kit. Here's the short version of what he'll be covering in class:
* Find out what kind of orchid you have. That will give you a general idea of the conditions the plant requires to thrive.
* Gently knock the pot off the roots. Trim off any roots damaged in the process above the point of damage.
* Remove the old medium (often moss or a mix of moss and bark) from the plant with your fingers and by rinsing with water.
* Examine the roots for overall health. What really counts are healthy roots, not flowers.
* Clip dead and damaged roots (either very thin and fibrous or soft, brown and mushy) with sterile shears.
* Select a pot that is an adequate size to hold the plant and one with lots of drainage holes.
* Layer the bottom of the pot with foam packing peanuts for increased drainage.
* Select a planting medium that will allow both moisture retention and excellent drainage. This will depend a great deal on the type of orchid you have.
* Plant the orchid in a medium, such as large bark, that will allow lots of air to circulate around the roots.
* If using bark, tap the edge of the pot to settle the bark around the roots.
* Fertilize as needed.
The orchid should be ready to go and may bloom again as quickly as in a couple of months. And if it doesn't, that's all part of the process.
"When I teach a class I tell people to consign themselves to killing a few to learn how to grow the rest," Pendleton said. "If you're the kind of person who can learn from your mistakes, that's great. Find out why you killed it and just don't do that again."
What: The Basics of Home Orchid Care
Where: Filoli, 86 Canada Road, Woodside
When: Saturday, Oct. Oct. 15, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
Cost: $50 for members, $65 for non-members