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Orchids: You can try this at home

Peninsula Orchid Society's annual show offers great examples, learning opportunities

OK, how many of you have brought home an exquisite, blooming orchid from the supermarket (or received one as a gift), then watched it die after a few weeks?

It's not really your fault, says Dan Williamson, who raises orchids in his garage and on his Stanford West patio.

A member of the Peninsula Orchid Society, Williamson will be bringing a few of his orchid specimens to display at the annual show, called "The Orchid Games!," this weekend in Redwood City.

Why the apparent lack of success for amateur growers? Most common orchids come potted in sphagnum moss, which tends to absorb and retain water, he said.

"It's easy to drown it in that," Williamson said. "It's much easier to kill through over-watering than under-watering."

After that initial blooming is past, it's best to re-pot the orchid in bark so the roots "can breathe," he said. Then when watering, about once a week, let the water stream through the bark into the sink, making sure the roots don't get soggy.

And don't water until the potting medium feels "crispy dry," he added.

For those who haven't a clue about how to re-pot that orchid, a series of seminars are designed to bring everyone up to speed. Each talk is included in the price of admission.

The talks include everything from general orchid culture to specifics on cymbidiums and beyond and tips for getting started (see schedule below).

Williamson grows most of his 100 plants in his garage, under shop lights that shine from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., with a mister constantly adding water that is distributed by a floor fan. Without the fan the wet leaves could acquire a fungus, making the leaves mottled. If that should happen, he advises waiting until the leaf is totally brown before removing it.

Williamson encountered his first orchids when he moved in with his wife-to-be. Soon he discovered a massive greenhouse in the Washington, D.C., area and was just intrigued by the possibilities.

Today he raises cattleyas, the classic corsage orchid from the '50s (he plans to enter one with green and white blossoms that last about two weeks); slipper orchids that bloom for about two months; and phalaenopsis that bloom for two to three months -- all indoors.

Outdoors on his patio he's got oncidium maculatum from Mexico and cymbidiums. He doesn't think the show judges would look at his cymbidium with its cream blooms with maroon on the lip because they haven't opened completely flat, although he did point to the distinct color pattern that would earn points.

Williamson is particularly proud of his stanhopea "Midnight Ramble," which earned a First Class Certificate from the American Orchid Society at a show in 2013. He'd nurtured the plant with the fist-sized blooms since 2008 when it was just a baby.

"It only blooms for three days. I got really lucky," he said of the timing of the show.

While many members of the Peninsula Orchid Society, which meets monthly in San Mateo, will be bringing plants to display, others grow enough to sell. There will be 10 professional vendors as well.

Asked what drew him to orchids, Williamson said he was attracted by "that variable reward thing: Nothing's happening, then there's a new leaf, a blooming, then next to nothing.

"They're so different -- with big roots, they don't grow in dirt. They're weird and different."

And then he asks the trick question: Which state has more orchid species, Hawaii or Maryland? The answer is definitely not Hawaii, he said.

"There are orchids on every continent except Antarctica. There are native orchids everywhere," he said, noting that one can spot slipper orchids along California's coast.

What: The Orchid Games! 2014 Peninsula Orchid Society Show

When: Saturday, Jan. 25, and Sunday, Jan. 26, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Community Activities Building, 1400 Roosevelt Ave., Redwood City

Cost: $5 for adults, $3 for seniors or children 12-16, accompanied children under 12 free

Info: Peninsula Orchid Society

Orchid show speaker schedule

Saturday, Jan. 25:

11:30 a.m.: "A Compendium of Miniature Orchids" talk and book signing (Mary Gerritsen and Ron Parsons)

1 p.m.: Growing orchids under lights (Mike Drilling)

2 p.m.: Everything Cymbidiums (Weegie Caughlin)

3 p.m.: General orchid culture (Dennis Olivas)

Sunday, Jan. 26:

11 a.m. : Outdoor orchid growing beyond Cymbidiums (Tom Mudge)

1 p.m.: Things I wish I knew when I started growing orchids: 10 tips (Debra Atwood)

2 p.m.: General orchid culture (Dennis Olivas)

3 p.m.: Growing orchids affordably in the home and outdoors (Janusz Warszawski)


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