An eye for beauty | March 16, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - March 16, 2012

An eye for beauty

Cymbidium aficionado Weegie Caughlan shares her expertise with orchids

by Carol Blitzer

As a teenager in the 1950s, Weegie Caughlan watered her mom's 20 orchid plants to earn her allowance. But it wasn't until she and her then-husband moved into the family home in the Los Altos hills in 1976, that she began to grow her own collection — now close to 1,000 cymbidiums.

Orchids abound on her 2.5-acre property, with a few choice plants in the conservatory adjacent to the main house, and hundreds outside on long tables, organized by where they are in the growing spectrum (from seedlings to blooming spikes); still more thrive in a moist, temperature-controlled greenhouse; and yet more in a netted lath house, which is filled with blooming plants.

Caughlan likes to call it an "out-of-control hobby," but it's actually quite organized. Each plant lives both outside and on an Excel spreadsheet, monitoring when it needs to be repotted (she tries to get through one-third of her collection each year). And, once a week she goes around with a hose attached to fertilizer, watering and checking on each plant's basic health.

Over the years, Caughlan evolved into "the orchid lady," who will be sharing her expertise in a couple of upcoming Gamble Garden classes. One will focus on the basics of growing cymbidium orchids, while the other will deal more with dividing the plants and keeping them happy over time.

In class, she'll talk about the various potting media, how to deal with pests and diseases, sun exposure and fertilizer. Students may bring a problem leaf in a plastic bag, but not the whole plant, she said.

She'll also be offering a potting workshop at her home over Memorial Day weekend for members of the Gold Coast Cymbidium Growers and their guests.

Caughlan is an advocate of growing for the environment one has. If one doesn't, "It's like putting a square peg in a round hole. They'll die and you'll be unhappy," she said.

In her conservatory — with its glass roof and walls, ideal for coaxing blooms — she shows her finest examples, including Cym. Regal Ruby 'The Energizer,' which will bloom for six months on one spike, and which recently earned a bronze award from the Cymbidium Society of America and an award of merit from the American Orchid Society.

Wine corks subtly support the sticks that hold up the spikes, heavy with blooms, while Nie-co-Rols, plant-support yoyos, keep a steady pressure on the spikes as they grow.

The bark mix that orchids enjoy breaks down over time, and most plants need to be repotted after three or four years. "It depends on the medium it's potted in," she said. "When it pushes the edge of the pot, there's no room for new growth."

Although she aims to repot one-third of her collection each year, last year the squirrels did so much damage that she needed to repot two-thirds. She prefers three to five bulb clumps plus one with no leaves, per pot. Most of her repotting is done during the summer, before Sept. 1.

Outside, Caughlan keeps her patio plants, later bloomers that can be moved around during summer to avoid direct sun. "Cymbidiums want morning sun and afternoon shade," she said, much like rhododendrons and azaleas.

And they don't like it below 28 degrees. Her site — on a hill overlooking a creek — is an ideal ecosystem where the wind flows down to the creek, making it about 5 degrees warmer than it is only a few blocks away, she said.

Stretched out on long tables are hundreds of plants: seedlings that could take up to seven years to evolve into bloomers; back bulbs that are nurtured for about three years; or potted plants ready for division, which could bloom as early as the following year — as long as the deer or squirrels don't get them.

Although she's done some hybridizing, Caughlan defines herself as "a grower, a finisher," adding that she likes to grow her orchids as well as they can be grown.

Caughlan not only grows cymbidiums she judges them. Her orchid credentials go on forever: She's been president of the Peninsula Orchid Society, twice president of the Malihini Orchid Society and thrice president of the Gold Coast Cymbidium Society (she's currently vice president). She says her interest in judging evolved naturally from her devotion to breeding and raising Great Danes. "I felt I had an eye for good conformation," she said, after purchasing a Paph. Makuli 'The Viper' specimen from Rod McClelland, which earned a prize at her first show.

At that time she'd been growing orchids for around six years and reading incessantly. "I could give as much knowledge as I could take," she said of her decision to become a fully accredited AOS judge.

Asked if she has a favorite, Caughlan was stumped.

"I used to say, 'If there was a fire, I would run off with ... .' Now I can't choose."


For more Home and Real Estate news, visit

What: Growing Cymbidium Orchids with Weegie Caughlan / Class 1

When: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., Saturday, March 31

Where: Carriage House at Gamble Garden, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto

Cost: $40 for nonmembers, $30 for members

Info: 650-329-1356 or

What: Dividing Cymbidium Orchids with Weegie Caughlan / Class 2

When: 9:30 to 11 a.m., Saturday, April 14

Where: Potting area at Gamble Garden, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto

Cost: $30 for nonmembers, $20 for members

Info: 650-329-1356 or

What: Gold Coast Cymbidium Growers Show & Sale

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, April 21

Where: Woodside Road United Methodist Church, 2000 Woodside Road, Redwood City

Cost: Free


What: Memorial Day Weekend Annual Hands On Re-Potting Event

When: 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., Saturday, May 26

Where: private home in Los Altos

Cost: free for members, $8 for guests

Info: for location, more details and to reserve a place, email

Associate Editor Carol Blitzer can be emailed at