We speak with Kiwi gardeners who have a passion for the world’s second-largest family of flowering plants, ahead of October's Orchids & More event.
WORDS Vivienne Bailey
Orchids tend to be a theatrical bunch, exuding a hint of glamorous Hollywood drama. Some are streaked or speckled, often in a spectacular manner; others have aerial roots that grip like gnarly tentacles around logs and rocks. Even the pretty ones possess an otherworldly, almost supernatural appearance.
Gazing at their sometimes-strange shapes and super-dazzling colours, it’s easy to think orchids are rare, possibly hard to grow. On the contrary, New Zealand orchid expert Ross Tucker says while it’s possible to kill these tolerant plants with kindness, it’s not easy to kill them with neglect.
There is also nothing rare about this enormous plant family, second in size only to the daisies (Asteraceae) in the flowering plant kingdom, with more than 25,000 species plus 100,000 hybrids created by plant breeders. Orchid plants range from our dainty native orchid to heavyweights from the steaming Central American jungles and misty Asian mountains.
Belonging to the family Orchidaceae, the origin of these diverse, non-woody perennials can be traced back to 500BC in China, Greece and Rome, making the orchid also one of the world’s oldest plant groups. During the 18th century, explorers of the New World discovered and returned orchid varieties to their respective home countries.
Growing without soil
Generally, orchids are terrestrial (growing in the ground) or epiphytic (growing on other plants). In their natural environment, these inherently easy-care plants grow on logs or in rocks (lithophytes) without need for soil, taking nourishment from decayed leaves, bird droppings and occasional rain.
It is this aesthetic that drew Tauranga Orchid Society member Caleb Lamond to the concept of growing his orchids on mounts such as wood or fern fibre.
“It imitates the natural way they grow on trees,” he explains. “Like growing on branches and in crooks of trees where water gathers. Not many grow naturally in the ground.”
Caleb has been growing orchids for more than 20 years, his interest triggered while observing New Zealand orchids in the wild. “I love the delicate types like our own native orchid,” he says. Caleb’s full-on orchid fever began while studying biological sciences at the University of Waikato.
“I began to appreciate the diversity and beauty of the orchid family, enough that I attended my first Tauranga Orchid Show.”
He recalls being amazed by the more unusual, interesting-looking plants on display, such as the white, almost miniature Angraecum didieri and falling for a Dendrobium tetragonum.
“It was hiding amongst a group of the more familiar, bright exotic blooms,” he says. “Its bizarre, wiry, angular stems, intricate spidery flowers and delicious scent must have made an impact because I have been collecting and cultivating orchids ever since.”
Caleb’s collection is grown in an assortment of locations, including several spaces inside the house where he uses LED lights, fans, humidifiers and heating to create environments suitable for seedlings and warmer-growing plants. But, defying the common misconception that orchids are pampered hothouse beauties, he also grows orchids outside on the decks, hanging from the eaves, in the garden, planted in trees, hanging in trees and in dedicated staging areas under the trees.
“Most will put up with a surprising amount of wind if they are attached securely, such as on a tree with rough textured bark so the orchid has something to grip onto,” he says. “But when mounting an orchid, I like to use harder woods, such as feijoa, mānuka, rātā, pōhutukawa.”
Caleb also grows many orchids in an open shade house, including his favourite, Angraecum didieri, although he tells me he brings it inside on nights below freezing.
“Many orchids are moderately frost-hardy providing you site them carefully,” he says. “The shelter of an evergreen tree rather than a deciduous type is a good way to provide shelter. But, for me, the diversity of orchids is a big part of the attraction, and having a range of growing conditions allows me to grow a wider variety of plants.”
From hobby to profession
The elevated habits of orchids mean they also work well in smaller gardens where they’ll grow in places other plants don’t fancy, such as the hairy legs and ankles of tree ferns, locations that would otherwise be a wasted space.
The ultimate toughies in the orchid world must be the cymbidiums, whose great grandparents came from the Himalayas so they find our climate congenial. Hardy down to freezing temperatures and surviving our winter season with minimal protection, these resilient plants are a full-time obsession for Eva Yin, a Horowhenua-based specialist cymbidium grower.
Eva arrived in New Zealand in 2006 as an international student, escaping the stressful life of Beijing. Like Caleb, she became enthralled with orchids while studying horticulture.
“I got a part-time job in one of Auckland’s biggest cut flower orchid nurseries. The first time I walked in I was astonished by the rows and rows of cymbidium orchids,” she explains. “I was obsessed. I wanted to start collecting. I couldn’t stop!”
After graduating, she gained a full-time position at the nursery and began growing orchids in a small greenhouse in her backyard. “At the beginning it was a hobby, but I managed to grow about 150 plants in a tiny 3m by 2m greenhouse.”
In 2011 Eva moved to Waikanae, north of Wellington, purchasing a large nursery from renowned orchid breeder, Norm Porter. Although run-down, the owner was selling his plants at a cheap price. Eva borrowed money, took over all the stock and leased the greenhouse from the landowner.
“I lived in a garage and worked part-time in a local supermarket at nights. In the daytime I tidied and upgraded the nursery,” she says. “It was incredibly hard work in those early days, struggling to bring the business back to life.”
Now based in Manakau, south of Levin (after moving 1500 orchid plants from Waikanae to her present position), Eva cultivates thousands of orchids for the local market from her 1000sqm greenhouse, creating her own hybrids by pollinating the flowers, harvesting the seed pods and sending them to a laboratory for germination and incubation, a process that can take several months.
She mainly grows cooler climate orchids but says even inexperienced gardeners can grow cymbidiums outside in New Zealand provided they have shelter from wind, rain and direct sunlight in summer.
“Any protected area outside is okay, though they are best grown in the North Island and the top of the South.” She advises repotting every two years, in spring, never after Christmas “or you may miss a season’s flowering”, and recommends using an orchid potting mix, generally consisting of a mixture of fine and coarse barks, the consistency varying with the type of orchid grown.
Cymbidiums should flower once a year but often have early and late spikes so blooming time is extended, making them a plus in my garden. I ask Eva if she has a favourite cymbidium, but it seems she loves them all: “So many colours, forms, shapes!”
With so many species and hybrids from such diverse parts of the world, you are certain to find an orchid that will grow in your climate, remembering that the key to successful orchid growing is to replicate their original habitat as closely as you can.
Caleb Lamond is a speaker at the upcoming Orchids & More show (including the 10th National Orchid Expo, a triennial event) at Mystery Creek Events Centre in Hamilton,
29 September to 1 October 2023.