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Shadyside orchid show helps to cultivate hobby for enthusiasts

| Friday, March 15, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
A display at last year's Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania show.
Carol Panza
A display at last year's Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania show.
Carol Panza
Arlene Ricker
Arlene Ricker

Some of the world's most exotic plants will be in bloom at the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania's annual show March 23 and 24 at the Phipps Garden Center in Shadyside.

“An Orchid Obsession” will feature prize-winning exhibits, vendors from as far as Ecuador, and workshops on orchid selection and care. Admission is free and open to the public.

“We time the show to be a visual treat, but we also want to show people that orchid-growing needn't be intimidating or expensive,” says society President Arlene Ricker of North Strabane.

Ricker began growing orchids 12 years ago after receiving an elegant, pink dendrobium as a gift. It spurred an interest that became “an addiction,” she says. “Once you get your first orchid, you want more.”

Ricker's home is now filled with 45 orchids, including miltonia, pansy-faced varieties with roots in South American rain forests.

It is just one of more than 800 known genera of orchids, which comprise the world's largest plant family and range from common to rare. With more than 26,000 species, orchids vary in their growing requirements, but many are easier to cultivate than people may think, Ricker says.

“If you can grow an African violet on a window sill, you can grow an orchid,” she says.

Show chairwoman Carolyn Bolton has 300 orchids in her Jefferson Hills home, a collection she didn't envision 30 years ago when her first foray into orchid-growing ended in disappointment.

“I'd purchased a lady slipper for my father because I thought it was so pretty,” she says. “But when he went to Florida for the winter, it died in my care.”

Despite the loss, though, she'd become hooked on the orchid's exotic charm.

“Growing orchids became a challenge,” says Bolton, who joined the orchid society so she could attend workshops and lectures, and eventually served a term as the organization's president.

Today, she owns dozens of lady slippers, including a variety native to Mexico that is her favorite. “It's white, and I just love the intricately shaped flower,” she says. “It's the most expensive orchid I've ever purchased. It cost me $90.”

Rare orchids that are difficult to propagate can fetch much more than that, but varieties that can be cloned are now common and affordable.

Phalaenopsis and dendrobium — genera typically found at big-box stores — can sell for as little as $10 or $15, according to Dave Buresch, a live nursery specialist at Lowe's in Homestead, and a lecturer at this weekend's show.

With a personal collection of more than 200 orchids, Buresch of Carrick says phalaenopsis — sometimes called “moth orchids” because the blooms resemble moths in flight — is the ideal orchid for beginners.

“ ‘Phals' will flower for three solid months, which is fantastic, and they're the easiest type of orchids to grow,” he says.

Potting mixtures include bark chips and sphagnum moss, rather than soil, to replicate orchid habitats in the wild.

Some orchids, including slipper varieties found in Pennsylvania forests, do grow in soil, but most are epiphytes, meaning they take root in the debris that collects in the crotches of trees or between rocks on the sides of cliffs. Their roots need air circulation, and derive moisture and nutrients from the environment.

In the right growing conditions, even unusual species can be cultivated by serious hobbyists, according to Carol Panza, whose rare black orchid, Fdk. After Dark Black Ice — a plant with 42 blooms — won an award last year for its perfect shape and color from the American Orchid Society.

Panza will help construct the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania's exhibit that will take center stage at next weekend's show. Featuring more than 50 plants borrowed from society members and a waterfall, it will be the largest display in the show and will compete with dozens of other entries for American Orchid Society awards. The society's entry has won Orchid Digest magazine awards in each of the past two years, Panza says.

“We never know exactly what we're going to get until the day before, but you'll see all different shapes, colors and sizes, from 2¼-inch pots with a single bloom to large specimen plants, and there will be plenty of variety.”

Panza discovered her passion for orchids 10 years ago and credits the society with teaching her what she knows. “You can learn a lot off the Internet,” she says. “But joining the society, coming to monthly meetings, is where you'll learn the most.”

Bolton agrees. “When I first joined, I was a little intimidated by the word ‘society.' But most orchid groups call themselves societies, and they include people from every walk of life, from construction workers to doctors and nurses,” she says.

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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