Monday, August 29, 2011

The case of the mysterious orchid

The date was April 15, but I don't remember the year.  I had just gotten home from a day in a fabulous woodland garden we were featuring on HGTV's A Gardener's Diary.  I started walking up my driveway just at twilight, looking at the woods and trying to figure out how I could make my English ivy-covered hills look like the garden I'd just seen.  It had contained wonderful native plants - a collection of native azaleas, masses of the not-so-common atamasco lilies, trilliums, foam flower and double flowering dogwoods, to name a few.  

All of a sudden I saw something yellow sticking up about 15 inches out of the ivy.  I did a double take and realized it was a flower.  I made my way about 20 feet up into the woods.  I looked down and stared  in disbelief at what was obviously an orchid.  The broad, striated leaves looked just like the leaves of  lady slippers, native terrestrial orchids we'd just seen that day.

But this flower was amazing.  I'd never seen anything like it.  If you looked at the individual florets, they looked like miniature versions of the orchids we used to receive for proms (was it just our high school, but did anyone else go through the dyed black orchid phase?  I look back at my sophomore year, a picture taken in my living room with my date; a garish black orchid pinned to the waist of the eight foot wide blue billow of froth that was my prom dress).

But back to my woods, and the amazing discovery.  The next day, I called my neighbor Nan, who is sort of our resident naturalist, to come identify the flower.  She (with a stack of heavy books) and her husband (with a fancy camera) arrived to examine the yellowish-peach colored flower stalk.  She leafed through all the books and finally shook her head.  She found a similar flower, but it was pink.  She pronounced that there was no such terrestrial orchid native to Georgia.

I can't remember how long it was (maybe even the next year) until I found out the name of the orchid from three different sources, all at about the same time.

I had sent a picture (no e-mails back then, and no digital cameras) to Don Jacobs, a botanist who was also a plant explorer and had a small nursery with rare plants.  Another glossy photo had gone to Ron Determann, director of the conservatory at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.  The day after I mailed the pictures, I happened to be looking through Tony Avent's catalog from Plant Delights Nursery outside Raleigh, N.C., and all of a sudden I saw a picture of similar orchids.  But they were Japanese.  I was sure my orchid was native, as it was all by itself there in the middle of the woods in Atlanta, Georgia.

I was wrong.  Don Jacobs called first to tell me that it was a specimen of Calanthe discolor, a genus of terrestrial orchids native to Japan.  Then, Ron Determann offered to come look at the flower, but he was almost sure that it was a calanthe.

Ron did come and confirm that this was indeed a Japanese orchid.  In the meantime, I had discovered more flowers around a stump near a dry creek bed.  These flowers, which I had never seen before, had the same striated leaves, but the colors were different.  Three of them were white with brown.  Another was yellow-dark apricot, much like lone, much taller one I first discovered.

This year, not one of the orchids flowered, but new foliage did appear.  I need to clean the ivy from  around that stump and see if that will help with the blooms.  I don't want to tamper too much with the micro-environment, but, because it's been so hot and dry,  I don't think it would hurt to bring in some more humus from the surrounding woods.  

So, where did these orchids come from?  Was there a gardener around here a long time ago who planted them?  But, in the three decades I had lived here, I'd never seen a single bloom until that April day.  Surely I would have noticed something.  Most of the people who lived here when I came in August 1973 have either died or moved away.  There's no one left to ask.  I'm afraid this is one of those mysteries that will forever go unsolved.