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Interview with the Orchid Doctor, Dennis Westler

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7) Are some orchids closer to your heart than others?

A difficult question to answer. Often the orchids closest to my heart are the ones in bloom at the moment.

I am a big fan of the Lady Slippers. They are simple vegetatively, but the flowers are complex and bizarre in their colors and patterns. I love the Masdevallias because many of them grow easily outdoors in the Bay Area. They are often very brightly colored, and the uninitiated find them distinctly unorchid-like.

Then there are the Pterostylis, an Australian group that grow in soil, from tubers. The flowers are green and white and brown and very odd (the common name is "greenhoods"). What I really like about them is that they have an irritable lip that traps their pollinator using the same kind of cellular mechanism a venus flytrap uses to close its leaf trap. Of course, after the insect struggles long enough to pick up the pollen, the lip relaxes and lets the insect go.

I also love the Pleiones, deciduous orchids with gorgeous flowers that spring up before the leaves. They are kind of like cherry blossoms to me, an intense beauty made poignant by their brevity. Unlike many orchids they only last a week to 10 days.

8) I read that orchids can grow on every continent but Antarctica -- and that they are native to all states. Which species are native to the San Francisco Bay Area? Where can people find them?

Probably the most spectacular native orchid in these parts is Calypso bulbosa. These bloom in March and April and are found most often in association with stands of Redwood or Douglas Fir. They have one leaf that hugs the ground and the flower spikes stand about three inches tall. The flowers are about an inch or so with bright orchid pink to purple petals and sepals, the lip is shaped like a slipper and is richly colored in white with bronzy orange, and deep purplish stripes inside. The common name is “fairy slipper” or “Venus’ Slipper” . Probably the best place to see them is on Mount Tamalpais. They can be found along the Cataract Trail, some years in great numbers. Unfortunately this plant has never been successfully transplanted or nursery grown from seed.

Growing in the same area will be Goodyera oblongifolia, the western rattlesnake plantain. This is a summer flowering orchid with little white flowers, but the foliage is evergreen and very beautiful, a rich green with white mottling around the midvein.

You can also find the Coralroots (Corallorhiza) blooming in mid-to-late April. These are saprophytic orchids. They live on rotting organic matter in association with specific fungus, have no chlorophyll, and never produce leaves. The only growth that they produce above ground is their flowers which are on thin, eight-to-twelve-inch-long stems and look sort of like tiny Cymbidiums in shades of brown and white. These are often seen on the Sawyer Camp Trail by Crystal Springs Reservoir.

One can also find Spiranthes and Piperia species in the Bay Area, but they are not as showy. Our prolonged dry season here in California gives us a smaller number of orchid species than some other parts of the country.

9) What advice would you give to an orchid novice attending a show like the Pacific Orchid Exposition? And if purchasing an orchid, which species should they consider?

I encourage novices to take their time and let all the variety and beauty sink in. Write down the names of plants that interest you: the complete name, because the part in quotes (the clone name) is meaningless without all the rest -- genus, and species or grex (hybrid) name. I also encourage novices to come to the Orchid Doctor desk and take a tour of the show, or ask questions. Plan on spending a few hours, there is a lot to see.

There are really few specific species to consider, as genus is the more important thing. And often a hybrid will be easier for a beginner, as hybrids tend to be more forgiving. Most people feel beginners should start with Phalaenopsis or Paphiopedilums, but some will do better with a Cattleya or Dendrobium. If you have space outdoors with good light, Cymbidiums are great for beginners.

In purchasing an orchid you want to try growing and reblooming, you should be prepared to accurately describe your conditions to a vendor: your available light, the temperature range in your house, whether you like to water or not, that sort of thing. I feel that one of the best ways to enjoy orchid growing is to find the plants best suited to your temperament and to your conditions.

10) This year, the Pacific Orchid Exposition highlights environmental preservation. How will the 2009 exposition differ from previous expos in terms of this particular focus?

We have encouraged our exhibitors to provide information in their displays about what they do to keep their businesses or hobby green -- and what we all can do. We expect a great deal more informational content about orchids this year than in the past. So the show will be as beautiful as it has ever been, but richer in educational content. At my Orchid Doctor desk I will be distributing information about organizations that are on the forefront of orchid preservation. Most notably, the Orchid Conservation Alliance and Orchid Conservation Coalition.

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