Memories of Whittier: Tending My Grandmother’s Orchids

Memories of Whittier: Tending My Grandmother’s Orchids

Nearly every morning during my college years I was awakened by the splattering sound of water on concrete has my mother watered her Cymbidium orchids. I had brought her these orchids from my grandmother’s house, where I first learned to tend them.

Orchids are not native to Southern California. Cymbidium orchids mostly come from Asia. Most come from wet, steamy tropical forests. A few come from Australia, like the snake orchid (pictured), the tiger orchid, and the buttercup orchid. Perhaps the hardy Cymbidium plants I grew up tending in Whittier were from a drier climate like Australia. They did very well in the ground in southern California and we had an abundance of flowers most years.

Whatever their origin, these plants propagated quickly. My grandmother had 50 or 60 Cymbidium orchids planted in pots and in the ground along her fence line. Cymbidium orchids grow from bulbs and have long, narrow, pointed leaves. The flowers grow on long spikes that start down at the bulb. They grow out longer than the leaves which are about 18” and have between 10-25 flowers per spike.

Cymbidium flower spikes are very delicate and can be easily broken so much care must be taken once they appear. By contrast, the plants are extremely hardy and take little care. Because the bulbs multiply, the plants need repotting occasionally.

Because my grandmother had so many of these plants, she needed extra help to make sure they didn’t outgrow their pots. The Cymbidium will expand and fill the pot, they can also break the pot. If plants are not transplanted to larger quarters, they abandon some of the bulbs and leave them to die off. All the bulbs will grow leaves, but only a few will have flowers spikes each year. The years we had no flowers at all left my grandmother disappointed, so I learned how to keep up with her orchids.

The Cymbidium are not as aggressive as Phalaenopsis (moth orchids) which will actually grow out of their pots. They “crawl” over the edge and the roots reach out into space almost as if they are an invertebrate animal crawling out of an enclosure.

SmintBoyUK / Creative Commons

I tended my grandmother’s orchids in pots and in the ground. My grandmother gave me some of each color as her collection expanded. I took these and gave them to my mother, as I planned to move to Washington, DC after college.

When I relocated back to California in the mid-80s, my grandmother began giving me her cymbidium orchids again. The orchids have many colors and variations in flower patterns. My favorite is the green flowering Cymbidium, but I had cream, yellow, orange, purple and white as well. I began to have an impressive collection—40 or 50 plants of my own. Before my grandmother died, I acquired most of her remaining plants. I also acquired many of my mother’s orchids when she moved from Whittier to Fountain Valley.

When my wife and I moved to Missouri, I did not want to leave behind these plants that connected me to my mother and my grandmother. We decided to bring them to our new home. I carefully dug up some from the beds, and removed all the potted orchids, wrapping each in wet newspaper and plastic bags with rubber bands. These were placed in large green trash bags and placed into a two-foot cube moving box and sent to Missouri.

The boxes did not make the trip undamaged and some plants were lost. Most plants made the trip okay, but Missouri is not the ideal climate for orchids or tropical plants. Living in the Midwest, my grandmother’s orchids require extra care. They live outside in filtered sunlight from about late April until the first freeze, and then I move them inside for the winter.

I tend them weekly as I did at my grandmother’s in Whittier. We have lost several over the years. Each year when the survivors bloom, they remind me of my grandmother’s garden and Whittier a long time ago.

Photo: Doug Ford / Creative Commons

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