40 years of orchids

The Tauranga Orchid Show takes place at the Racecourse from this Friday (September 20) to Sunday, open daily from 10am-4pm, $3 adult entry. As well as a massed display of flowering plants, there will be orchids for sale, repotting demonstrations, a display by Tauranga Porcelain Painters, and bromeliads and clivias for sale.

Almost 40 years ago Isabel Clotworthy was given a Cymbidium orchid as a thank-you present – now she has some 600 orchids in her home and shade-houses at Papamoa.

“And I’ve downsized,” she laughs. “At one time I would have had about 2000 plants.”

Like most orchid enthusiasts it was the reliable Cymbidium and their long stems of flowers that got her hooked and, like most orchid enthusiasts, she has moved on from the cut-flower staple.

“Cymbidiums are good to start with,” Isabel says. “They’re fairly easy to grow and fairly hard to kill.”

A hybrid Dockrillia orchid.

These days the majority of her collection comprises Phalaenopsis, Dendroboium, Masdevallia and Sarcochilus orchids, with a “few other bits and pieces” – and only one Cymbidium. The highlight of Isabel’s orchid showing so far has been Best Cattleya at the 2003 Wanganui Orchid Show but she no longer has any Cattleya after a frost got inside the glasshouse and killed them all.

Isabel began her orchid-growing career in Tokoroa, despite the difficult climate that one year included a frost on January 1, and joined the Waikato Orchid Society to learn more about the plants.

“When we moved to Papamoa 23 years ago I thought ‘bliss, I’ll be able to grow lots of things’,” Isabel says. “Then we got hit by wind and frost the first year we were here. One year the salt spray stripped all the leaves off the camellias.”

However, the (mostly) more temperate climate has allowed her to fall in love with Phalaenopsis orchids (moth orchids), said to be the most popular house plant in the world.

Phalaenopsis Orchid World Red.

“Some are said to be shy flowerers,” Isabel says, “and I’ve had one that has flowered for the first time in three years. But when they do flower, they’re out for weeks. A stem can flower for three or four months.” She advises that if plants are “sulking” try moving them round to find a spot they like.

“They like free-flowing air and not being in stuffy rooms but, having said that, I’ve got one fussy fellow who lives by the fireplace in winter.”

She moves her Phalaenopsis from the house into a cold shadehouse at the end of February for three to four weeks to “jolt them into producing new flower spikes” and once she has the flower tries to keep her living room and shade-houses as insect-free as possible – once an insect pollinates a flower it turns brown and falls.

“Some of the flowers are very highly scented, particularly at night-time, to attract moths so it’s difficult to stop.”

Phalaenopsis Golden Sun x Bedford.

Isabel, a member of the Tauranga Orchid Society, says the secret to her success is “worm tea”, a fertiliser made from worm castings some members of the society pooh-pooh and that previously she herself thought was nonsense.

“Some boys came to the door selling worm tea for a school. I didn’t really want it but bought some to help out. I used it on plants destined for the compost bin and was amazed at the results. It’s the only fertiliser I use now.”

She immediately bought her own worm farm that now produces 12 litres of liquid every fortnight and, as it’s diluted at a rate of 1 dessertspoon to 2 litres of water, Isabel has plenty to go round.

“It’s known as liquid gold in the plant world and I can see why. I use it on everything  – orchids, bromeliads, vegetables and flowers. It works a treat.”

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.

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