Little jewels

“Orchids keep me sane,” says Wilma Fitzgibbons of her plant collection, “but I think they drive my husband insane.”

Wilma has had Parkinson’s disease since 2007, diagnosed when recovering from breast cancer, and enjoys retreating to the peace of her plants, although problems with a knee meant husband Tony had to take over watering for a long while, hence the “insane” comment.

Wilma Fitzgibbons in her orchid house. Photo: Sandra Simpson

She is this week getting ready for the annual Bay of Plenty Orchid Society show in Te Puke on Friday and Saturday (April 8 and 9) from 10am-4pm. Wilma not only has orchids in the judged section but also puts plenty of plants on the sales table.

Raised in Mount Maunganui – and recalling as a teenager catching the ferry to work in Tauranga (sitting by the funnel in winter to stay warm) – Wilma lives in Papamoa where, because of frosts and salt-laden winds, she grows her orchids under cover.

She prefers smaller orchids, some of them extremely miniature, and has an array of magnifying glasses for visitors to view and appreciate the flowers. Small plants means she can fit more into her greenhouse and grows them both in pots (on layered shelves) and mounted on wood, ranging from hard wood to cork (hanging in tiers on racks). There are another three shade houses in the back yard, containing mostly bromeliads and tillandsias with an orchid here and there, plus more bromeliads outside.

The flowers of Aerangis mystacidii, a plant native to southern Africa. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Wilma joined the Bay of Plenty Orchid Society in 1980, taken along by friends who later dropped out, and since then has been newsletter editor, secretary, president and is now treasurer.

She is also a member of the Tauranga Orchid Society (which meets in the evening; the BOP society has daytime meetings) and when she spent 15 months working in Auckland Wilma joined a subtropical plant group and a cycad group. “I’ll grow anything,” she says. “Anything that tickles my fancy.”

Aerangis hyaloides mounted on a piece of cork. This orchid, grown by Helen McDonald, is native to one area in Madagascar. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The highlight of her involvement with orchids was a 1996 trip to South America that included the world conference in Brazil and a night’s stay at the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru.

“As a collector I prefer species orchids over hybrids so to see them in their natural environment among the ruins was a dream come true. The day-tourists left at 3pm and then the mist came down. It was magic.

“The plants can be interesting in their own right – their roots, the way they hang, their new growths – even without flowers,” Wilma says. “But you have to keep looking at them, a flower spike can appear almost overnight.”

Aerangis luteo alba var. rhodosticta is a miniature orchid native to Kenya (this plant grown by Helen McDonald). Wilma notes that ‘in captivity’ the plants only seem to live 5-7 years. Photo: Sandra Simpson

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

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