Orchid mania takes over Fairchild Garden

orchids2By Madison Fantozzi

This story published in the Miami Herald’s Tropical Life section on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. You can also read online. Photos by Patrick Farrel / Miami Herald

Melana Davison begins her mornings with a three-hour routine, hand watering and plucking any dead leaves from the 4,500 orchids she and her husband keep in their four shade houses in their Homestead backyard.

Davison then starts her workday — making house calls to care for other people’s orchids as part of The Orchidiva, her orchid maintenance company.

She ends her day as president of the Orchid Society of Coral Gables and the South Dade Amateur Orchid Club, facilitating meetings, teaching and talking with more than 130 other orchid lovers.

“The orchids are my therapy,’’ she said.

Davison, 59, wasn’t always an orchid diva. The former accountant said she only thought of orchids as the flower on her grandmother’s corsage until she met her husband 15 years ago.

Jim Davison, 54, a nuclear chemistry supervisor for Florida Power and Light at Turkey Point, has grown orchids for 37 years, since his teenage days. He is the science guy behind the couple’s orchid operation and vice president of the Orchid Society of Coral Gables.

Indeed, orchid growing is a science of intense climate control and rigid plant food diets, but the Davisons share a common message: Don’t be afraid to grow orchids.

“The beauty is that anyone can grow an orchid. Every backyard and each windowsill is a micro-climate,” Melana Davison said. “It’s about learning how to replicate the natural growing conditions for the orchids to thrive, and that’s what makes the hobby so fun — it’s a never-ending learning process.”

This may explain why the Davisons’ obsession has grown beyond their backyard and into their home, which is filled not only with the plants but with paintings, prints and books on the orchid family. In fact, after seven years of schooling, the Davisons are finishing up their studies to become certified American Orchid Society judges.

Being an orchid enthusiast takes work — a lot of it. Seven years ago, the Davisons moved to South Florida from San Diego. Melana Davison mailed each of their 1,500 orchids one by one through two-day priority shipping. It took months.

“I could only mail Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to make sure they weren’t on the road too long,” she said. “Jim was already here and I spent four months sending out plants to him before I could move out.”

Jim Davison began his studies of orchids when he was a teenager in West Covina, Calif., after seeing a picture of a laelia anceps in his biology textbook. The flower is known for pale lavender petals and magenta-lined lips.

“The orchid was growing on my neighbor’s tree and it looked like it was right out of the book, painted onto the bark,” he said.

At 17, he got his first orchid, which he quickly killed by placing it under a heater vent in the winter.

“It dried up and died,” he said, “but you’re not a real grower if you haven’t killed an orchid or two.”

One of Jim Davison’s more recent projects is the Bulbophyllum lasiochilum, which grows on moss-covered trees in Indonesia. When his plant was failing in its pot, he wrapped it around a piece of tree branch that hangs from a shadehouse post.

This winter, it bloomed more than 200 flowers.

“It immediately took to the branch and when you have these successes, you want to share them with other growers,” he said.

orchids3It’s why the Davisons sit on three orchid society boards and are involved with the South Florida Orchid Society, Pan Am Orchid Society and Eastern Airlines Orchid Society. Employees of Pan American Airways and Eastern Airlines started their societies more than 30 years ago.

“There used to be this stigma that orchid growing was only for rich old people,” Jim Davison said. “Today, societies are full of people of all ages and diverse backgrounds. Some have a few orchids, some have hundreds.

“It’s not about a green thumb. It’s about experimenting. It’s trial and error. Societies are about sharing those experiences and exchanging that information.”

Thanks to the popularity of orchid growing, the different types of orchids being grown has changed considerably, leading to more variety and lower prices.

“It used to be that you had to buy vandas or phalaenopsis from your local nursery for high prices,” Melana Davison said. “Today, you can get an orchid from Home Depot for less than $20. It has become more accessible to the young, working person, and then they catch orchid fever.’’

Societies help to alleviate costs too, sharing resources and materials with its members. Members can split bottles of expensive fungicide, for example. Most recently, the Davisons hosted a slab of North Carolina stalite slate in their driveway for members to take chunks and break up for potting their orchids. The volcanic slate is a PH neutral medium that holds moisture and nutrients suitable for orchid roots.

Even with today’s resources and societies, the Davisons don’t dismiss the difficulties of orchid growing, particularly in South Florida. Challenges include wet summers, unexpected cold fronts and the occasional hurricane.

Michael Gaine, 33, said with his knowledge from the Orchid Society of Coral Gables, he was able to bloom his yellow Cattleya hybrid from his east-facing apartment balcony after it was dormant for almost 25 years.

The flower was a hybrid cross-pollinated by Gaine’s father, who was president of the South Florida Orchid Society in the mid-’70s. He registered the orchid with Michael’s name a few years before his passing, when Gaine was only 5. Gaine considered its bloom a “borderline-paranormal” experience.

“I’ve seen seagulls, pelicans and parrots fly by the balcony of my 29th-floor apartment, but I’ve never witnessed anything quite as magnificent as this in the eight years that I’ve resided on the outskirts of downtown Miami,” Gaine said. “By then I was convinced that growing Cattleyas in a South Florida apartment setting was entirely feasible.”

He took the cut flowers to his father’s grave in Ocala.

Today, society members are preparing for the 12th Annual International Orchid Festival at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. The festival, which starts Friday and runs through the weekend, usually gets about 10,000 attendees.

The Orchid Society of Coral Gables hosts the festival’s American Orchid Society Show, one of the largest displays of member-grown plants.

“When we are putting in a society display, it is always a surprise,” Melana Davison said. “For a society display, you have to work with what comes in the door at 9 a.m. set-up day.”

Fairchild and the Orchid Society of Coral Gables have an ongoing relationship, including working on the garden’s Million Orchid Project, in which the groups are trying to reintroduce 1 million native orchids back into South Florida. Florida has the most number of species of wild orchids in the country, with about 118 different species.

“However, you have to do a lot of searching and deep-forest trekking to find them,” Melana Davison said. “We have found about seven walking to the easy parts of the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp.”

The Davisons have recently gone to Guatemala in search of orchids and hope to take future trips to other places on their quest.

“When you bloom an orchid for the first time, you have this great sense of accomplishment,” Jim Davison said. “That’s when that orchid fever takes over and leads to flat-out orchid mania.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s