Masdevallia Orchids

From the mountainous fog forests of Colombia, Peru and Costa Rica comes a group of orchids known as the Masdevallias. Although these plants grow near the equator, the temperatures they experience are seldom more than 65 degrees, owing to their habitat, which extends to 12,000 feet above sea level.
I was introduced to Masdevallias by Maria Deluca, a student of mine who attempted to explain her “obsession with this and many other orchids” in an essay titled “The Trouble With Orchids.”
“It’s not just that orchids have a higher monetary value than most other plants,” wrote Deluca, “or that their care strikes fear into the heart of the uninitiated (an undeserved reputation for fussiness); it’s the pace of their development and the reward of their eventual bloom that have seduced me, and many others before me, into the collection and coveting of these beauties. Orchids grow in such a leisurely, yet measured way that I am fascinated watching their development.
“Each new leaf or flower stalk arrives so slowly that you are far more aware of the process of their growth than for most other plants. The flower buds appear, and in most cases open, over such a long period (some of mine taking up to three weeks to spread their precious petals outward) that it can be almost painful waiting. But the fully opened flowers, at once familiar and ever strange, are always worth the wait. With their delicate beauty, rich in color or pure white, and their deep interior spaces – bearded, smooth or scented – an orchid bloom never disappoints.
“Unfortunately, like most good things in life, orchid blooms are few and far between, some blooming only once a year, with perhaps a single flower. So, implicit in the painfully slow process of watching their growth, is the anticipation of that long-awaited flowering.
“I awoke this morning to find, much to my dismay, that the last three blooms on my Masdevallia (named for the 18th-century Spanish botanist, Jose Masdevall), had just begun to fade. The flower of this Masdevallia has an exotic, funnel-like shape approximately 2 inches long, with a three-lobed corolla, each section narrowing into a thin needle which extends out from the flower in graceful curves about 1-1/2 inches in length. My Masdevallia happens to be a lush coppery orange with shimmering magenta iridescence along the inner curve of the corolla (flower petals).
“My sense of dismay at the fading of the Masdevallia blooms is bittersweet – remembering the pleasure its blooming has so recently provided me, knowing the wait ahead until its next bloom and already anticipating the pleasures to come. There is a haunting similarity between this mixed set of blessings orchids bring and the cycle of pleasure and pain one endures in the pursuit of love. Perhaps this explains the attraction of these exotic plants: the addictive nature of anticipation, explosive pleasure and disappearance.”
Deluca ends her ode to the Masdevallia flower and to love itself with the following affirmation of faith: “We know someday, if we wait, the object of our desire will appear again.”
Masdevallias, which are epiphytes or tree-dwellers, require a humid environment. They should be misted each morning and placed on trays filled with gravel and water. Air circulation around them is nearly always wet, strong winds keep stirring the moisture-laden atmosphere, which would otherwise stifle their growth. The more light they receive, the cooler the air temperature around them should be.
From slow-blooming, tropical orchids to slow-growing, desert shrubs. I recently wrote here about the oldest plants on Earth, the creosote bushes (Larrea tridentata), giving the age of their oldest living representatives at 12,000 years. This prompted a letter from Betty Forgey, who lives in Boron in the Mojave Desert and writes that the creosote bush only grows a few millimeters each year. She informs me that Johnson Valley (east of Lucerne Valley and northeast of Palm Springs) is the home of King Clone, a circle of creosote bushes which – relying in the carbon dating of Dr. Frank Vasek – are 19,000 years old. Forgey has earned a citation from the Nature Conservancy for her efforts to save King Clone.
Tip of the week: By way of e-mail, Al Fournier has asked for a solution to his nutgrass or nutsedge problem. There is a new herbicide called Manage, developed by Monsanto, which controls nutgrass in certain situations. However, you will need to contact a pest control company to apply this product, as it is not presently available to the general public. The only other way to get rid of nutsedge is to move out of the neighborhood. Alternately, you could develop a taste for the underground nuts which, in some parts of Africa, are part of the local diet.

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