The Million Women March and a recent trip to the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, just as the organization was installing its annual winter orchid show, have me thinking about relationships — between individuals and society, between plants and their habitat, and between our fundamental needs and how we demand they be met. By definition, most orchids are epiphytes: organisms that require another organism on which to grow, but that do not take any energy or nutrients from the organism that houses them and provides them with support. Epiphytes are different from parasites. Parasites feed on their hosts and can destroy them in the process, although it is thought that they too play an important role in the natural order of the earth. Parasites and epiphytes remind me that horticulture, often viewed as above the political fray, offers classifications that provide metaphors for the world around us, and certainly for the inhabitants of Washington, D.C.
Orchids are one form of epiphytic plants, but mosses, lichens and tillandisias (commonly known as air plants) are also part of this classification. These plants, which cling to the trunks of trees or hang from branches like the Spanish moss we think of when we think of the romantic evergreen oaks of the deep South, take their nutrients from the surrounding air and water, simply using their host as a place to live. By their nature, they seem benevolent.
As I walked through the Phipps as the orchid show was being installed and plants covered carts and filled crates throughout the space, I realized that the plants I was seeing were just like the crowds on the Washington Mall (at least on the day after the inauguration.) They seemed too numerous for the space they would fill. It was great to see such a display, but it was also important for these plants and people to be able to go back to their rightful place and have their needs met so that they could continue to prosper and grow. Like the protestors on the Mall, these orchids presented unimaginable range and beauty, each claiming a rightful place in the world beyond this moment. Cypripediums, or lady slippers, in a range of exotic hues sat cheek-to-cheek with white moth orchids, as prim and elegant as Jackie Kennedy in 1961, their flowers reminiscent of a pair of white gloves.
Oncidiums pushed forward their spikes of orange, yellow and red flowers, like the protest signs demanding health care and reproductive rights. The beauty of these oncidiums made me think briefly that perhaps the right-to-lifers have a point and a right to be a part of the event as well, because each flower seemed as precious and beautiful as a new-born child. (I am trying these days to see the validity of opinions of people who think differently from me.)
But, as I watched the staff of the Phipps set innumerable containers of orchids among philodendron and tropical ferns in the display beds and cover the aerial roots of hundreds of moth orchids with bark mulch, I was upset by one aspect of this display. Yes, there are species of orchids, such as Kentucky lady slippers and Spiranthes, that are terrestrial and grow in woodland and meadow soils, but others, which grow in the crooks of trees high in the air, should be displayed in their true state. Just as the men and women on the Mall were diverse in appearance and in what they needed in order to prosper, so, too,
were these plants. In these emotional times, with so many people disconcerted by the inauguration and the election, the demonstrations offered a display of large numbers of people who had come from their far-flung homes to make a statement. But, it was equally important for us all to go back from whence we came and demand that our day-to-day needs as individuals be met, so that we can each play our role in our local environment and in the world more broadly. I think it is important that we plant ourselves and our ideas back home where they will prosper and grow, and not only in some display that, though effective, is momentary. The months and years ahead require us to think in a new manner, digging deeper, and occasionally placing our roots, like those of some orchids, on display where others can see them.
I will leave understanding parasites and their purpose for another day.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.