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My orchid finally bites the dust

an orchid in a pot
Ralph Gardner Jr.
The author's late lamented orchid

It took more than a decade but my orchid finally called it quits. It threw in the towel. It cashed in its chips. I remember exactly when I acquired the plant because I wrote a story in the Wall Street Journal associated with it that came to include a published correction. I bought the orchid at a plant sale at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on May 5th, 2010.

The reason for the correction is that I mistakenly called the Brooklyn Botanic Garden the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. For anybody who buys the fake news nonsense of Donald Trump and others let it be known that journalists can be called onto the carpet for an error as minor as describing a botanic garden a botanical garden.

Frankly, I didn’t feel the need to call attention to my error and issue a correction – couldn’t we just have quietly fixed the mistake online? – but my editors didn’t feel that way. In fact, they kept score. There were correction quotas. You were only permitted a certain number before your job was in jeopardy.

I have no idea what kind of orchid it was – besides an uncooperative one. It was in bloom when I bought it – might the petals have been yellow? – but quickly lost them. The plant appeared as healthy and hearty as could be but it never blossomed again.

I’m not one of those people who’s obsessed with orchids. But I can understand why someone might fall into that trap. The desire to nurture them, to watch new shoots emerge, grow and then sprout buds that will turn into stunning blossoms brings out latent maternal instincts in even the most cold-blooded.

It also appeals to the cheapskate in me. Every time the plant goes dormant but then returns to bloom three or six or twelve months later I feel as if I’ve been given a new free orchid. It grieves me when I see people who receive them as gifts discard them once the petals fall off, assuming they’re dead. They remain very much alive.

But the aforementioned orchid was enough to try even the most devoted orchid lover’s patience. I never lost hope. I watered it religiously every week. I spritzed it with orchid growing mist. I pleaded with it. I even consulted experts.

While visiting a friend at Rockefeller University in New York City I spotted a windowed climate-controlled chamber that I assume was intended to house perishable laboratory cells and bacteria. But it was filled, top to bottom, with exotic orchids; a few of them in bloom. Rockefeller scientists, many of them Nobel Prize winners, are the masters of their laboratories and can do whatever they darn well please with their equipment. It’s one of the perks of genius. And this researcher decided to use his to grow houseplants.

I delicately requested my friend ask the scientist for advice on my orchid and why it was being such a, well, little whatever? She returned with my answer. It needed to be in a high humidity environment, essentially an incubator such as his. I wasn’t about to build a safe house for my one dumb orchid; I had several others that seemed to do just fine under real world conditions.

But I bought a portable mini-greenhouse and, much to my wife’s chagrin, placed it in our guest bedroom bathroom last winter with its excellent southern light. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

So I decided to practice tough love. Come spring I left it outdoors. I even stopped watering it. It died. Except it didn’t. Among its tangle of stems and stalks I discovered a couple of tiny green shoots. So come fall I took pity on it and brought it indoors for the winter.

But I was fed up and my spouse was doing what spouses normally do when their partner starts to exhibit annoying, perhaps obsessive behavior: she wondered whether my orchid fixation, my inability to throw away an obviously dead plant, was a symptom of some larger character defect: a fetish for irrelevant details when there are so many other things begging for ones’ attention in a two-hundred-year- old house.

It probably was. But since I have only about 150 words to go in this commentary there’s not enough space to dwell on my flaws. In a last ditch effort to resurrect the plant I swaddled it in bubble wrap and masking-taped it shut. My hope was to create something like a makeshift self-sustaining terrarium, to recreate the effects of a tropical rainforest or whatever environment could muster the humidity and nutrients that this hothouse flower demanded.

Then I put it in our basement, by a window that provided natural light. I didn’t so much as give it a glance the entire winter. Come spring I unwrapped it assuming it would be dead or perhaps have miraculously resurrected itself. This story has no happy ending except that it’s over now.

Last week I tossed its remains into the woods where I hope it will return to the soil and give life to other living things. My sadness has been alleviated by a less temperamental white orchid that I’ve been watching and watering all winter. It has now blossomed with a dozen or more glorious flowers. I’ll occasionally purchase a new orchid – knowing the risks -- and adopting those belonging to friends who don’t have my patience. Or maybe they just have a life.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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