The winter might seem like an odd time to grow orchids, but more than 60 people left their homes and braved the 6-degree weather on Saturday to attend the Five Valleys Orchid Society show and sale at Caras Nursery.
Attendees packed the greenhouse to listen to informational talks, ask questions and vote on their favorite orchids.
Orchids have long attracted a group of dedicated collectors, obsessed with finding and growing thousands of different species. The obsessive hobby was known as orchidelirium during Victorian times when the wealthy hired people to travel the world — and brave extreme climates — to find and bring back rare species.
Today, collectors range from those with a casual interest to avid hobbyists who rattle off facts and species.
Patti Voll was one of many who attended the event Saturday to learn how to care for her orchids.
“I have a few orchids and I’ve always loved them and I just was interested in learning more about them and how to take care of mine,” Voll said.
Voll said her favorite species is the Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid. Phalaenopsis orchids are the species that comes to mind when most people think of orchids. They’re among the most common, they’re easy to care for and they bloom elegant fragrant flowers throughout the year.
“I just got a Lady Slipper which is a little harder to grow,” Voll said, pointing to an example of the species on the judging table.
“Do you know that they have wild ones here in Montana?” Bridget Van Vorus asked Voll.
“They grow up by my house because I live up near Evaro,” Van Vorus said. “They’re on the ground and you can see them if you look at wildflowers and when you get close, they’re Lady Slippers. The ones around my house are white.”
Bridget Van Vorus and her husband David Van Vorus are both members of the Five Valleys Orchid Society. The two attend orchid shows around the area in Bozeman, Spokane and Helena, in addition to Orchid Society meetings. Bridget said she picks out the species she likes and David learns how to grow them.
“It’s so hard for me to choose my favorite,” Bridget said. “I like the Cattleyas, they’re really beautiful because they’re big and they smell but I also like the ones that are different and unique.”
David said they have between 40 to 50 orchids at home. One of their cattleyas with light purple flowers won first place in its category in the show Saturday. David said the purple cattleya is 10 years old and one of the only orchids that survived when they moved from Bozeman to Missoula during the winter.
David said that members of the Five Valleys Orchid Society pay dues which the organization spends on plants.
“They give them to you and then it's up to the individual to figure out how to make them grow and you’re supposed to give a talk on them,” David said.
The event Saturday gave the public an opportunity to learn more about the orchids they have at home and problem solve ailments.
“There’s a certain amount of ‘what’s the mystery, what might have been the cause of this problem?’ that goes on,” said Karen Mollander, president of the Five Valleys Orchid Society.
Mollander said questions at the event tend to be less specific than those asked at the group’s meetings, so they organize a talk to address common questions and then give people the opportunity to ask their own.
Ray Smith discussed the ins and outs of orchid care at the event, notably saying the easiest way to kill an orchid is by overwatering. Smith specializes in orchid species that grow in cool, wet climates. During his talk, he countered the advice many beginners receive to water orchids with an ice cube, explaining that most orchids don’t like cold water.
Brenda Oviatt followed with a talk on propagating orchids. She explained that the three main ways to propagate and grow orchids are with seeds, by cloning or through division. She demonstrated how to transfer pollen and pointed to the different parts of the plant.
Oviatt and her husband own Botanica Ltd. Orchids in Missoula where they specialize in propagating endangered orchids that are going extinct. Oviatt also gives talks about propagation all over the world and at events organized by the prestigious American Orchid Society.
Smith and Oviatt are both members of the Five Valleys Orchid Society who have amassed knowledge of the widespread family of plants.
After each of their talks, members of the audience asked questions and browsed orchids for sale and on display for the show.
Deann Birnel, another member of the Orchid Society, pointed to an orchid for sale called a Sharry Baby.
“This one smells like chocolate,” Birnel said. “Some have a fragrance at different times of the day depending on what pollinator it’s trying to attract.”
Birnel said she currently has 24 orchids at home. She said she enjoys coming to orchid talks to learn growing tips. She said Smith’s talks have taught her to use sphagnum moss and bark for orchids that need more moisture because the materials retain water.
With over 20,000 species and even more hybrids, there’s always more to learn about orchids.
“It’s an incredibly diverse world,” Mollander said. “We have them here in Montana, they have them in tropical rainforests, they have them in temperate rainforests, they have them just everywhere you can think of in all different varieties.”
Mollander said anyone can grow an orchid with the right information on how to grow it. “It’s not something that you have to be an expert to do,” Mollander said.