Annual Peninsula show spotlights orchids

Orchids are more than pretty flowers. Each one tells part of the story about how these plants have adapted to an incredible array of native environments.

For some of Todd Kennedy's orchids, the story also includes a bit of his own history.

Kennedy, who lives in San Francisco, inherited about 150 orchid plants from his parents, some of which still bloom for him today. The family first acquired orchids in 1939, Kennedy says. His mother enjoyed painting them from real life.

"They were hard to get," he says. "My grandparents had a greenhouse with what was available then." They lived in Los Gatos.

Although some orchids are natives of the Bay Area, most were rare and expensive 75 years ago. In the days before global commerce, the beautiful Phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan were seldom seen here, though today they can be purchased at your local grocery store.

In 1946, Kennedy's parents and other orchid fanciers founded the Peninsula Orchid Society to help one another learn to grow and propagate the plants.

The group's 2014 fundraiser takes place Saturday and Sunday in Redwood City, featuring orchids grown by society members as well as commercially grown plants.

In addition to a plant sale, the show includes a competition for ribbons, featuring about 300 plants from members; it is also open to the public. Those competing must have owned their plant for at least six months to qualify. The show also presents seminars on the history and care of orchids.

Sue Rose, a former show organizer, has come to appreciate the special stories behind each orchid. Her mother cultivated Cymbidiums -- a hardy variety that can grow outdoors in the Bay Area -- when Rose was a child. Now the Cymbidiums in her own garden "bring back good memories of childhood," she says. "When I walk around out there, I think, 'Mom did this, and mom did that.' It is a warm and fuzzy feeling."

But the flowers needn't be family heirlooms to have a special back story. The huge differences in orchid varieties stem from the species' ability to adapt to a wide range of climates and locations, from the Bay Area to the tropics.

Among the orchids native to our region is the 2-foot-tall Epipactis gigantea, commonly called the stream orchid. As the name implies, it can be found along creeks and rivers where there's plenty of fresh water.

Other varieties can differ greatly. "There are species of orchids that are found in just one canyon in the Andes, for instance," Kennedy says. "They are specialized for a particular (type of) hummingbird to pollinate."

That the plants have adapted to locations so varied, but also can be grown at Bay Area homes, is part of their attraction, enthusiasts say.

The Phalaenopsis variety -- with rounded white or purple petals -- is seen today in grocery stores priced at about $15, but they used to cost hundreds of dollars each, show organizer Chaunie Langland says. "Now they clone them," she explains -- by splitting an existing plant into two or more. Growers have kept splitting and growing plants to the point where this line is very predictable and hardy, Langland says. "Even though they are inexpensive, they are highly evolved."

The opportunity to learn about orchids, either from the grower or in a seminar, is one element that makes this weekend's show an experience that can't be duplicated at a grocery store. Information covered will include whether the growing space should resemble a cold mountainside, a humid marshland or something in between -- knowledge that's essential to the successful flowering of the plant.

"Some of them are delicate, and some are very, very hardy," Langland says. "The challenge is finding out which ones you can grow" in your own home, garden or greenhouse.

Orchid fans don't need a lot of space to achieve spectacular results, provided they choose the right variety, Rose says. And with knowledge and patience, any grower can begin to add a bit of his own narrative to the orchid story.

"It is a wonderful thing that something so highly evolved is available to humans," Kennedy says. "You buy them, and they will bloom for you over and over." All it takes, he adds, is knowledge of the plant's needs for even a novice to succeed: Keep the jungle orchids in a humid spot, the grassland orchid in a drier spot.

"There is reason for the wonder and amazement of being able to have these beautiful flowers," Kennedy says, as newcomers to the 2014 show may discover.

Peninsula Orchid Society flower show and sale.

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Community Activities Building, 1400 Roosevelt Ave., Redwood City
Admission: $5; $3 seniors and those ages 12 to 16; those 11 and younger get in free

By Leslie Griffy
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