An Orchid Grows in Pasadena--Maybe

I am not well. I am suffering from lack of sleep. My eyes, normally a pellucid emerald, are squinty and red. I have fainting spells. All of these things have befallen me as the new year dawns. My sorry state is because I have been sitting up with an orchid of the vandaceous alliance.

As far as I know, it is quite well, but after having read the sheet of instructions that accompanied it I'm afraid I will never bring it to robust adulthood. It was sent to me by my friend, Tom Brokaw, who has brought me laughter and comradeship ever since I have known him.

Our friendship is based on our mutual love of politics. All you have to depend on in politics is your word. The people with whom you work must trust you. When we met, Tom was in front of a camera, as he still is, and I was handling media arrangements for the Cabinet secretaries when they were in California.

We shared bits of knowledge, speculated on rumors and laughed a lot. Politics takes too much work and if it isn't fun, it isn't worth bothering with. Tom and I are 180 degrees apart politically and we would trust each other with the ranch anytime. We had an "arm in the fire up to here for you, friend" relationship and it still prevails, against the storms and stresses of year-end, year-out politics. He sent me the orchid for my Christmas Eve birthday and Merry Christmas, and I would like very much for it to flourish.

The reason I am so concerned is that I have been known to wipe out a lawn full of crab grass with a glance. This, after the owner had tried every crab grass killer available from the very best nurseries.

The sheet of instructions starts with what they apparently hope are reassuring words. "Our orchids are being grown with no problems in such diverse locales as northern Alaska, Las Vegas, Copenhagen and Bangkok."

You will note they do not mention Pasadena. They go on to say that if you are a novice you should consult other orchid hobbyists where you live. Attend meetings of local orchid societies nearest your home. Find out when and where they meet.

Now, I am not going to do that. I do not want to join another club. I have spent the last few years detaching myself from organizations and they were just as relieved as I am. I am not a good club member, and if the care and feeding of this plant cannot be achieved by reading a booklet, I will be thoroughly disappointed.

It is pink. Its name is Rose Heart and Zuma Sugar Plum. One assumes these are the parents of my new charge. It does not like direct light but prefers to sit two feet inside a window on the east. Now, get this: "This plant requires 1,200-1,800 foot-candles while others require 1,500-2,300 foot-candles. Other vandaceous genera call for varying amounts of light."

The only time I have ever worried about foot candles is when I was setting up a banquet room for the President of the United States and the television producers were no more demanding than this little pink plant. Really. It's quite tall, about four feet, and has the blossoms on top of the stem and plum-shaped buds above and below the blossoms.

Then they talk about humidity and you won't believe it. They say daytime humidity of 50% to 70% is ideal. Well, swell. That means I'll be living in a bedroom with a climate that might be enjoyed by Rima the Bird Girl or Sheena of the Jungle. You could grow Spanish moss in that kind of humidity. The only things that would really be comfortable in there are the orchid and an alligator.

The orchid is planted in a 10-inch pot and it likes a 30-10-10 water-soluble fertilizer, nitrogen phosphoric acid and potash. I don't know where I'm supposed to get all that stuff and for a Beverly Hills High School girl who pulled a D in Miss Brinegar's chemistry class, I don't think I'm going to find out.

The plant is to be watered every six or seven days and I'm supposed to completely drench the bark. Oh, I should have told you it is standing in bark. The leaves don't have to be watered but they should be wiped off with a damp cloth to look nice and tidy.

It is to be watered in the morning and it likes to stand in a dish of rocks with a little water at the bottom. This causes the air to become humid according to their theory.

Then it becomes far too complicated for someone as inept as I. Every 12 to 18 months you buy the larger pot and plant it in damp fir bark. You have to repot it before the bark decomposes. Well, I would certainly hope so. The bedroom is already as wet as a sauna and now they're talking about crumbling bark all over the floor.

The plant has white ropy things that look like clothesline hanging over the edge of the pot. There are aerial roots that provide valuable photosynthesis. I didn't know what that was when Dr. Frost explained it in the ninth grade and I don't now. But they store water and you're not supposed to hurt them.

Then there is a section on air movement. The plant requires constant but gentle air movement for maximum culture. They actually advise buying a small, inexpensive fan and to avoid strong drafts. I don't see how they can have it both ways.

Then they tell me that good air movement prevents fungus and spores from settling on the plants. Still, they say, humid air causes rotting. Now I have a dripping hot room with a rotten plant and moldy bark on the floor.

They get out of the whole thing by saying, grandly, "fans operate 24 hours a day in all of our greenhouses."

Well, I am not going to live in that room with that small fan whining like a malarial mosquito for one minute, let alone 24 hours a day.

I'm sure I can cope with this problem. The flowers are really beautiful, like pink butterflies. But I think that often people who write those indoctrination sheets get swept away with all their knowledge and absolutely cannot resist making you feel like a dummy. I'm sure Tom, knowing my limitations as he does, would not send me something I can't manage. He's too good a friend and would not want me to feel insecure. I think I'll feed the little stranger a nice serving of turkey soup. All the rest of the household is doing well on it.

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