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Posted on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 : 5:31 a.m.

Garden Faerie: My first orchid - the drama begins

By Monica Milla


My first orchid, Oncidium Sharry Baby 'Sweet Fragrance,' is fairly large but won't bloom until next fall at the earliest.

Monica Milla | Contributor

On Sunday, my friend Amy and I attended a talk at a meeting of the Ann Arbor Orchid Society. Amy has about 10 orchids growing on her windowsill, while I never envisioned growing one. There was a drawing for member-donated orchids, and guests received a free raffle ticket. I wasn't worried about winning one because I rarely win anything. But of course my number was called, and now I'm trying not to kill an Oncidium Sharry Baby 'Sweet Fragrance.'

I like orchids. I do. I always marvel at the contrast between their incredibly colorful, dramatic flowers and their rather nondescript leaves. The flowers don't even seem real; they're that exotic and fanciful.

I've never been drawn to grow one, though, because I'm not the biggest houseplant fan in general (very limited indoor space), and I'm very much a right-plant-for-local-conditions kind of gardener. I love native plants and wildflowers and anything else adapted to our temperature, humidity and soil conditions. I'm all about tough love; I water new plants in well and plant them in their desired locations, but from then on, they have to survive more or less on their own. I don't fertilize (except with compost), and I don't water (except in a drought). I do have a huge variety of plants, many native, which means I get a lot of insects. The "good" ones keep the "bad" ones in check, all without my using insecticides of any kind.

So, to me, the idea of growing a plant that prefers warm, humid and nutrient-rich conditions in our Michigan climate, is just, well, insane!

But it felt rude to turn down a free plant, and I do like to try new things, so I decided to view this whole affair as a crazy, mad-scientist type of experiment.

A nice member of the orchid society gave me some basic care instructions, which I meticulously jotted down. Feeling somewhat capable of being a decent steward of this orchid, my first order of business was getting her home safely, watering her and setting her on a plant stand next to my sunniest window.


Oncidium Sharry Baby 'Sweet Fragrance' has pseudo bulbs from which new stems will form (see old stem to the right).

Monica Milla | Contributor

Secondly, I realized I could never commit to anything named Sharry Baby, so I renamed her Hypatia, after a scholar of the Alexandrian Library in Greece around 400 AD. She was a mathematician, philosopher, and astronomer, working in the world's first research institute. And if this interlude with an orchid isn't research, I don't know what it is!

Thirdly, I Googled her and found out that the blooms will smell like chocolate, that this a good plant for first-time orchid growers and that orchids cost a lot more than I would have guessed.

Well, okay. Fine then. I will try to keep her alive, in the name of research (and chocolate)!

Monica Milla, the Garden Faerie, is a master gardener volunteer, garden speaker, garden coach and author of "Fun with Winter Seed Sowing."



Tue, Jan 4, 2011 : 10:39 p.m.

Late to the game, how's Hypatia doing?

Monica Milla

Fri, Nov 26, 2010 : 7 p.m.

P.S. to Neal, I do have a humidifier in the living room, so that should make her happy.

Monica Milla

Fri, Nov 26, 2010 : 6:57 p.m.

MBT, yep it's #yearoffirsts all right--not only an orchid, but you remember I got my first rose this year, too, right?! Neal, thanks for donating her! A nice woman (I forgot to ask her name) gave me more or less the same directions as you, except she seemed hipper to fertilizer. What kind should I use? Also, I have no south-facing windows, so she's sitting in an east-facing window, and will go out onto my east-facing patio over the summer. I can't work to her ideal temperature requirements, since my house is 60F day and night over the winter. This hasn't seemed to harm any other houseplants I have (not that I have many). I may be checking in with you again if I have questions. :)

Neal Foster

Fri, Nov 26, 2010 : 12:07 p.m.

Monica - I donated that plant to the raffle table and am glad to see that a fellow plant nut won it. Like outdoor gardeners, all orchid growers--including experienced ones--usually make some mistakes during their development as orchidists and kill a few of the plants they acquire, but that's how they learn to be come better growers (indoor gardeners). At least until it got too embarrassing, I used to display my "morgue" - a pile of labels from the long-deceased orchid plants I had killed over 25 years of growing whenever I gave introductory orchid talks. The conditions under which the plant you won were grown are: Greenhouse conditions in winter (60 degrees at night, 72 during the day, higher if there is a lot of sun), outdoors in morning sun from mid-May to early October. Water every 7 to 10 days unless medium dries out sooner - don't leave plant sitting in water, try for 50% relative humidity and don't worry about feeding until after the days start getting longer again. East light is better for Sharry Baby/Hypatia because it's cooler than south or west light. Thanks for the nice publicity for the Ann Arbor Orchid Society, founded at Matthaei Botanical Gardens back in 1992.


Thu, Nov 25, 2010 : 9:12 p.m.

I realize you're a no-fuss-no-muss kinda gardener, but still! I just can't imagine going through life and not buying an orchid before. They're one of the plants everyone makes the mistake of buying and killing. It is like a right of passage or something. I feel like I don't even know you, Monica.

Monica Milla

Wed, Nov 24, 2010 : 10:44 a.m.

MBT, HA! See paragraph #3. And, 25? Why, yes, I am exactly the same age as my niece!;-)


Wed, Nov 24, 2010 : 10:23 a.m.

How is it possible you've made this far in life (You're 25, right?) and haven't owned an orchid? My first one was a Phalaenopsis.

Monica Milla

Wed, Nov 24, 2010 : 9:09 a.m.

Pam, I found out about Hypatia waaaaay back in the early 80s from watching Cosmos, and really admired her. I'm glad I finally have something to bestow her name upon.