Amazing Epiphytes (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Amazing Epiphytes

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:33:11
If you're a particular type of bee, you might be drawn to a particular type of flower. And when it comes to the flower we're talking about next, people can be very particular, too. Orchids are the most popular potted flowering plant in the United States. In 2009, the last year for which numbers are available, Orchids totaled nearly $160 million in sales. The Smithsonian has been creating an exhibit dedicated to orchids. And this year, the show at the National Museum of Natural History is titled, "Orchids: A View From the East."

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:33:44
Since the first known cultivators of orchids were ancient Chinese scholars. People love orchids for their beauty, their fragrance, their medicinal qualities. But something else very cool about orchids and, frankly, very apropo to today's show is they can grow in the air. Well, kind of. To find out more, I walked through the exhibit with two orchid aficionados, one, a man whose livelihood lies in the study in orchids and the other, a gardening guru who's contributed quite a bit to "Metro Connection" through the years.

MR. TOM MIRENDA

13:34:15
I'm Tom Mirenda. I'm one of the orchid growers at the Smithsonian. Orchid Collection Specialist is my title. No two days, no two hours are ever the same when you're dealing with orchids. It's just constantly variable and constantly interesting. And some people might think that's kind of nerdy of me, but I'm telling you, once you get involved with orchids, there is no turning back.

SHEIR

13:34:39
And who are you?

MS. KATHY JENTZ

13:34:40
I am Kathy Jentz, editor and publisher of Washington Gardener Magazine. And I'm not quite an orchid nerd yet.

MIRENDA

13:34:47
Okay.

JENTZ

13:34:48
I'm an orchid lover, I'll just say that. Orchid admirer. But the orchids are one of the most spectacular variety, yeah.

SHEIR

13:34:54
Well, let's go on in and see some orchids.

MIRENDA

13:34:56
Okay. Get ready.

SHEIR

13:34:57
I'm ready. I'm ready.

MIRENDA

13:34:59
Okay, this could be no turning back for you.

SHEIR

13:35:03
So we step into the exhibit and Tom introduces me to the Epiphyte.

MIRENDA

13:35:08
Most people that are growing orchids in their homes are going to have them in pots, of course. But in their natural habitat, I'd say more than 90 percent of the tropical orchids are what we call Epiphytes. So they're in the air, or air plants is another word for them. And they basically clasp onto the branches of trees. It's an adaptation to get them off the forest floor where there's too much competition from really large plants.

SHEIR

13:35:35
You know, you learn in science class when you're in whatever grade about plants having roots. And the roots grow underground and they absorb water and they absorb nutrients. So if you're an Epiphyte, how do you survive? How do you eat?

MIRENDA

13:35:49
Well, there's all sorts of things going on with Epiphytic orchids. Their root systems are also a clasping organ which sort of holds them very tightly onto the branches where they are. And the roots of an Epiphytic orchid are probably quite a bit different than what you might be thinking of for a terrestrial plant. The roots have an outer coating, usually whitish in color.

SHEIR

13:36:13
Is there any we can see here in this exhibit that...

JENTZ

13:36:13
Here (unintelligible) some potted ones.

MIRENDA

13:36:14
Let's go into the exhibit a little bit more and here is an aerial root. And you can see that it's literally completely outside the pot. And in nature, this would be climbing up a tree or, you know, resting, basically clasping the orchid onto the branch where it's growing or onto the tree trunk where it's growing. Now, this outer coating is called velamen and it's an extremely water soluble. In fact, it's so hydrophilic that it can suck humidity out of the air so you don't even necessarily have to water this. If it's in a humid environment, it will take in water through this root system.

MIRENDA

13:36:56
And in the wild, this plant would actually be kind of like this.

SHEIR

13:37:01
Can you describe what you're doing since this is a radio?

MIRENDA

13:37:03
I'm putting -- I have the Phalaenopsis plant, basically sideways. You know, when we plant it as a pot plant, we tend to -- like to have everything nice and upright and not hanging all over the place so that we can...

SHEIR

13:37:16
Very vertical?

MIRENDA

13:37:17
Yeah, very vertical so we can put it on a tabletop and enjoy the flowers. But in the wild, this thing would be growing on a branch or on the trunk of a tree sideways with its leaves pointing outward and it's in fluorescence's, the stalks with the flowers on it, arching outward. So that they're very accessible to the pollinators, whatever they may be.

JENTZ

13:37:38
And I would imagine the sunlight as well, yeah.

MIRENDA

13:37:40
Indeed. The flowers are always going to grow in the direction of where the most light is. So these roots would be extremely water soluble. So one of the problems that we have with growing orchids is a lot of people, like, say if they're going away for two weeks, they'll leave their orchid sitting in water, which you might do with an ordinary house plant because it will suck up water during the time that you're gone. And you don't have to worry about it if you leave it in that pool because these roots are so water soluble, the velamen is water soluble. If you were to do that, the velamen would just dissolve and then the roots would be susceptible to all kinds of pathogens, fungus and...

SHEIR

13:38:18
Mold?

MIRENDA

13:38:18
... (word?) mold. All that stuff could invade the plant and basically kill it. So that's a great way to kill your orchid, is leaving it sitting in water for a long time. I...

JENTZ

13:38:28
Guilty.

SHEIR

13:38:29
Kathy Jentz is guilty. She says she's guilty.

JENTZ

13:38:31
Guilty. I call it loving it too much. You...

MIRENDA

13:38:35
No, I...

JENTZ

13:38:35
...over water and then you want to put it in a pebble tray full of water and then two weeks later, it's a shriveled up husk. Yeah, so...

MIRENDA

13:38:41
Exactly. They're really not difficult to grow if you understand them. But they're quite easy to kill if you don't understand them. So a few basic ground rules. Don't leave them sitting in water. And generally speaking, something like a Phalaenopsis doesn't really need that much water. These are tough succulent plants and probably only need to be water once a week or so. And you have to feed them a little bit, too. You were asking, you know, about, you know, root systems and they take nutrients out of the soil.

MIRENDA

13:39:08
How do they get nutrients from the tree? Well, there's lots of stuff up in those trees. Birds, all kinds of insects, there's ants, mosses, bacteria. So the plant fertilizers that orchids actually use up in the trees are these various forms of detritus, rotting leaves, the excrement of ants, the, you know, bird poop. So all of this stuff happens in a really, really dilute way. They don't have the same kind of richness that soil does. So generally orchids actually need much less fertilizer than your average plant. We often say you should always use orchid fertilizer at half the strength that's usually listed on the package.

MIRENDA

13:39:49
I would go even further than that and use it at, like, a quarter strength.

SHEIR

13:39:53
Tom, Kathy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I think I'm on my way to becoming an Orchid nerd. Maybe?

MIRENDA

13:40:01
Oh, baby, I knew it.

JENTZ

13:40:03
How about Orchid geek? I like that a little better.

SHEIR

13:40:04
Orchid geek, I'll take it, I'll take it.

MIRENDA

13:40:06
Yes, yes. We're well into our geek-dom here. And you're quite welcome to join us.

SHEIR

13:40:12
"Orchids: A View From the East," is on exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through April 24th. For more information, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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