Two experts unite in an effort to save the North American orchid

06/12/2014 8:43 PM

06/12/2014 10:17 PM

Two orchid enthusiasts hanging out Thursday in Kansas City took an interesting stroll along a path few have seen.

Their first stop was at a Dracula vampira.

Both peered into the creepy face of the triangular flower with sinister black patches and yellow veins that on this afternoon was open, revealing an especially nasty-looking, pinkish hinged lip.

“Is that a lip?” asked Dennis Whigham of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, located along Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

“It’s a hinged lip,” said David Bird, owner of Bird’s Botanicals in the Interstate Underground Warehouse in east Kansas City. “It simulates a fungus that attracts a certain pollinator, and the lips flap, shoving the insect’s head into it.”

So went an initial exchange during a Thursday summit meeting between two ambassadors of orchid nation, composed of students of the mysterious and exotic blossoming plant.

Whigham and Bird occupy different corners of orchid scholarship. They met in support of a larger goal — the spread of more accessible information on the health of orchids in general and the preservation of North American species in particular.

Our little native beauties are disappearing, Whigham said. About half of the more than 200 orchid species native to North America are endangered or threatened.

Whigham’s Smithsonian lab teamed with the United States Botanic Garden and others to launch the North American Orchid Conservation Center, which showcases orchids native to the United States and Canada and helps spread knowledge about their care and feeding.

Bird, a former horticulturist for Powell Gardens, launched his underground retail shop and growing operation about 12 years ago. It features colorful, rare, aromatic and exotic plants, many from tropical climates.

Whigham, in Kansas City to speak at the Linda Hall Library on Thursday night, came to explore it.

“I’ve never see anything like this,” Whigham said. “But it’s perfect. You don’t need a greenhouse. You add lights and there you go.”

Bird’s 10,000-square-foot operation, about 7,000 square feet of which is devoted to cultivation, is especially conducive to orchids, given its constant temperature of 58 to 68 degrees. That helps orchids bloom about twice the normal time, Bird said.

And orchids love humidity. The cave offers a constant range of 65 to 85 percent humidity. To this setting, Bird has added about 30 1,000-watt, high-powered sodium lights, which are surrounded by 2-inch insulation covered with an aluminum backing.

“That’s perfect for bouncing light back into the space,” he said.

A constant hum of fans simulates nature by keeping the air fresh so disease cannot attack the plants.

Bird operates on both a retail and wholesale basis and grows special plants for the love of it.

The Dracula vampira is an example. So is the amorphophallus titanum, a huge plant that he has been growing for eight years. Nobody has ever bloomed one of these in Kansas City, he said.

But he also sells popular plants like white moth orchids, about 100 of which were growing this week, scheduled to be used in a Wichita wedding in two weeks.

“The white moth orchids pay the electrical bill,” Bird said.

Whigham, though charmed by the exotic tropical plants coaxed into bloom by Bird, championed the often less exotic North American species.

“David is interested in tropical shapes and colors,” Whigham said. “I’m just as passionate about the little natives that have an inherent beauty.”

Whigham, Bird said, probably would not get any new information on how to save the native plants from him.

“We’re doing two different things,” he said.

“But we both have passions for orchids. You find that a lot among orchid people, in that it really doesn’t matter what path you go down, you just love the orchid plant itself. It is so different and intriguing and baffling — you just can’t get a handle on it. It’s not like growing petunias.

“Both of us probably will spend our lifetimes with orchids and we may not ever accomplish our goals, but that’s OK. It’s something to work toward.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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