My friend, Melissa, told me her grandmother advised her always to have orchids in her house, especially in winter, because they bring a cold room to life. So, Melissa’s lovely home teemed with live orchids of every variety: phalaenopsis, cattleyas, paphiopedilums, dendrobiums and oncidiums. Her favorite orchid was called “Lady’s Slipper” and is actually native to this region. The Cherokee used it to treat various nervous disorders. Lady’s Slipper is sunny yellow with purple veins, fragrant and fragile-looking. Melissa was fragile too, dying suddenly and leaving two young children behind. She was my childhood friend, rediscovered as an adult, when we were both young mothers with tow-headed toddlers.
Melissa moved to Florida for a few years when her husband was in the Navy, but she always dreamed of coming home to Knoxville to raise her family. After her first bout of cancer, she was more determined than ever to move back, close to her parents and the friends with whom she’d grown up. Melissa and her husband ended up buying a house within walking distance of her childhood home, where her parents still live today. That sense of place, practically a genetic trait in all Southerners, called Melissa home.
We became neighbors and best friends. Our children were devoted playmates. We’d hang out at Whitlow Park in Sequoyah and watch our fearless little ones climb to precarious perches in the pine trees or swing themselves higher and higher on the swing set till they were airborne, landing in the gravel and laughing. We trick-or-treated together, had birthday parties at each other’s houses and shared chicken pox, so our kids would all get it over with at the same time. And, always there were orchids in Melissa’s immaculate, inviting house. Our children knew not to touch them or even breathe on them!
Crossroads, seem to come and go, yeah.
The gypsy flies from coast to coast
Knowing many, loving none,
Bearing sorrow havin fun,
So go the lyrics to the Allman Brothers song, “Melissa.”
It’s been ten years since Melissa died, but I think of her often, especially when I make the trip out to Lady Slipper Lane, off Watt Road in deep West Knoxville to Elmore Orchids. Melissa introduced me to this greenhouse that serves as a spa for orchids, a place for them to rest and recuperate from the hard work of being beautiful. Elmore’s boarding program is a wonderfully practical idea, typically East Tennessean in concept: don’t toss out those orchids after they bloom. Recycle them at Elmore’s, and you’ll never have to buy new orchids again! Of course, Elmore Orchids sells new orchids too. The family-owned business supplies local retailers and has a thriving walk-in business. Jim Elmore is adept at cultivating hybrid species of orchids as well as rare varieties of ferns.
Paul Fortsch, a University of Tennessee horticulture graduate with extensive experience at Selby Gardens in Sarasota, Florida and an internship with Lines Orchids on Signal Mountain, manages the greenhouse. Fortsch knows all his customers on sight, even if we’re only in every few months. He’s the one who calls us when our “babies” are back in bloom. Some people like to pick up their plants when they’re just beginning to bud. I like my orchids to get as much TLC as possible before I bring them home, preferably with a bloom or two and no “dud buds” in sight.
It’s interesting that Fortsch studied orchids in South Florida, since Susan Orlean’s mesmerizing book, The Orchid Thief, is set in South Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand and involves the Seminole Indians’ mystical connection to a rare species called the “Ghost Orchid,” from which they extract a mood-altering substance. The Academy Award winning movie, Adaptation, is based on this deliciously quirky and compelling story. I asked Fortsch about the infamous Ghost Orchid. He debunked the myth but said there are psychedelic orchids called ceboletta which are used by the same indigenous tribes that use the peyote cactus for ritualistic purposes.
During Fortsch’s time in the Florida everglades, he inventoried epiphytes or “air plants” in Sarasota County and slogged through the very same swamps featured in the book and the movie. “It was the most dangerous place I’ve ever been in my life,” he recalled. “The cottonmouths are worse than the alligators, unless they’re mating or have a brood. It’s all about timing with alligators.”
Although the ghost orchid is not psychotropic, it is an event in the orchid world when one blooms in cultivation, as it’s doing right now at Elmore’s. “It’s the only ghost orchid that’s bloomed for us this year,” said Fortsch.
As for me, I’m content with the domesticated phalaenopsis or “big-leaf orchid.” Phals are the hardiest house orchids and bloom the longest. The shape of the blossoms reminds me of our Tennessee state flower, iris germanica, a kissing cousin to the orchid. I put them in baskets and cachepots around my house, tie their drooping stems to stakes with raffia and spray their waxy leaves with Leaf Shine. Voila – instant room makeover! Who notices dust or scuffed baseboards when there’s a show-stopping phalaenopsis amabilis in the room? At least, that’s what my friend, Melissa, always said …
No one hears his lonely sigh,
There are no blankets where he lies.
In all his deepest dreams the gypsy flies
With sweet Melissa … mmm …
Her husband remarried. Her kids changed schools. Our boys, born just four months apart, are no longer inseparable. I got divorced and moved out of the neighborhood where Melissa and I both grew up. But somehow, the orchids connect us and sustain our friendship.