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September 1, 2014

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Sweet Melissa: A Story About the Beauty of Friendship and Orchids

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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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.

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  • Kevin Wright

    Wow, very nice story. Kind of makes me want to visit the green house, and i’m not exactly a flower guy either. :)

  • http://www.orchidstockphotos.com Prem Subrahmanyam

    There actually is a species, Oncidium cebolleta, which is known to have hallucinogenic properties and is called the “little peyote” in areas where it grows

    http://www.orchidspecies.com/onccebolleta.htm
    http://www.erowid.org/ask/ask.php?ID=1898

    However, unlike what is implied in the movie “Adaptation”, the ghost orchid is not psychoactive.

    —Prem

  • e Sawinski

    LB- such a nice story for me to have morning. It was quite lovely, like your orchids.

  • jamie Brown

    Very nice story, excited to learn about the orchid farm. Such a great idea. Thank you

  • http://www.justusleeg,com TheSnarkyOne

    What a touching story intertwined with real memories and the orchids that causes the flashback to those memories. Great writing.

  • Philip Clift

    A beautiful story, woven together from the heart. Who knew of the power of orchids.

  • Debra

    Very nice article. I’ve never heard of this greenhouse. Thanks for the tip!

  • Debra

    And I’m sorry for the loss of your good friend. How nice that she exposed you to something that brightened your horizons and allows you to remember her in such a lovely way.

  • http://www.elmoreorchids.com Jim Elmore

    Very well done article, Laura. Thanks for the kind words about us at Elmore Orchids. Much appreciated.

  • Rian Edwards

    Laura – Beautiful story. I’ve heard you talk about Melissa before, and, of course, made many trips with you to Elmores (or Elmo’s as I always called it). This makes me want to go right now and get an orchid for my own self. :)

  • Laura Bower

    Speaking of Melissa and the song that always reminds me of her, the plants at Elmore’s are treated to a wide variety of music including classic rock. I bet it makes the orchids smile …

  • Patrice

    Very touching article. Loved the picture of the boys. : )

  • Brian Adkins

    Beautifully written, Laura. I never knew I was missing so much by not having an orchid somewhere in my living and/or working space! What a great tribute to your friendship with Melissa.

  • William Cattley

    I love reading about Orchids and am always facinated to hear something new about these wonderful flowers.

    Some of my favourite sources are:
    caring for orchids blog
    and also the orchid board

    All the best,

    William

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About the Author

Laura Bower – I’m a public relations strategist, social media enthusiast and unrepentant Twitterholic (@laurabower). I read voraciously, practice yoga religiously and nap often.

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