Wednesday, June 3, 2009

South African Disa

As an orchidist as well as a garden writer and photographer, whenever I cover either of the massive Royal Horticultural Society Flower Shows in England, I head straight for the orchid exhibits. Every year I go to at least one of the two biggest shows--in May, it’s always the Chelsea Flower Show in London (where I have just been), and in July it’s the world’s largest plant show, the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. I am continually struck by how similar the orchid varieties popularly grown in Britain are to the ones we grow in the United States, particularly the hybrids. In my new orchid book, Bloom-Again Orchids, I used this universality to choose the most popular and easy-to-flower orchid types. I confess to sometimes getting a bit blasé about orchid exhibits, having seen literally thousands over the years, but last year at Hampton Court I was blown away by an exhibit that featured just one type of orchid: the glorious, often unknown, South African Disa.

The exhibit from Dave Parkinson Plants in Yorkshire, England, was truly spectacular, full of vivid orange, red, pink, and cream-colored uniquely hooded blooms. Disas actually are a big cut flower industry, but home orchid lovers don’t realize how relatively easy these gorgeous and brightly colored flowers are to grow. Parkinson is on a mission to change the difficult perception of Disas, and I heartily agree; I made sure they’re in my new book. The trick? Unlike most orchids, which rot when overwatered, these summer-blooming streamside natives should never dry out. Don’t let them get too hot and--the real key--only use rainwater for watering. I grew mine very successfully sitting the pot in an inch of water under four fluorescent tubes in my cool basement.

A source in the United States is Camp One Orchids in Oregon. Definitely try Disas, especially if you’ve gotten a tad blasé about your own orchids. They make great wedding flowers, especially since they often bloom in June.

The exhibit, by the way, earned a well-deserved and highly coveted Gold Medal.

Author & Photographer of the award-winning Taylor’s Guide to Orchids (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) and the upcoming Bloom-Again Orchids (Timber Press, Fall 2009

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