Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Postpumpkinism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

The pumpkin seeds seemed to have so much promise back in June. I tossed a dozen in the raised bed and another dozen by the compost pile. Eventually, I thinned the seedlings down to three. The rapid and healthy growth encouraged me to indulge the plants' frequent need for water and attention. I saw small pumpkins form by the end of summer and my hopes swelled. I contemplated walking away from my career to pursue pumpkin farming because, after all, I'm so good at it. I'll have so many pumpkins, I thought, I'll have to give them away to an orphanage or something. When I told people about my pumpkins, some responded that they tried and gave up because of squash bug problems. I felt superior because I refused to give into these nasty insects and was prepared to let loose a chemical fury on the brood.

But squash bugs are unusually persistent. They had a roach-like ability to reproduce themselves despite my toxins. The pumpkin crop itself proved capricious: blossoms that looked so promising failed to mature, pumpkins in an improper position on the straw started to rot, and the heat and bugs did more damage than I wanted to admit. Now, looking over my pumpkin harvest, my total haul will be about 6-7 pumpkins. I definitely need to keep my day job.

I love all things pumpkin, but this experience has strengthened my identity as a flower gardener. Pumpkins inevitably reference their exchange-value and use-value. While we can appreciate its cylindrical shape and deep orange color, a pumpkin invites us to consider its uses in cooking. We have a sense of a pumpkin's worth through envisioning its transformation into pie or soup. It's difficult or impossible not to assigning a dollar amount to my pumpkins and it's dispiriting to see them sold in the local grocery store for far less than what I spent in pest control, water, and labor time.

Flowers, on the other hand, only reference themselves. They have no use-value and their exchange-value is driven by aesthetic considerations. I never think "Oh, I could make so many pies with those daylilies!" Like modern art, flowers' uselessness is part of their value and appeal. Flowers don't expect anything from us except an occasional arrangement in a vase. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Disco Cattleya

Riley with C. Arctic Star 'Snow Queen' (1979)
A lot happened in 1979. It ushered in the Iran hostage crisis, the Three Mile Island meltdown, and Rod Stewart's #1 hit "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy." But we also had disco and orchids. As the Salsoul blared on the airwaves, a Miami hybridizer named Roy Fields registered Cattleya Arctic Star (C. Claesiana x C. Fred Cole). I purchased this at a January orchid sale and it bloomed earlier in the week. It's like a lot of things created in 1979: undeniably awesome.

Essential keys to happiness: cats and catts!
C. Arctic Snow reminds me why I love Cattleyas. The scent is amazing and the flowers have timeless beauty. In my estimation, a white Cattleya can do no wrong. C. Arctic Star comes from regal heritage, including grandparents C. Vespers (registered in 1921 by Sir George Holford) and the legendary C. Bow Bells. Cattleya species schroderae, triane, cinnabarina, intermedia, and loddigesii are all in the background with C. loddigesii contributing to about 45% of its genetic makeup. 

C. Arctic Snow also reminds me why I can't have too many Cattleyas with my growing set-up. The plant takes up almost as much space as Griffin (see above). But, on the other hand, the orchid doesn't relentlessly beg me for treats.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bulbophyllum echinolabium: Would You Like Flies with That?

Bulbophyllum echinolabium
The Wisconsin Orchid Society put on a fantastic show last week and I was delighted to attend. It was also the fall meeting of the MidAmerican Orchid Congress. I was surrounded by good people and fine orchids all weekend. However, I learned that some of the best looking orchids are not so welcoming -- unless you're a fly. A case in point is the lovely Bulbophyllum echinolabium  selected for AOS judging at the Wisconsin show.  

Cats and Catts readers might recall from earlier posts that orchid shows often feature two rounds of judging. The first round, the ribbon judging, compares each orchid against other orchids entered into the show. The second round of judging involves accredited orchid judges from the American Orchid Society selecting plants for further consider for national awards. Here, the orchids are compared against previously awarded plants of the same species or type. 
Paph. niveum, not smelly, Wisconsin 2011

I'm not an orchid judge but I love to sit in on these judging sessions if given an opportunity. You can learn a lot. Orchid judges assemble around a table with the plant as the centerpiece. Someone carefully measures the petals and sepals. Another retrieves information from a computerized database. They discuss the flower's shape, form, size, color, and other qualities. It's exciting. (Here, it's worth noting a few other things I find exciting -- old movies, contract bridge, and historical research -- just to put things into perspective). 

Anyway, the judges' conversations are invariably fascinating but it was difficult for me to focus because the flower smelled like rotting meat. Bulbophyllum are notoriously smelly, and that's why I don't have any in my collection. I'd rather have something like a Paph. niveum because it's pretty to look at and it doesn't stink. But I respect the Bulbophyllum genus and recognize the its evolutionary brilliance. Some of the species resemble rotting meat and have developed a bright red lip and horrid scent to attract carrion fly pollinators. And the flower's diabolical plan worked! A pack of green flies swarmed around it during the thirty minutes or so it was on the table. I saw the Bulbophyllum in its exhibit and, there too, a bunch of fly boys desperately buzzed around trying to get the rotting flesh. It's a beautiful flower, but I'm content to let others grow it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Bathtub of Brassavolas

You know that we're big fans of the Brassavola genus here at Cats and Catts, so it shouldn't be a terrible surprise that I have a mad mess of them in my bathtub. What's surprising is that only one of these has bloomed for me (B. Little Stars). I've had some for a few years now and -- although I haven't killed them -- I haven't put them in a blooming disposition. I'm all stocked up on Brassavolas on the empty hope that I'll someday be rewarded with gorgeous white flowers and their maddeningly entrancing smell. So, what's the source of my bad luck? I have have some theories:

Among orchid genera, Brassavolas can withstand a tremendous amount of light. They are the high-lightest of the high-light orchids. They want to be right up against the glass of the windowsill or inches from a grow light. But, as you can see, they aren't very demur about the amount of space they take up. Like an octopus, they want to spread their pendant tentacles in every direction. They can't possibly fit in a windowsill without displacing my other orchids that want a lot of light.

Humidity is another problem. Most of my Brassavolas are on wood mounts. They grow well like that, but require daily misting and carefully maintained humidity. Dry spells brought on by a short vacation, a malfunctioning humidifier, or a mid-winter cold snap can quickly damage a plant's root system. I speak from experience. 

The final theory centers on the cats. Between Bean's Brassavola bumping and Riley's outright assaults, it's a wonder they've been with me this long. It's difficult to grow healthy plants if your cats are constantly harassing them.

I'm contemplating a few options, including giving up hope. The best and most ambitious response to my Brassavola problem is a Wardian case built exclusively for my Brassavolas and their needs. I've been thinking about it all summer. I could apply my cold frame construction skills to create a glass box with a fogger, small fan, high light, and some sort of watering system. What could go wrong? Except for spending a lot of time on something that looks hideous and doesn't work... There's that.

But maybe it will work? I have to try something or these things are going to take over the house. psuedobulb by psuedobulb.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Deadlines

My month-long blog hiatus can be explained in a single word: deadlines. What my gamer friends might call RL (real life) displaced my ability and energy to blog. But I'm back! I've got flower pictures, cat stories, and various musings about the orchid life. One of my deadlines involved an essay about Katy Perry. The essay recently appeared in an online venue (sponsored by the Sarah Lawrence College Women's History Graduate Program). It has nothing to do with orchids and cats (unless you count Hello Kitty! and Katycats) but you can read it here if you're interested. 
Today's flower is from an unregistered cross: Paph. primulinum x Paph. S. Gratrix. Specifically, it's Paph (primulinum 'Gold Bug' x S. Gratrix 'Algonquin' AM/AOS) from Windy Hill. I love it! The green is nice and clear, and the subtle red dotting from the S. Gratrix parent gives it its beautiful freckled-look. The stippling on the dorsal sepal is definitely not symmetrical but the way the red dots break away on the lateral petals is super cool. As an added bonus, it's blooming sequentially (the second flower bud is becoming more visible).

So, that's the good stuff going on in the Cats and Catts house. On a sad note, the orchid community lost one of its great contributors with the recent death of Fred Bergman. He taught me a lot about orchids and I know that I'm one of the many people who will miss his presence at our monthly meetings. It will be easy to remember Fred, though, if only because he has so many hybrids named after him. I'm a proud owner of Phal. Fred's Pimento, and his memory will live on through every bloom season.