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A heart long lost to orchids

How have orchids managed to seduce so many gardeners here? Well, they're gorgeous, their variety is amazing, they adore Florida weather and they don't make demands.

Published September 30, 2006

[Photo: Yvonne Swanson]

The delicate blooms of hybrid vandas, above and right, may look fragile, but they are extremely resilient and long-lived. In fact, the colorful flowers will remain beautiful for as long as three weeks.  

Longtime orchid aficionado Bill Nunez, left, checks several vandas hanging in his yard; he cares for 500 orchid plants at his Seminole home.

It has been eight years since Bill Nunez of Seminole acknowledged love affairs with Lady Ackland, Miss Joaquim and Princess Road. Orchids, that is. More than 500 of the exotic beauties thrive at his Seminole home, where two greenhouses provide just the right conditions for such a large collection.

A Tampa native, Nunez grew up around orchids. His grandfather and father were both orchid hobbyists. You could say it's in his genes. When other teenagers were busy with more typical interests, 15-year-old Nunez was developing his first hybrid orchid. It wasn't until he was a married father of two that he finally went public by joining the local orchid society. Finally, he was one of them.

There will be plenty of them - orchid lovers - at next week's big orchid show and sale hosted by the Florida West Coast Orchid Society. The event, Friday through Oct. 8 at the Florida Botanical Gardens, is open to the public.

It's no wonder orchids are such a popular plant in Florida. With minimal care, these epiphytes (air plants) thrive in our semitropical climate's warm temperatures and humidity. Except for those few cold nights in winter when they must be protected, orchids do just fine in the outdoor garden.

Unlike orchid growers in northern climates, you don't need a greenhouse, artificial lights or misters to keep your plants alive. Just hang one in the dappled shade of an oak or other shade tree, water and fertilize it as needed and you'll enjoy spectacular blooms that can last up to three months at a time.

Unless, of course, you are Bill Nunez. He starts plants from tiny seedlings, nurtures them in his greenhouses and celebrates their eventual blooming with delight. Some orchids take up to seven years before they produce their first blooms. "An orchid grower's high is to buy seedlings and take them to blooming," he says.

Nunez primarily grows vandas and cattleyas. Orchids come in several species - the phalaenopsis is considered one of the easiest to start with - and all of them will be on display at the orchid show.

Professionally, Nunez is a service technician for a local chemical company that specializes in testing and treating water for businesses. As a water expert, he knows all about pH, saltwater intrusion, iron and other chemicals present in water. That knowledge is a perfect complement to growing orchids, which are fussy about what they are fed.

The biggest watering issues for orchids are how much and how often. "A lot of people love their orchids to death. They think that if a little bit of water is good, a whole bunch is better. But orchids are sensitive to amounts of water," Nunez cautions. He suggests watering once a week in cooler weather and more often during hot weather when orchids are actively growing. Let your orchid approach dryness, then give it enough water to run freely through the wooden crate or pot, which should have drainage holes. Flowering orchids typically require more water than those not in bloom.

To simplify feedings, use a diluted solution of balanced fertilizer every time you water. Nunez blends his in a 30-gallon tank, then waters the hundreds of plants by hand.

Orchids like their water slightly acidic, between 6.5 and 7.0 on the pH scale, says Nunez. They don't like salt or iron, which are sometimes present in well water. Salt also is present in tap water treated by a water softening system.

"I've been able to test water for members (of the orchid society) and keep them from killing their plants. Some members had saltwater intrusion. They couldn't figure out why their orchids were dying. It was the salt," he says.

Nunez has offered to test water at the orchid show. Bring a sealed container with at least 16 ounces of water (from the source you use to water your orchids) and label the container with your name and contact information. You may be surprised by the content of your water, which varies considerably from one neighborhood to the next, he says.

As for the water in Nunez's neighborhood in Seminole, he got lucky. "It's perfect," he says.

Yvonne Swanson is a master gardener and freelance writer in Pinellas County.


The Florida West Coast Orchid Society Annual Orchid Show and Sale is Friday through Oct. 8 at the Pinellas County Extension/Florida Botanical Gardens, 12175 125th St. N, Largo. Hours: noon to 4 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 7 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 8. National and local vendors, plant sale, judged show and expert advice. Admission: $2.

[Last modified September 28, 2006, 13:27:09]

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