Thursday, December 2, 2010

Dancing Ladies

It was one of the least attractive plants at the school - just short of ugly. But Jack treasured it and always asked if we had watered his orchid. When questioned, he told me it was gorgeous when it bloomed, but I had my doubts. In the 2 years I was there, it did nothing. Its few long, thin, lily-like leaves grew out of fat pseudo-bulbs and drooped over the rim of the pot. A tangle of pale, hairlike roots tumbled out of the soil and over the side, reaching 18 inches or so in length. We did water it each week and it lived, but that was about all to be said for it.

At the end of the second year, Jack passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. The other teacher and I divided up the plants that his family did not want. No one wanted the orchid, and I didn’t really either, but I took it. I’d never had an orchid plant and was curious about it. Besides, it had meant a lot to Jack, so I couldn’t bear to just dump it.

Later that summer I took the scraggly plant into a local garden center to see what they could tell me. The orchid expert there took one look at it and frowned. “It breaks my heart to see a plant in that condition.” he said. “Give me a break.” I answered. “I sort of got it by default, but I’m willing to try if you’ll tell me what to do.” He sent me home with a bigger pot, a bag of medium-sized bark chunks, and an instruction sheet. I now knew this was an Oncidium orchid, better known as “Dancing Ladies”.

Not surprisingly, these plants can survive a lot of neglect. Native to the South Americas, they can stand moderate to high temperatures, filtered to bright light, and don’t need much water. The fat, fleshy, base stems store some and the long, tangled “air roots” absorb any that runs over them. For the next year or so it put out new green leaves and more of the air roots, but I can’t say that its looks improved any - it was still sad-looking.

Finally, I noticed a thin, spindly stem appear and slowly grow upward. Excited, I rushed to the store to buy fertilizer. The clerk informed me that orchids take a long time to bloom, so to try to be patient. She had that right - for three to four weeks the wiry stem grew, reaching a length of 45 inches before the first tiny bud appeared. It was a show well worth waiting for; over the course of many weeks, myriads of small, bright yellow and rust-colored flowers appeared. Each had a small, 3-part division at the top and a long, frilly lip below - the “dancing ladies” had arrived!

I have established a routine with this plant. For most of the year I keep it indoors, watering it sparingly and keeping its unruly tangle of roots under control. Summers, I move it outdoors on the covered porch so it can get sun and fresh air. As the days shorten and grow crisp I watch for the spindly stem to appear, then move it into the kitchen where we can enjoy it. One year it put out three stems and the flowers lasted for months. Another  year there was only one stem, but it was spectacular.

At those times when I feel just like this drooping, tangled plant looks, I remember we will both be transformed into beauty - eventually.

The Lord their God will save them on that day
as the flock of his people.
They will sparkle in his land
like jewels in a crown.
How attractive and beautiful they will be!
Zechariah 9:16-17

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