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As Long as We Remember...

February 20, 2013

Orchids: An Adventure in Caring

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Borneo has between 2,500 and 3,000 species of orchids on the island. I have eight on my balcony overlooking the Sarawak River. I had only three and was wishing and hoping they die so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with them anymore. No such luck.


These plants did nothing for two years despite my intensive care. Finally, I just didn’t do anything to them hoping they would wither away and I could toss the whole pot and dead plants into the river.


As many of you have read in previous columns, I go over to my mother-in-law’s house in the kampung every Thursday to help with the outside. Most of the work consists of swinging a parang (machete) to keep the jungle from reclaiming their land. It is very surprising how quickly the vegetation grows back week after week especially during the monsoon season.


While working around the house, I noticed many clay pots with large oval holes on the sides. I couldn’t figure out what use they could possibly be because they could not hold dirt or water. I was told they were used to grow orchids. I asked my wife about them and she said her mother, in her spryer days, had a green thumb for the flower.


I decided to give them another try and asked her how she managed to grow them when I could only manage droopy water stained ones. She said she didn’t know I liked orchids, but I nodded not wanting to hurt her feelings. She said she would get some for me to take home.


First she found a newly dropped coconut. Coconuts are everywhere and it is my job to collect them and put them in a pile. I couldn’t tell the difference between one that had been on the ground for a week vs. this morning.


Her husband took the coconut and slammed it down on a large spear whose handle had been buried in the ground. With this he pried off the husk revealing the nut inside. I took the round orb and gave it to grandma. No, she wanted the husk.


The brown stringy husk was soaked in a bucket of water for about 15 minutes. The sopping wet mass was then used to line the sides of the bottom of the orchid pot. She then got an axe-like implement and attacked a burned stump, retrieving the charcoal. Shards of broken clay pots were found and all was put in the pot.


She then rooted around her long abandoned pots retrieving what looked to me like a dead, stringy, gray mass and plopped it on top. She handed the assemblage to me with a smile. Five more of these strange concoctions came over the next few weeks. I was ordered to keep them watered.


Slowly the green returned to the threads of the mass. Then small leaves appeared and I was flabbergasted that I had just proved the Theory of Spontaneous Generation, the idea that life can come from things like dust and clay.


I have now become a bit hooked, again, on orchids after she educated me on the proper way to plant and care for them. Usually, along roadsides, people sell them for about US$2-3. The problem is you have no clue what type of flower may appear because it’s just that gray mass collected from the jungle.


I am going to see if I can buy a few more to add to my collection.


…Life is good


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