Laelia




The laelia is a Brazilian orchid species. Which is to say it is not a cross or hybrid but a species found in this form in the wild. When I first started growing orchids twenty years ago, this one, which I'd seen only in articles or the occasional catalog, was the one I dreamed about most... a dream that became a decade-long quest, and would find its awakening in Florida. Mine is in bloom, producing a record 26 flowers this year.

I've raised phaleanopsis, the "moth", flowers floating like its nickname on slim arching stems. Cattleyas, the showy hybrids that my mother wore, beaming with pride and girly delight, to Mother's Day lunch. I've nurtured tiny equitant oncidiums, colorful gypsies no bigger than a dime. I've stalked the New Jersey Pine Barrens for wild snow-white lady slippers, which would suddenly appear, in a ground-hugging flock, at the edge of a brook. But the laelia eluded me.

I went to the Miami Orchid Show a couple years ago, mounted at the Convention Center in Coconut Grove, a ravishing spectacle. Disorienting in its variety, it demonstrated one of the most remarkable properties of the orchid family: as a class of plants, it numbers more species than any other, and flourishes, cross-breeds, is hunted on nearly every continent of the world. I found it hard to believe, as I studied one of the flowers under a footbridge in the show's vast jungly central display, that the minuscule flowers, those tiny stiff sparks, growing in moss-like mats on volcanic rocks, could be related to the huge lavender showgirls that elsewhere floated perfumed and trembling in their spotlights amid crowds of doting fans. But I looked closer and, sure enough, there was the five-membered star, the seducing lip. However varied the theme, however wildly distorted or disguised, the sextuple motif persists. Three petals, three sepals.

Lavishly painted, intricately formed, orchids seem among the most pagan of nature’s inspirations. Gorgeous but unsentimental, they're out for sex and they don't care who knows it. Orchid. The word itself is from the Greek orchis: testicle, a reference to their conspicuous bulbs. Of course all flowers are, when you get down to it, nothing more nor less than the plant's flashy sex organs. "Choose me! Choose me!" they sing to passing moths, bees and birds. It's just that orchids are so blatant about it. They're beyond coquetry. Their sensuality is reptilian. Even the way they are traded is profane, in stalls and on stages like rare spices or exotic animals. But to look closely at a cymbidium is to encounter Matisse. Its war paint, its speckles, blushes, tints and frostings are outlandish, unnecessary. Its fragrance, one Chinese sage described as “melting.”

In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag claims that photography beautifies everything it touches. It usually does. But I have seen orchids in photographs that looked monstrous and mean, which in real life turned out to be hauntingly beautiful. Colors that seemed ugly on film, or merely drab, revealed rich jungle depth, a designer's sophistication and elan, to the naked eye.

The sheer sculpture of orchids looks both ancient and modern. They are, somewhat rarely among flowers, asymmetrical. In its more extreme configurations, this asymmetry pushes the flower close to animal or insect life in appearance, and that, I believe, is what accounts for much of its shocking beauty. You know it's a flower, but it's verging on something else. Its seductive invocation of its insect or avian pollinators has gone to extremes. It beguiles butterflies because it is an artful improvisation on the butterfly; it's a butterfly mythology, dressed for a royal honeymoon.

Orchids are gorgeous, but when it comes to sex, they're not smiling. They will be ravaged. One can only imagine the primordial world in which such luxuriant erotic strategies originated and flourished.
I bought one small plant to take home. A small hybrid, purple-flecked cream in color, with a deeply rolled lip and a fragrance of licorice-scented grass.

I did find my beloved laelia at long last three years ago... or perhaps she found me. In the garden shop at the local Walmart for $15. Languishing in the gloom, shoved in a corner in the shadow of some ferns and philodendrons. There were two, mere sprouts, with exactly one stem of buds apiece. I decided to share my good fortune, and leave one behind, though I was, pulse racing, tempted to abscond with them both. I've been rewarded in succeeding years, I like to think, with a prodigiously flowering pet - the most "at home" orchid of any I've had the pleasure to own. She sits on my lanai, among her handful of cousins, in the trance of an archaeological sunset.