Watching Their Garden Grow

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Once a week when they water it, the attention of Rim Country third-graders is entirely focused on the phalaenopsis orchid they brought home from school the first week of March.

The Orchid Society of Arizona came to Payson for the first time to help students create the special environment the "moth orchid" needs to grow and bloom.

"Orchids come in all colors of the rainbow," Willela Stimmell, community service program coordinator for OSA, told Tami Fischer's class at Frontier Elementary School. "Orchids are not as hard to grow as people think."

There are around 50,000 species of orchids, half in the rain forests, half are hybrids created in a laboratory.

"Some orchids smell like rotting meat," Stimmell said. "Some have nice scents. What kind of insect would be pollinated by them?"

"Flies and bees," said Curtis James Beckel.

OSA president Julie Rathbun and member Bob MacLeod helped students cut a hole on the side of an empty plastic milk jug that would become their orchid's greenhouse.

"Does anyone know why we are using clear jugs?" Stimmell asked.

"It lets the sunlight in," several children said at once.

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With help from Orchid Society of Arizona member, Bob MacLeod, Jayme Chilson and Rebecca Osier repot their seedlings in orchid fir bark.

Chemically untreated lava rocks were placed in the bottom of the jug and a piece of plastic mesh on top to keep the orchid out of the water.

"African violets lift the water from the bottom, not so with orchids," Stimmell said. "These are what we call epiphites.

"In nature, in the tropics, they would grow attached to a tree. They are not parasites because they do not take any nutrients from the tree. Orchids just use the tree as an anchor -- a place to live. When bird droppings or dead leaves come down, that is the only fertilizer orchids get."

Moth orchids only need watering once a week and care must be taken that water not cause rot in the crown of the plant or flower. The corner of a paper towel is used to soak up any water.

"You want the rocks to always be wet," she said. The rocks keep humidity up around the plant.

Orchids must have 100 percent humidity to grow so a large plastic bag is placed over the milk jug to create a small greenhouse.

Students can expect their orchid to bloom during the third or fourth week of April. When it does, they will cut a slit in the plastic bag and carefully pull just the flower head out so it can be seen.

"The Orchid Society in Arizona is unique in all the nation," said Teddy Cohen, a resident of Pine and secretary to the Society. "Most orchid growers say, ‘Let's have a show.' They spend the money that they make, having the show and giving each other prizes. We (are a nonprofit and) spend our money on education and conservation. We go all over the state and do these classes. This is our first time in Payson."

The Society will sponsor the Rim Country's first Orchid Festival on April 29. Everyone who brings an empty gallon jug and takes a class will go home with an orchid plant. To sign up, call Teddy Cohen at (928) 476-2220.

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