Family Orchids

It was Daddy’s 84th birthday earlier this week and were he still alive, I would have shared a meal with him and Mommy in one way or another. Food and flowers have always been a part of our family life, and flowers in particular on my paternal side. My grandmother was an avid collector and connoisseur of orchids, and she took care of them with such a high standard that I often wondered how on earth anyone was supposed to keep up with her and take over. She never failed to talk to her plants at least twice a day, and although her garden was small and nothing that would ever catch the eye of a photographer or landscaper, she had a fascinating range of things. Her orchids were her prized possession though, and it pained her to see them neglected as time passed and she was confined to her wheelchair and later on her bed.

Lola had the usual suspects in the orchid corner, if there is such a thing in the Philippines with all the exotic varieties, but the cattleyas and waling-waling were her prized possession. She went out of her way to fertilise them, and this she did with watered down urine! She never potted them, but wrapped the roots in charcoal and coconut husk and then mounted them on a tree or dried branch. The waling-walings had to be hung and the roots allowed to dangle freely, so the chikoo (also spelled chico, chicu, or chiku) was the designated tree, and somehow they flowered non-stop. I think it had to do with the fact that Lola smoked the tree regularly in order to induce flowering and fruits, which the orchids loved.

When she fell sick in her old age and was no longer able to spend as much time with the orchids, the plants reflected this distancing and were offended, their displeasure reflected in the reduced flowers. Then people began to steal the orchids and knew that the cattleyas in particular would fetch a pretty penny. Lola was livid after the first break-in, and later on heartbroken as she lost more and more of them.

The time came to transfer her to our home in order for my parents to care for her (with Mommy being a nurse and all). Lola was restless the first few weeks and finally she spilled the beans to Daddy, saying she was worried about her beloved orchids. So my parents dutifully went back to the ancestral home, collected the orchids from the garden and brought them over to our house, finding places and trees to hang them. Here’s the thing though, orchids don’t like to be transferred, and they didn’t flower for a whole year! Add to that the Filipino superstition that an orchid has to be given or at least handed over formally if you “inherit” it otherwise it will pine for its old master. Well apparently Lola’s orchids considered themselves kidnapped and stolen, and refused to flower. Daddy the ever dutiful son, tried everything. He watered them daily (mommy and Lola scolded him), he talked to them (he got scolded too, because Lola said he had to pray with them first before giving them a lecture), and in desperation, he peed on them – and this was the final straw. Half the orchids died after he did this and he incurred the wrath of both women – “what do you mean you didn’t water it down? Of course they are going to die if you pee on them directly!” to which he retorted, “well I peed on them and then watered them, isn’t that the same?” You guessed it, the remaining orchids retreated and took a vow of seemingly perpetual silence.

Lola passed away and my parents continued to care for the plants hoping that they would somehow be forgiven. Lo and behold, the year Lola died the orchids began to flower in February and August, just in time for Daddy and Mommy’s birthdays accordingly. By this time my father had learned his lesson and decided to “shower” his affections on the jasmine plant instead, which was far less sensitive and didn’t mind being peed on! The entire street they lived on was in constant awe of Daddy’s jasmine and anyone who passed by or visited left with a handful of the scented flowers.

Birthday Orchid ©FrogDiva Photography

Fastforward a few years, my family got transferred from Berlin to Manila in 2006 and landed a house with a garden. As a welcome present my parents brought over Lola’s orchids and distributed them among the various palm trees. Mommy solemnly handed over the waling-waling and said that these never forgave her for “stealing” them from Lola’s garden, so perhaps they would do better in mine since she was giving them to me. They flowered just in time for Mommy’s birthday and never missed a birthday for anyone else in our family thereafter! It was a bit creepy but also endearing that Lola was still among us somehow.

Birthday Orchid 2 ©FrogDiva Photography

My orchids here in Berlin are nowhere near what I had in Manila once upon a time, and they struggle through the bitter winters in spite of having a good spot in the conservatory. Before you ask, no, I don’t pee on them but I do feed them crushed eggshells (that was my Lolo’s quirk) and give them a dose of coffee from time to time. Throughout 2020 my orchids were absolutely miserable, a manifestation of what I was going through in my personal life. Well what do you know, my humble little yellow orchid gave me the first bloom of 2021 just in time for Daddy’s birthday! Now I know things are going to turn around!

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