Home & Garden Columns
This past Sunday I got a bargain, a cymbidium orchid in a gallon pot for five dollars. Nice healthy-looking thing, too. If I’d been willing to stagger around the crowded Sycamore Congregational Church bazaar conking innocent children on the head with a bigger pot, I could’ve had even more bargains.
We’d spent most of our walking-around money on food anyway, and after watching a performance by a kickass taiko group whose lead drummer is 80 years old, I was inclined to mind my manners. Five bucks for a healthy cymbidium? That’s enough reward for one day. That’s also one more plant to shoehorn onto a crowded front porch.
But the real reason I couldn’t resist this one frivolous expense was the cultivar’s name: ‘Claude Pepper.’ My goodness, doesn’t that bring back fond memories?
Claude Pepper, aside from having a name to conjure with, was a U.S. senator and later a member of the House of Representatives, an unusual career sequence in itself. He represented Florida, worked on senior citizens’ issues among other big deals, and died in the saddle in 1989. The best story about him, though, isn’t exactly about him and, alas, probably never happened.
In 1950 he lost the Democratic primary race to George Smathers. Smathers probably did not give the speech credited to him that included: “Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.”
So. Theoretically the flower color will be deep deep wine-red—cymbidiums normally run to shades of white, cream, yellow, dark crimson, and maroon—and I don’t know how well it will perform, though obviously someone in El Cerrito has had enough success to divide and propagate some dozen plants, at least, for this fair—but I’m now the proud guardian of a Cymbidium X ‘Claude Pepper’.
Cymbidium orchids are among the few that prosper outdoors here; they’re mostly from high, temperate places in south Asia. They do need to be outdoors here; dry indoor air will shrivel them. They want shade and shelter from serious frost, though they need a little sun to bloom. There’s a nice foundation planting of them across the street from me, up against the north wall of a house where they benefit from its thermal mass and the eaves over them.
Look for a plant that’s mostly green, though a brown “back bulb” or two is actually OK. Give regular water and good drainage; feed with orchid food in summer if you want a shortcut through nutritional jargon, and cut off the last flower spikes—whose blooms last for weeks!—before the last flower opens, for more bloom next year.
Amateur sales like this, at fairs and street parties and garden clubs, are a great source of healthy cheap plants. Keep your eyes open for flyers and banners in playgrounds, and bring a handled bag for schlepping.