Off the Clock: Orchid Collecting Is a Hobby in Bloom

Posted: June 26, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Doris Bitler with orchids
Doris Bitler with a few of her many orchids.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

With names like phalaenopsis and oncidium, it’s no wonder some people find growing orchids intimidating.

But not Doris Bitler, associate dean for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, who has more than 80 orchids flourishing in every conceivable nook of her home. A self-proclaimed orchid hobbyist, Bitler is quick to assure anyone who asks that growing orchids is not as tough as the rumor has it.

The key to orchid care, Bitler says, is basic care. They like light, but not direct sunlight. They like water, but not sitting in water. They also like lots of air circulation, “just like people do,” she says.

She got started with the hobby many years ago after her mother — a plant enthusiast as well — called her to tell her that a local greenhouse was going out of business. “She brought a box full of orchids home,” Bitler remembers, “and after that I was hooked.”

She’s not alone. If you do a Google search for “orchid organizations” nearly 600,000 hits are displayed. The American Orchid Society’s web site offers up information for orchid hybridizers who wish to create new varieties of orchids through cross-pollination. In 1994, Susan Orlean wrote an entire book, “The Orchid Thief,” on one man’s obsession with finding — and stealing — the rare Ghost Orchid in South Florida.

Why are people so particular about these flowers? “I think what really grabs people about orchids is their beauty and variety,” says Bitler.

However, Bitler will be the first to tell you that she’s not an expert.

“I’ve made every mistake in the book,” she admits. From overwatering to underwatering, to leaving a plant in a hot car for too long, she’s done it. And learned from it.

What is the one continent to which the orchid is not native? Were you to attend Bitler’s presentation for the Mason’s Speakers Bureau, you’d find out the answer (Antarctica). Her presentation, which she gives to senior centers and other community groups, explores the anatomy of the orchid — from the “bud” to the “bloom” to the “spike.” Bitler also covers native Virginia orchids and features photos of orchids thriving in her home.

With more than 25,000 different species of orchids worldwide, Bitler has yet to discover everything about her hobby.

She enjoys answering questions for people who are curious to know more about the plants. As a treat for her audience, she even raffles off the orchid she uses as a demonstration throughout the talk. This could be, she admits, so that her husband doesn’t have to deal with yet one more orchid taking up residence (and space) in the house.

“He doesn’t mind them so much, but he’s definitely more of an outdoor gardener.”

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