Every rare now and then, when the sky is dark and the moon is full and the wolves are howling, I get the urge to...
Grow an orchid.
The latest frightening occurrence arose this week when I heard the tale of the Dracula vampira orchid.
Yes, there is such an animal.
And it's a flower.
Dracula vampira is the "king of all Draculas," Karlene Sanborn said Wednesday as she gave the lunchtime lecture at Botanica. Karla owns Prairie Orchids in El Dorado and is an American Orchid Society judge. She's also on the board of the Kansas Orchid Society, which will have its annual show next weekend at Botanica.
Karlene flashed a picture of Dracula vampira on the screen — striated black, edging its way off both sides of a man's palm. The colder the climate that the Dracula orchid finds itself in, the bigger it gets, she said.
But she wasn't necessarily trying to scare us for Halloween with this ghost story. There are orchids that are easy to grow — cattleyas and the most common, phalaenopsis (moth) orchids. I've even grown those successfully. But when you wander into the fog of the Pleurothallid alliance of the orchid family, there may be no way out alive.
For the orchid, that is.
"Draculas grow in the high cloud forest in mossy trunks of trees and on the undersides of limbs," Karlene said. They are kept in the dark of the shade and drink heavy dew.
Because of their partiality for low temperatures and high humidity, it can be hard to grow Dracula vampira in captivity.
But Karlene didn't exactly discourage growing Draculas in Wichita, Kansas. She actually gave one away to someone in the audience, saying it could be grown on a windowsill.
That's because not all Draculas are vampires. Karlene actually cracked the code to growing orchids for me. She put Draculas in three categories: warm growers (can live at a temperature that a house is usually kept at); intermediate growers (need to be kept cooler, 55 to 75 degrees), and cool growers (their flowers get bigger the cooler it is, down to 53 degrees; vampira falls in this category).
The Dracula that Karlene gave away is a tiny plant called Dracula lotax. She told the winner that she could enter it in the orchid show when it bloomed.
There are 187 varieties of Draculas that are known, and who knows how many others, as they are still being discovered in the Andes of Ecuador and Colombia, Karlene said. Karlene and other members of the orchid society visited Ecuador once, climbing into the high cloud forests, seeing fantastic orchid after fantastic orchid. But there are places in the forest, she said, where man has never set foot. That means no one has ever seen the orchids that might be there.
Dracula vampira has been found only at elevations of 5,900 to 7,200 feet on the western slopes of Mount Pichincha in Ecuador, Karlene said.
But it grows well in a greenhouse, Karlene said, and her husband, Mark, thrills to raising these cool Draculas in the Sanborns' fully automated greenhouse in El Dorado. It requires its drink — of water — every day. To be able to take a specimen to an orchid meeting to show it off, Mark has to put cool packs in a plastic tub and put a special hanger on the plant. Even so, when he takes it out of the coffin, er, tub, the flower collapses from the change in temperature, Karlene said. A mist of water can bring the flower back to life, but only once or twice. Then it's the final nail in the coffin.
Draculas aren't the only orchids that Halloween conjures. Sarah Pratt, chairman of next weekend's orchid show, mentioned Dendrobium spectabile, sometimes called the spectre or goblin orchid. Sarah has one in her collection.
"Most intriguing is Dendrophylax lindenii, the ghost orchid," Sarah said. "This species is native to Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas. It grows on trees and has no leaves, only roots. So, of course, as a plant it is almost invisible until it produces 5-inch white flowers that seem to float on the breezes of the swamps."
I may or may not try to grow a Dracula orchid. But I'll definitely stick it in my bag of ghost stories and pull it out at the next campfire.