Pandemic poses a threat to orchids

By Stan Cutler
Posted 12/31/20

Philadelphians who like seeing orchids in bloom year-round mimic a subtropical climate six-months of the year, using artificial lighting, heating and city water.

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Pandemic poses a threat to orchids

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People who live in subtropical Hawaii grow orchids easily. Philadelphians who like seeing orchids in bloom year-round mimic a subtropical climate six-months of the year, using artificial lighting, heating and city water. Valerie, my wife, tends to her wintering orchids inside a 7’ by 12’ plastic shell.  If a heater fails, the plants die. Certainly, unless heat is quickly restored, the slow-opening buds will blast, the pre-flowers wither inside their green sheaths. This can be disheartening, as most orchids bloom just once a year.

When we installed the greenhouse, we extended the PGW line underground for 50 feet to provide fuel for a small gas furnace.  It’s mounted at the back of the shell, opposite the doorway. Most of the heater is outside the structure. Inside, heat enters through a steel face grate.  When you lift off the grate, you see the radiating fins, the fan and the pilot light. The pilot flame went out during the last cold snap, when we had seven inches of snow on the ground.

Because the orchidarium is so crowded, Valerie has to move the vandas out of the way to get to the pilot light igniter.  The vandas hang in the aisle because they are so tall, issuing sprays of vivid flowers from the top of a 6-foot long plant, most of it dangling air roots. At orchid shows, you’ll see a vanda high up in the display space. Specimens can grow to fifteen feet long. In the wild, the core of the plant sits in the crotch of a tree, sends a single stalk from which both air roots and new leaves emerge. In Philadelphia, they can bloom at any time of year, but mostly in late fall and early winter. Whatever the season, Valerie brings them into the house when they bloom and hangs them from the ceiling at the windowed end of our bedroom. Vanda flowers stay open for three to six weeks, offering bursts of color on drab winter days. The one in the picture has been blooming for over a month. The colors, creamy white with magenta blush, are starting to fade.

Relighting the pilot is an uncomfortable procedure. Ever concerned for my welfare, Valerie had placed a rubber kneeling pad on the pavers so as not to bruise my aging knees. Still, one must lean forward to push the red button that makes a spark while holding the release valve down with your other hand.  One must keep pressing the knob for at least a minute. If all goes well, the little flame burns brightly when you release the pressure on the pilot valve.  It didn’t go well on the first or tenth try. Time to call the professionals, which Valerie did as soon as I de-contorted.

The technician arrived and couldn’t keep the pilot lit. Nor could he replace the failed parts because the supply chain has been so badly disrupted by the pandemic. The part, the thermo-pile, the gizmo  that’s kept hot by the pilot flame, is not currently available as a stand-alone element. We can purchase the pre-assembled igniter, valves, knobs, wires, and thermo-pile for a price equal to that of an entirely new furnace. Last year, the ignition assembly cost $150. It’s $700 this year. If we order it, there’s no guarantee that it will arrive before springtime.

In the meanwhile, portable electric space heaters are keeping the plants safe. If we have a power outage, we will carry the plants into the house. The HVAC company stands by, ready to install whatever we can get whenever we can get it. A downtown supply company promises to have a brand new furnace ready for pickup on December 30th. Is this an omen of better times ahead?

Happy New Year, everybody. Here’s to a healthy and happy 2021.  

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