Thursday, September 5, 2013

Secrets of Orchids and Allergies

Yes, that one.
My friend Luna gave me an orchid.  A classic; the color you think of when somebody says orchid, and the type you think of too—a phalenopsis, or moth orchid.  I loved it.  It was a sweet, delicate sigh amidst my rollicsome, jangly life.  I read up on it's needs; lukewarm water about every four days, frequent, weak fertilizer.  I went slightly nutty, started daydreaming about having a bay window—nay—a greenhouse—nay—a turn of the century, glass-paned conservatory where I could wander among my far-flung specimens, smoking a pipe of vanilla-scented tobacco, and muttering Latin names to myself while the victrola crackled out Hayden in the background.
 Yes, I am a colonial fetishist.  Yes, I realize I am romanticizing an era whose glories were about 100% built on economically and socially exploiting awesome people and cultures all over the world, many of whom are still struggling to recover from our arrogant hubris.  I’m sorry.  The heart wants what the heart wants.  My heart wants tweed. 
So I bought another phalenopsis.  Like I do, I found out they were cloned hybrids of southeast Asian origin.  They moved into my kitchen window because I do the dishes.  Anyone who does the dishes knows the benevolent power of a beautiful kitchen window.  It counters dealing with a moldy salad bowl left in an unnamed wife’s backpack over the weekend, or having to plunge your hands into a dish of watery meat solids and beef tallow.
Then tragedy struck.  I saw a naturopath for a little mild, dry rash that had persisted on the back of my hand for a year.  She recommended (as I would have in her shoes) that I put tea tree salve on it, so we could rule out fungal infection.  I mentioned that I’d had a bizarre, violent reaction to tea tree oil the previous year, when it turned the skin of my toe to sponge, with water blisters under water blisters under water blisters.  But maybe the stuff was old or something.  She said try the salve anyway.  I did, for five days.  By day two, I noticed a burning smell when I applied the salve.  I saw her downtown and mentioned it.  She said to stop the treatment immediately.  I did.  Not soon enough. 
Turns out, what I had wasn’t fungus, it was a mild, gentle nudge of eczema.  The eczema was a due to a mild, gentle allergic reaction to all the essential oils I work around every single day, most prominently, tea tree oil.  Within two months, eczema had taken over the backs of both hands, and was creeping up my fingers.   A month later, I had to wear gloves to bed so I wouldn’t scratch in my sleep.  The month after that, I was wearing gloves full time because my skin broke open and began weeping.  I had to change gloves several times a day or layer in gauze so I didn’t weep through.   The foods I began reacting to read like a week’s grocery list.
But then there were orchids.  The worse things got, the more I needed them.  I needed them passionately, and desperately.  I think if it weren’t for my wife, my cat (who I eventually turned allergic to) and orchids, I would have sunk into a permanent, sleepy depression.  I would spend 20 minutes lingering in front of the orchid display at Trader Joe’s, basking in their glow, while mentally classifying them; brassia, cattlea, oncidium, doritinopsis.  Margaret, my wife, bought me a brassia—a Mexican spider orchid, with a two-and-a-half foot spike of cheerfully creepy, spidery blossoms marching like soldiers into the air.
Brassia/Oncidium hybrid "White Knight."
Smells good when it blooms.
Also, Margaret is awesome! 
I bought books on orchid hybrids and care.  I bought special orchid pots for them, with holes in the terra cotta so these air plants could let their roots breathe.  I began coveting papheopedela—slipper orchids.   So the main reason you’re seeing cheap orchids everywhere these days is the advent of meristem cloning.  It’s a process that takes the hard tip of a root or flower spike (it turns out in orchids this is undifferentiated tissue, like stem cells, it could become any part of the plant) and splices it, turning it into, literally, millions of plants.  So you can thank meristem cloning for that $7.99 phalenopsis looking like a botanical supermodel on your dining table.  Before meristem cloning, it would have had to been raised out of a bottle of seeds, with a hundred thousand brothers and sisters, and run you around forty bucks.  Slipper orchids can’t be meristem cloned.  They have to be raised from seed like their forebears.  Smell that whiff of tweed?  They’re special because they’re not (as) mass produced.  Even better, only super orchid dorks will know how special they are, so I get to be a super geek PLUS not a twitty jackass, because I get to be snobby without looking snobby because only other snobs will know.  Plus--(don’t tell!) Southeast Asian hybrid papheopedelums are super easy to grow.  Swoony intoxicating goodness!
What adds to their mystery, for me, is their association with the slipper orchids that grow in the high-altitude, old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest.  Our local lady’s slippers are endangered, and have been flummoxing botanists for decades.  We can’t grow them in “captivity.”  They are dependent on some esoteric relationship with certain trees and fungi in the soil.  I appreciate them because, as much as I like science, I like things that outfox our efforts to understand them even better. 
Soon, I got two.  One, when I bought it had five small lancelate leaves, and one enormous blossom the size of my hand.  I haven’t gotten it to bloom again, but two and a half years later, it’s huge and green and healthy looking.  The other is a gracious, striped, green and white flowered maudia.
I, Maudius
So here’s weirdness.  My allergies and eczema got better.  This huge hurricane of inflammation passed through my body and left me in better shape than I had been  It took a year and a half before things approached normal, and the rest of two to settle down.  I got my normal, thin, elastic, smooth skin back.  This was huge. I still need to watch my spices—I can’t eat too much of any particular spice too many days in a row before I start reacting to it.  I might start feeling agitated, my heart racing, and wake up with puffy lips, or find an itchy hive or two on my hand.  But, otherwise the eczema’s gone.  I need to take a break from dairy now and again, but otherwise I can eat whatever I want.  This had three interesting effects.  1. I don’t take any food for granted, and remember my solemn promise to my diet-restricted self, that, should I ever get my skin and digestion back, I would never say no to a French pastry I wanted.  2.  I approach everything I eat, whether it’s organic kale or a GMO-laden corn dog, as a giant gift of love from a glorious tasty universe that I am a part of. 3. I got bored with my orchids.
To a degree, this is no surprise.  Orchids had been a rare pleasure that couldn't hurt me in a grand field of deliciousness that would leave me itchy and hyperventilating for weeks.  As the world opened up, maybe other things competed, and dimmed them in comparison.  I maintained them dutifully, but began to resent the work my collection—now called affectionately, the ‘chids—demanded. 
Then a few months passed, spring got close.  Allergies were still a mere blip on the scene.  Then I started liking them.  A lot.  I went from disinterested to slightly crazy about them in a matter of a few weeks.  Then, the allergies struck.  I got itchy, I needed to drop milk, citrus and black pepper from my diet, my lips puffed up, and a dainty powder-sugaring of hives sprinkled across the backs of my hands.  For a few weeks, the heart-racing restlessness that kept me awake and tormented for months returned.  My need of them predicted the rise of my allergies.  That or I’m allergic to liking orchids.
Aaaaany day now. . . .
So I keep them, and I love them.  They are my thriving green canaries in the allergic coal mine.  My maudia is days away from blooming, for it’s second time.  The first bloom is a given; somebody else got it there.  The second bloom is the flower’s confirmation that your relationship is working.  I feel like an anxious expectant parent.  Expect a Facebook post any day now.

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