Seymour Bartlett stood on a stepladder and reached above his head for a bulging file case on the top shelf of his entryway closet.
“Some grow on rocks, some on trees, some in loose soil — all different places,” the Lincolnshire 84-year-old said as he pulled down the case. “Now a ghost orchid, you have to go in the swamps to find that.”
Opening the case to reveal hundreds of photos and reams of hand-outs about all things orchid, Bartlett leafed through and selected a few to impart at least a cursory knowledge of the exotic plants.
Decades ago, Bartlett achieved the rank of orchid doctor for the American Orchid Society while he lived in Boca Raton, Fla. A master gardener in Florida and Illinois, he also tended orchids for years at the Chicago Botanical Gardens in Glencoe.
Today, Bartlett is among the newest residents at Sedgebrook Senior Living Community in Lincolnshire. He plans to share his orchid expertise with fellow residents at sessions planned for the Music Room at Sedgebrook.
“This is a lady slipper, and that’s a blue ribbon,” he said, showing off one of his many photos of orchids he’s grown or tended, which number in the thousands.
When Bartlett and his wife of 63 years, Idell, moved to Florida as snowbirds about 20 years ago, their then next-door neighbor from the Rivershire subdivision of Lincolnshire sent an orchid to the Bartletts as a house-warming gift.
“That’s what got me interested,” Bartlett said. “It was a beautiful purple Cattleya.”
Bartlett said he had the plant that some refer to as the diva of all flowers for nearly two years, and couldn’t get it to bloom. So he started doing some research, and learned that his Cattleya would, in fact, enjoy some sunlight, although he’d been told that it would not.
A retired manufacturer of shower doors, Bartlett has been hooked on making orchids happy ever since.
“There’s a lot to learn,” he said, noting that tens of thousands of naturally occurring species of orchids exist, along with myriad hybrids. The most common in the United States is the Phalaenopsis, popular for its relative ease of care.
“The most important things are temperature, feeding and watering. And if you put it in a place where it’s happy, it’ll bloom for you, sometimes twice a year, sometimes three times a year,” he said. “People have trouble because they expect them to water themselves or feed themselves. Some even put an ice cube on them.”
That, Bartlett said, is a terrible idea.
“Show me an orchid that likes to be watered with ice cubes, and I’ll show you an orchid about to die,” he said.
Getting up from his dining room table where pictures and pamphlets spilled from his case, Bartlett walked toward some floor-to-ceiling windows a few feet away. Horizontal blinds were pulled to allow a bare modicum of light. Three orchid plants displayed blooms of white, purple and a stripy reddish-pink.
Bartlett showed off a root rising out of the loamy moss at the base of each, and said the better two of the plants had blooms arranged in the same direction, “like soldiers.”
“To be an orchid, they have to have six petals — two sepals, two petals, one lip and one column,” he said. “It was after the second world war that they became popular in the United States. English wealthy people were the only ones who had orchids.
“They paid people to bring them back from the wilds of Brazil, Guatemala, South America, Africa, Viet Nam …” he said. “So the English had these expensive plants that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and during the war they were afraid they were going to get bombed. So many of them had the plants shipped to the United States for care.”
Orchids grew in popularity in the United States until they became the flower for corsages and weddings.
The plants range from notoriously fussy to easy to grow, and from prohibitively expensive ($20,000) to reasonable (less than $30). Orchids’ popularity, though, has waned.
Membership in the American Orchid Society has dropped to a little more than 12,000 from a heyday of 65,000, Bartlett said.
No plant, however, will ever come close to the orchid in the hearts of people like Bartlett.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They’re just so beautiful.”