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Where the Blooms Are

By Courtney Phillips
Photos by: Anna Lester

Most days, Keith Clayton can be found in his expansive greenhouse on Yarborough Road in Gray’s Creek, tending orchids, a plant with an ironically temperamental reputation, as research suggests it has been in existence for more than 85 million years.

What began by happenstance with just one plant, a Phalaenopsis purchased on a whim at Lowe’s by his wife in 1990, has become a quiet passion. “I really should do an inventory,” he said. “But right now, there are too many plants in his greenhouse to count.”

Both originally from New Jersey, Keith and his wife, Kristine, made their home in North Carolina’s warm climate after raising two sons and Keith’s retirement from the Air Force as a C-130 pilot. Keith acknowledged that Kris isn’t particularly fond of the humid summer months of the South, but like a true gardener, he quipped, “I don’t start to wilt until 90 degrees.”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Keith and Kris chose to “put down roots” here in North Carolina, despite the humidity, as the Old North State is home to an impressive 50 species of orchids which grow in the wild. While most orchids indigenous to North Carolina are terrestrial, or grown in the ground, the northernmost epiphytic (grows in trees) orchid in the continental United States, the Epidendrum magnoliae or Green Fly Orchid, grows unassumingly in the trees of the Green Swamp.

All Work and All Play
After retiring to rural Cumberland County, Keith’s first order of business was to build a greenhouse and fill it with orchids. But, his gardening endeavors don’t end at the door of his climate-controlled specialty greenhouse: From thematic gardens of bamboo and cypress to fig, persimmon and loquat trees, his goal is to have something in bloom in his yard, year round. Naturally, there is an orchid presence on his property, namely the Cranefly orchid, a terrestrial plant that grows wild in the mountains, Piedmont and on the coast of North Carolina.

In addition to spending what Keith estimates as two to three full workdays per week in his own greenhouse, “The Orchid Habitat,” he works on weekends at Green Side Up Gift and Garden Center on Wilmington Highway, where he sells orchids on consignment. Of the popularity of his flowering plants, Keith humbly and simply said, “I make enough to pay for the hobby.” 

Whitney Allen, general manager of Green Side Up, lends a bit more insight into his highly sought-after skill set, as Keith’s reputation precedes him: “We have customers coming into the store asking for Keith because they know he is the orchid grower.” Of only covering the cost of his hobby, Whitney added, “His orchids sell very well at Green Side Up! Most people are timid about this plant because they require a certain care and knowledge. Keith breaks it down for the customer and eliminates that fear, which gives them the confidence to own one. I think that’s a reason they sell so well.”

While it seems as though Keith’s gardening would more than take the place of full-time employment, it is anything but a chore. As his wife Kris, with whom he just celebrated a 43rd wedding anniversary, said affectionately, “He has always liked to play in the dirt.”

Keith’s Top Tips
In his second career as a basic skills coordinator at Fayetteville Technical Community College, Keith supported adult learners in their quest to become literate or obtain their GED. As evidenced by his profession and popularity at Green Side Up, educating a novice on the care of a seemingly intimidating plant comes naturally. In his spare time, he enlightens garden clubs around the Fayetteville area with his talk “Think Like an Orchid.” In about an hour, Keith can demystify the successful proliferation of the most temperamental cultivar.

With more than 25,000 naturally occurring species and more than 100,000 hybrids, orchids require specialized care. However, no matter the grower’s level of expertise or the finicky nature of the plant, there are a few “tried and true” hints for success:
1. Do not overwater. In the wild, most orchids grown in trees, with roots wrapped around branches, exposed to the elements so that they may take in nutrients from the air and rain. If the growing medium of a “houseplant” orchid is too wet, the roots will rot.
2. Research the orchid and replicate their natural environment. They grow on every continent except Antarctica, so growing medium, nutrition and sunlight requirements will vary greatly between species. Keith said, “I’ve had to move plants from one side of the greenhouse to the other, or even create microenvironments to mimic their natural growing conditions.”
3. Have patience. Some species go from seed to bloom in as few as three years, with most common orchids flowering in five to seven years. Other plants may take as long as 10 to 15 years to bloom. “I had a Dendrobium for 12 years before it bloomed. I was beginning to wonder if it ever would. When it finally did, I published it on my Facebook page!” expressed Keith.

Varieties for the Novice
With such a deep appreciation for so many species, can the expert have a favorite? Yes, and surprisingly, it’s one of the three most commonly recognized and widely available orchids in the United States: the Cattleya.

Cattleya (CAT-LAY-AH)
“Boy, do they put on a show!” exclaimed Keith. With flowers ranging from three to seven inches….two to six weeks, the Cattleya, also known as the Corsage Orchid, exist in every color except blue and black. They bloom once per year for two to six weeks weeks and need sun and warm temperatures of 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect for a sunny windowsill in the South!
Phalaenopsis (FAY-LEN-OP-SIS)

The most commonly recommended species for the beginning grower, its individual blooms may last up to six weeks and can continuously bloom for as long as several months, beginning in winter and early spring. While it requires frequent watering, it is an ideal “houseplant” because it craves an abundance of indirect sunlight. It is also known as the Moth Orchid, as it resembles a moth in flight.
Dendrobium (DEN-DRO-BEE-UM)

Found in a wider range of temperatures, orchids of the Dendrobium genus can be found at high altitudes, in tropical rainforest floors and in deserts. They prefer temperatures between 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit and plenty of indirect light.

No stranger to the genus, the American Orchid Society recently awarded a cutting of Keith’s Antelope Dendrobium a Highly Commended Certificate. As such, the plant’s owner gave Keith the opportunity to name the cultivar and have it officially registered. Fondly, Keith chose Dendrobium leporinum ‘Kris’ after his wife. It’s a favorite of the Sandhills Orchid Society, and was in bloom and on display at January’s meeting.

Sandhills Orchid Society
Keith’s unofficial fourth tip for successful orchid growing is to become involved with the organization of which he is a board member and has been active for the past 20 years.
Once each month, Keith and fellow orchidists of the region gather at MacPherson Presbyterian Church to reconnect and learn more about their hobby.

If a member has a plant in bloom, they are encouraged to bring it to the meeting and with more than 50 active members… the blooms make for breathtaking show tables.
A jovial and undoubtedly patient bunch, members are eager to share knowledge with newcomers. Anyone with an orchid, or even an interest in orchids, is welcome to attend.

Boasting beautiful plants, an infectiously friendly atmosphere and knowledgeable and engaging guest speakers, it is easy to see how one might come with a curiosity, but stay for the camaraderie.

Grower’s Day
Just in time to quell a case of Spring fever, the Society will host Grower’s Day on March 23 at the Cape Fear Botanical Garden. With a focus on educating the fledgling orchid enthusiast in the art of growing at home, the day will be filled with informative guest speakers and workshops. For a registration fee of $25, participants will receive seminar information, lunch and most importantly, an orchid to take home. Early registration is encouraged.