Saturday, 13 October 2018


                              At the entrance of the 65th Kenya Orchid Society show themed 'Garden of Eden


By Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 13 October 2018) 
What is it about orchids that could cause the former Regional senior partner at Price Waterhouse Cooper, Anne Eriksson, to look forward to retirement so she could grow her own orchids?

                                                American Orchid Society VP Robert Fuchs awards Kenyan orchid growers

And why would orchids inspire a medical specialist like Dr Janak Gohil to forego her lucrative work as an anesthesiologist for even a day just to arrange her award-winning orchid display at the Exhibition Hall of Sarit Centre where the 23rd Kenya Orchid Society’s annual showcase of both indigenous and exotic plants was on display through last Sunday.

                                                     Dr & Dr Gohil with her award-winning orchids at her exhibit

I’d ask the same question of a well-established lawyer like Alexandra Kontos who’s qualified to practice law in three different countries. Why would she devote so much of her life to not only growing award-winning orchids? She also mentors future judges like the four who helped judge this year Kenya Orchid Society (KOS) show.

“It takes years to qualify to be a judge,” says Alexandra who won many awards this year, both from KOS and from the American Orchid Society, which is by far “the largest and most active orchid society in the world,” according to Ingeborg Gonella, who like Alexandra is a former Chairperson of KOS and a longstanding KOS member who was described to me as being ‘encyclopedic’ when it came to orchids.
 The AOS had sent almost 30 representatives to attend this year’s multi-colored, multi-flowered displays of orchids, according to KOS’s current Chairperson Salima Tejani. Nine of them also served as judges of the show. Their leader, Robert Fuchs, who’s Vice President of AOS, described the KOS show, after making the rounds of all 24 orchid exhibits, as one of the most “spectacular” he had seen in years.
                              KOS Chairperson Kalima Tejani with mother and dad Anwer who's also has a green thumb

“And I have attended many orchid shows in my day,” said the AOS VP as he gave Alexandra several awards, including one for having the Best Exhibit in the entire show.
                               Alexandra Kontos accepting her 'Best Exhibit' award from AOS VP Robert Fuchs

Alexandra accepted all her awards (from both KOS and AOS) with humility on the opening night of the show, the theme of which was the ‘Garden of Eden’. But it was clear that she has worked hard to cultivate the quality of orchids that could meet the high international standards conveyed by the AOS.

“But when I was given my first orchid plant, I took it home and it soon died,” she confessed. “My mistake was watering it only once a week.”

 After that, her friend, Roger Danahy, brought her 15 more plants. By then, she’d read up on techniques of growing healthy orchids such that she’s now been able to grow so many exquisite orchids that she enjoys returning hundreds of them to natural habitats like those found in Karura Forest, Nairobi National Park and Brackenhurst Ecology Centre.

“In future, I want to do more with orchid conservation and education,” says Alexandra who played a key role in training the four new ‘junior judges’ who helped to judge this year’s competition.

She attained the rank of judge back in 1989, which was no small feat since it requires passing a challenging test set by an international body of botanists and orchid experts.

“It required a lot of reading, but since I am an avid reader, I qualified after two years,” says Alexandra who was initially invited to become a judge in 1987.

“Normally it takes between four and five years to become a judge, but we have one [aspirant] who’s taken ten years and still hasn’t qualified,” says Ingaborg Gonella who co-taught the brand new set of ‘junior judges’ with Alexandra.

The four were introduced last Wednesday night at the KOS opening awards ceremony. They include this year’s KOS Chairperson of Kalima Tejani, Anant Savani, Helena Rame and Kerini Mhajan.
                                        Alexandra with the hand-painted silk scarf given to her by her junior judges

All four were among the seven judges of this year’s winning displays. The other three were Alexandra, Ingeborg and Heather Campbell who at 90 is the oldest KOS member.
“But our judging was enhanced this year with the input of the nine AOS judges,” says Ingeborg who notes that the American team had scheduled their safari to Maasai Mara to coincide with the KOS showcase.

The Americans also gave out AOS awards which are held in special standing internationally. For instance, Ingeborg received an award for growing the ‘Best Primary Hybrid’ which is named after its creator Ria Meyer, who gave Ingeborg the plant 20 years ago.
                                Orchid plant named after Ria Meyer, wife of the master orchid judge Herman Meyer

“When Ria gave it to me it was quite small, but it’s grown tremendously since then.” Ingeborg also received a Certificate of Merit from AOS which entitles her to give her bright yellow orchid an official name.

“I named it Christine in memory of my sister who passed on last year,” she says.

Like Alexandra, Ingeborg killed off her first orchid plants by not knowing how easily they can die if watered too much (as she did) or too little (as did Alexandra

“They can also be smothered to death in soil,” says Ingeborg who explains that orchids are “not terrestrial” meaning they do not grow in soil. They are ‘epiphytes’, meaning plants that grow on trees.

“What I tell people is that orchids are not difficult to grow; they are just different!” she says as she begins to unravel exactly why people can be so passionate about growing orchids.
                                     'Orchids are not difficult, they are just different', says Ingeborg
“It’s because they are not only beautiful; they are also so diverse. You can find some that smell heavenly and others that stink; some as small as a pin-head and others as large as a dinner plate,” she adds.

“You can never get tired of orchids because they are so varied. They come in all colors, including some which are almost black. And to find that it’s the biggest flowering family in the world (with over 30,000 natural species) is extraordinary in itself,” she says.

Nonetheless, orchids are among the species sighted by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species since orchid species are finite and as their natural eco-systems are being destroyed, so the species disappear unless protected and preserved.
But Ingeborg notes that the situation with orchids has rapidly changed in recent years, due to both hybridization which is the crossbreeding of different species to produce a hybrid plant, and the cloning of orchids which has brought down the prices of orchids so they are now far more affordable.

Nonetheless, a single orchid can still cost several thousand shillings. That was the going price for the ones sold during the Orchid Show. They’d been imported from nurseries in Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia as well as from Holland and Germany.
“We would have loved to import African orchids from Africa, but there are very few exporters in the region,” Ingeborg says, noting there are nurseries overseas that export African orchids but not vice versa.

Curious about what I would do if I bought one of the orchids on sale at the Orchid Show, Ingeborg says I could take it home and “tie it to a tree” and let it attach itself to the bark. “Orchids are not parasites, however. They do not steal nutrients from trees. Instead, they simply attach themselves to trees and then grow naturally.”

                                                                                   Ingeborg's exhibit of orchids

It may sound strange at first, but as the transplanted German lady (Ingeborg) has said, orchid are not difficult; they are simply different. In fact, she says they are very sturdy plants and prefer to grow out of doors in the open air.

But orchid advocates are very strict about one important point. That is to never pick an orchid plant from its natural habitat. It’s actually against international law. “We only get our orchids from registered nurseries,” says Ingeborg.
But then, when Anne Eriksson traveled to Borneo and saw orchids in their natural habitat, it was breathtaking, she says. “But I would never think of removing an orchid from its natural environment,” she adds. That’s how protective orchid lovers feel about the plant.

It’s a lesson well learned whether one’s a member of the Kenya Orchid Society or not. Nonetheless, membership entails attending ten monthly meetings which sound like mini-tutorials filled with practical information and colorful tales about orchids which are found all over the world.
“We have a bit less than 200 members of the Society which is small by comparison to the American society which has more than 9000 active members. But the activists among us work hard to make our annual orchid show spectacular,” says Ingebord. Which indeed it was this year.

'Orchids are not difficult, they are just different,' says Ingeborg Gonella

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