Where the Wild (and Cultivated) Orchids Bloom: An Interview with Donna and Dick Murrill of Durham

The emails started a month ago: the buds are looking close. Then two weeks ago: some are open up Caribou Road outside of Oroville – but peak bloom is still a ways off. And now – I’ve seen a few for myself. As gardeners and plant lovers, there is something so sweet, if a bit anxious, about the waiting period just before the much anticipated blooming of a favorite plant. It’s the same for rose lovers, camellia lovers, and so on. But right now, is the orchid lovers’ moment in the North State. The wild orchids are now blooming, and the bloom period will continue to unfold over the summer months as the high country warms up to the season and catches up to the valley floor. Orchids are happy show offs (like most flowers) – even the more demure ones, such as the native stream orchid. If you are willing to venture out to them along creeks and rivers and water falls, you will not be disappointed. Photo: Stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea) along the Big Chico Creek.

Orchid lovers rank among the most enthusiastic of the single-plant people out there. And with good reason, orchids, or the botanical family Orchidaceae, represent the largest group of flowering plants on earth. The group comprises many genera and literally hundreds of thousands of orchid species grow in the wild or have been hybridized by growers around the world. Most native orchids thrive in the world’s tropical region, but every continent except Antarctica has indigenous orchid species. As usual, we here in northern California are lucky to have quite a few – 30 plus species of orchid are native to California. Photo: Stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea) along the Big Chico Creek.

In terms of natives, Julie Nelson, Forest Botanist for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, tells me that “Native orchids can be divided into two general habitat groups–wetland species and upland species. The wetland species more reliably come up in the same place every year, in my experience, and are leafy, photosynthesizing organisms. Good examples are the rein orchids, Habenaria spp., that are common in wet meadows in Lassen Park, and the Eddys (and many other places.) Also, stream orchid, Epipactis gigantea, which grows with its feet in the water along streams, including the upper Sacramento, the upper Trinity River, Chico Creek, North Fork Feather River, ect. In the valley, good places to see both stream orchids and California ladyslipper include multiple trails, such as the Feather Falls trail, off of Caribou Road, which is off of highway 70 outside of Oroville.’

“Upland species tend to show up more sporadically and be harder to find; seeing them is always a pleasant surprise! One group of upland orchids has evolved into a specialized way of life called mycotrophy, where the plant’s roots are connected to a fungus that provides nutrition, so the orchid no longer needs any green leaves to manufacture energy. Here’s a link to a description of mycotrophic plants–not just orchids, but several other taxonomic groups have evolved in this direction: http://www.sarracenia.com/faq/faq5980.html ‘

“In montane mixed conifer forest, you can expect to encounter mycotrophic orchids such as the phantom or ghost orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae–dead white all over), several kinds of coralroot (Corallorhiza spp), and also leafy orchids with greenish flowers, growing in older forests with plenty of organic material on the forest floor. Most common is the rattlesnake orchid, Goodyera oblongifolia (I have a mnemonic device for the genus name–the leaves look like they have white tire tracks down the center) and species of Piperia.’ Photo: Stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea) along the Big Chico Creek.

“Several orchid species are relatively rare, including Lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium montanum, C. californicum and C. fasciculatum) and are of conservation concern.’

Native orchids do not transplant well and SHOULD NOT be collected for the home garden.”

Candace Miller of the Dunsmuir Botanical Gardens writes: “I recently noticed that the native, terrestrial orchid, Goodyera oblongifolia (Rattlesnake plantain), has moved into one of the DBG flower beds. The plant is still small, so probably won’t be blooming until next year. We do have Platanthera dilatata v. leucostachys (Sierra bog orchid) blooming along the river in the City Park. It normally blooms in June, but many blooms have been delayed because of our late spring. Both of these orchids have small white flowers along the infloresence stem.

Other native, terrestrial orchids that bloom in Siskiyou County are Calyso bulbosa (Fairy slipper) a small plant with a very showy flower, Listera convallariodes (Broad-lipped twayblade), Piperia elongata (Dense-flowered rein orchid), Cephalanthera austinae (Phantom orchid), and Cypripedium montanum (Mountain lady’s slipper). You can find nice pictures and more info about these at Penn Martin’s website www.shastawildflowers.com.

If you can’t get out to see the wild ones, there are plenty to grow and enjoy at home, as Donna and Dick Murrill of Durham can attest. The two of them have been growing orchids as a hobby (or obsession?) since the early 1980s and currently have two greenhouses full of orchids of all kinds, shapes and sizes at the back of their Durham garden. (They also have several tiered light trays throughout their home….but who’s counting?) “We might have 1500 plants?” Donna says, trying to do a quick calculation in her head when I ask. “Dick is the hybridizer, he loves that part – I am the grower and pot washer.” Which with 1500 plants, two greenhouses and the needs of orchids to be watered, fed and repotted about once a year, “pot washer” is no small task. Photo: Dick Murrill left, with an orchid of his own crossing and breeding, and an orchid seed pod which was produced from a cross Dick made of two orchids. He is waiting patiently for the pod to mature so he can grow the seeds along and see what he gets. Orchid seeds are like dust and are some of the smallest flowering plant seeds known.

Donna has been a gardener since her childhood in La Mesa – just about the only time she can remember not gardening was when she was too busy to do so while in college. Dick grew up in the Sacramento area and even during their busiest years with small children and careers – she a microbiologist and lab director working in public health and he a dentist, they gardened and enjoyed their plants. It was on a trip to Puerto Rico in the early 1980s, hoping to learn more about the African violets, that Donna and Dick were bitten by the orchid fever. They just celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary and the orchid passion does not seem to be waning. Photo: Donna Murrill in one of her backyard greenhouses.

Key conditions needed for successful orchid growing include: sufficient year-round high quality light, proper watering, high levels of humidity, sufficient fresh airflow and nutrients. Most orchids are epiphytes and many wild ones live on a woody host, generally the bark of a living or dead tree. Orchids are not parasitic and do not take nutrients or otherwise sap the energy of their host. Home growers of orchids try to mimic this kind of environment. Donna stresses that while getting your conditions right is important, it is also not as difficult as it might seem and most orchids will put up with a pretty wide range of circumstances. Photo: One of the Murrill’s Phalaeonopsis.

Light: Most plants want to be within a foot or so of a well-lit window – east, south or west facing. They do not want to be in the direct sun, but near by.

Water: Water an orchid by running fresh water over the planting medium – generally bark – until thoroughly wet. Once wet, let any excess water drain completely. Orchids do not like to sit in water. Once you have had your orchid(s) for a while, you will have a better sense of how frequently to water – but close observation is the best indicator. When the bark around the plant’s roots seems completely dry, it is time to water again. Donna generally needs to water 2 or more times a week in summer and less (every three weeks?) in winter. Although some plants she hand waters more frequently in both seasons. Photo: One of the Murrill’s Phragmipedium or slipper orchids.

Humidity: Most orchids want a humidity level of around 40%, which can be achieved in many cases by proper watering and then grouping plants together so that they transpire humidity to one another. You can also place your plants onto gravel-filled trays, which you keep filled with water. You need to make sure, however, that the water stays below the top of the gravel so that the roots of your orchids are never sitting in water. Keep the trays and gravel clean.

In our climate, some of the Murrill’s orchids stay outside under cover year round, such as her Cymbidiums orchids. Others, such as the Dendrobiums and some of her Phaleonopsis get to go outside in dappled light in summer and they get sprayed off with a hose.

Air-Flow: With high levels of humidity and plants placed closer together, pests and disease can become an issue. Increased air-flow and good ventilation will help you to avoid these problems. Sometimes a small fan placed near your orchids is all you need. If you think one of your plants has an issue, seek expert advice on an appropriate pesticide or fungicide and always follow the precautions and application instructions.

Fertilizer: The Murrills have a fertilizer proportioner built into their greenhouse irrigation systems. Many commercial orchid fertilizers are available at most good nurseries. Most fertilizers are dissolved in water and then poured over the plants – leaves and all – after a regular watering. The Murrill’s fertilize their plants weekly, making sure to give them a good flush with water after so that salts do not build up.

Temperature: Orchids are generally happy at normal room temperature – between 50 and 80 degrees farenheit.

Donna and Dick emphasize the importance of prevention when it comes to disease and pests: Buy your plants and supplies from a reputable source.

Finally, be patient and have fun – it is the challenge that keeps it interesting and that much more satisfying when all goes well.

North Valley Orchid Society:

“The next North Valley Orchid Society meeting will be held on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 7:30 pm in the Arts and Crafts Room at the Chico Arts and Recreation Department Community Center located at 545 Vallombrosa Ave. in Chico. This is a new meeting place for us! Check out the link at the bottom of this email to see the facility and get directions.

Alan Koch will present the program,” Orchid Growing 101 and Compact Cattleyas”. Cattleyas are what most people think of when they hear the word orchid. Producing large and fragrant flowers with vibrant colors that are commonly used in corsages, Cattleyas are a popular choice for beginners and experts alike. These plants are very sturdy and can take a lot of abuse from those who tend to forget to water. They are also tolerant of several temperature ranges. Miniature Cattleyas are also available, which are great for those with limited space. Alan will also be giving tips on repotting, fertilizing, watering, pest control, and general orchid care.

Alan Koch owns and operates Gold Country Orchids where he specializes in miniature and compact Cattleyas. Alan started growing orchids in 1969 with 3 Cymbidiums given to him by an aunt. While in college, he became interested in other orchids and discovered many would grow outdoors in Southern California. He has moved five times as his orchid obsession has led to the need for more growing space. With the last move, he purchased 10 acres of land in Lincoln, California for his 300,000 orchids. He is recognized as an expert in the Brazilian Cattleya alliance and a trend setter in miniature Cattleya breeding. Alan has been published in the Orchid Digest, and the American Orchid Society magazines. He has also been published in the proceedings of the World Orchid Conference. He is an internationally known speaker. He is a past member of the AOS Judging Committee, and the Research Committee, as well as an Accredited Judge and is Vice-chair and Training Coordinator for the California Sierra Nevada Judging Center. Alan also served two terms on the Orchid Digest Executive Committee and Board of Directors, and is one of the current directors, as well as a Trustee for the AOS.

Come with your questions for Alan. We look forward to seeing you at our new location! Please join us. Refreshments will be served.
For additional information, contact Tricia Edelmann @ 891-4224 or Erin Pelfrey [nvos2010@gmail.com].

Directions: www.chicorec.com/Parks–Facilities/Community-Centers/CARD-Community-Center/index.html”

Other internet Orchid sites of note:



Several books are devoted to native orchids, including these two that are especially useful for our area Julie Nelson told me, which Lyon Books in Chico can order for you:

Brown, Paul Martin. 2006. Wild Orchids of the Pacific Northwest and Canadian Rockies. University Press of Florida; includes southern Oregon so has many orchid species that also grow in northern California.

Coleman, Ronald. 2002. The Wild Orchids of California. Comstock Books.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.