Orchid Growers Cultivate Passion And Memories

Debby Halliday

Debby Halliday

A few dozen adults crowd around tables in a large conference room at the Scottish Rite Center in Mission Valley. At the front of the room a grey-haired woman shouts a greeting.

“Good morning, everybody! We’re going to have a great show. We have beautiful flowers. So I’d like to start by going through some of the rules.”

That’s Pam Peters, the chairwoman of judging at the 70th annual spring show of the San Diego County Orchid Society. For 70 years the orchid society has been a gathering of people who love the flowers and love telling stories about them.

“I got my first orchid when I was an adult to find a bouquet for my girlfriend for Valentine’s Day,” said Ron Kaufmann, chairman of the orchid society’s conservation committee and, like Peters, a life member.

“And the flower shop I went to had some pots of orchids sitting outside. So I thought, ‘That’s a little different.’ It’s something nice and not just a dozen red roses. And it was actually one of these,” he added, pointing to one of the thousands of flowers on the floor of the convention hall.

Funny judges

There are about 30,000 species of orchids in the wild. Add to that the 100,000 hybrids created by orchid fanciers and you can imagine the floral riot of shapes and colors at the orchid society show. Kaufmann is an oceanography professor at the University of San Diego and he says evolution has made the orchid an astounding plant.

“The infinite variety is just because they are designed to attract an infinite variety of pollinators. The pollen in orchids doesn’t get blown from place to place by the wind. All of that variety is designed to attract different kinds of pollinators to the flowers to accomplish pollination,” he said. “And that variety also tends to attract people, who have an interest in this wide variety.”

Who are the orchid people? One of them is a young man with a long red beard who’s a post-doctoral scholar in neurology at UCSD. His name is Kevin Rynearson.

“So, when I was a kid, after my grandmother passed away, we went to help my grandfather clean out his house and I went into his backyard, where I was never allowed to go as a little kid,” Rynearson explained. “It was actually a greenhouse that he had up in the Bay Area that was full of cymbidium orchids.”

There was some space left after they packed up the U-Haul so they crammed as many orchids as they could into it. For Rynearson and orchids the rest is history.

Most people may think of orchids as the fancy flowers you see on sale at Trader Joe’s. But the orchid society members who live throughout San Diego County see them as much more. One of those members lives in a big house on a quiet lane on Point Loma.

One of the many orchid species at the spring show of the San Diego County Orchid Society.

Betty Kelepecz

Betty Kelepecz

Betty Kelepecz is tall and confidant, the reflection of a career spent in law enforcement. She worked her way up to the rank of commander for the LAPD and retired as the chief of the San Diego Harbor Police. In her backyard greenhouse she shows me her “Darwin orchid,” which has a star-shaped flower and a 12-inch-long nectar spur.

Charles Darwin theorized the flower must have evolved with a moth that had an elongated proboscis in order to reach all the way down the spur to get the nectar and pollinate the flower. In the 1960s, a hundred years later, naturalists saw a moth do just that and proved Darwin right.

Kelepecz pointed out another flower in the shade of a pergola next to the greenhouse.

“Remember I was talking about that orchid from Peru that I fell in love with? … Well here it is! It’s called masdevallia veitchiana and it grows on Machu Picchu.”

She said the bright orange flower was given a name by local Indians that refers to the story of a princess who lost her lover and cried with heartbreak. The flower is called “tears of the princess.”

Kelepecz, of course, had a story about how she first became aware of orchids. When she was living in Long Beach her husband found a disheveled, discarded plant in an alley and brought it home. He said it was an orchid and Betty told him it was not. Her husband was right and the plant bloomed for 30 years.

Kelepecz said working for decades as a cop made growing orchids a place where she could find some peace.

“My background was one of a lot of stress. And so orchid growing for me was a place to go and to become calm… It makes me joyful. I’m a joyful person anyway but the joy in growing an orchid is to me the perfect joy.”

Pretty Orchid

 The fact that an orchid can grow at 8,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes is a pretty good indication that they can grow just about everywhere. Some live in the tropics but plenty can survive a hard freeze. A story repeated to me by nearly every member of the orchid society was that the flowers grow on every continent except Antarctica.

They say that San Diego’s mild climate is a great place to grow a wide variety of orchids. Rancho Santa Fe is where orchid society member Debby Halliday lives. Her property is expansive and well kept. Naturally, she has a place where she keeps here orchids.

“So here we are,” Halliday tells me after she opens the glass door. “This is my lovely greenhouse where I spend a lot of time.”

Halliday and her husband spent their lives in business, at one point selling cactus and succulent plants to supermarkets. But she says she’s only done orchids for love, not money.

“In 1970, I had just gotten married. We lived in Brooklyn and my husband was very interested in orchids,” she said. “So we together joined the New York Orchid Society. We built a little lean-to greenhouse in the backyard… We had the bottom two floors of a brownstone. And members of the New York Orchid Society gave us our first collection.”

Debby Halliday and her husband, Donald.

Debby Halliday and her husband, Donald.

Today, Halliday is a member of the San Diego County Orchid Society. She is a judge at orchid shows and teaches culture classes for the society. That’s horticulture. Like so many orchid people, the flowers are a bank of memories and emotions, maybe especially for Halliday, who has named her variety of a hybrid plant — the Lc. Mini Song ‘Donald Halliday’ — after her late husband.

“My husband got ill and he wasn’t able to stay around and enjoy it. But for me, it’s a great reason to get up in the morning.”

It’s the perfect joy.

(This story was also published by KPBS.org)

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