I consider myself an accommodating host to the houseplants in my home, but I don't possess the energy of the true fanatic. There are people with fetishes for finicky plants, and in my mind--until recently anyway--orchid fanciers were firmly in this category. Deserved or not, orchids have a reputation for being among the fussiest of indoor plants. The word on the street is that they need peculiar light and perpetual feeding, and require you to keep your home chilly by day and cold at night. Since I'm just as particular about keeping my living conditions as they are, I've never believed orchids and I were cut out to be roommates. I let them grace the homes of others and left them in peace.
That is until I crossed the threshold of Orchids by Hausermann in west-suburban Addison a year ago and watched my lofty nonpossessive attitude crumble. I had skidded out on the Eisenhower on a snowy January day just to experience the four-acre orchid orgy--I had no intentions of buying. And the experience itself is remarkable--the inside of Hausermann offers one of the most astonishing winter views in the metropolitan area. Rows of plants with pink, lavender, white, apricot, lemon, and deep red blossoms stretch out in all directions under the plastic-roofed buildings. To call the structures greenhouses seems inadequate; the Hausermann buildings are more like kaleidoscope houses.
The Hausermann family has been in the plant business since 1920, and has specialized in exotic orchids since 1935. The species originate in Thailand, the Philippines, Ecuador, India, and are cultivated by seed and by cloning. The latter technique makes it possible to reproduce exact replicas of favored plants, and some of Hausermann's houses are filled with 6,000 identical plants. This corner of Du Page County is a real orchid mecca: Hausermann is the largest grower in the midwest, and next door is E.F.G. Orchids, owned by another branch of the Hausermann family. At E.F.G. another 1,000 orchid hybrids sit on 100,000 square feet. Together these two operations occupy a large chunk of real estate in an area coated with Kmarts and White Castles and Targets, incongruous companions of the orchid business.
I was so seduced by the delicacy of the Phalaenopsis, the outrageousness of the Cattleya, and the overt sexiness of the ladyslippers that succumbing no longer seemed crazy. Buying a single plant seemed almost a cautious response, since what I really wanted to do was fetch my bed and sofa and take up permanent residence in the Paphiopedilum room. But I doubted that either the Hausermanns or my husband would go for this, so instead I brought home a Phalaenopsis with buttery-colored petals streaked with dark rose veins. I stationed it grandly on the round table in the living room and was admiring it when the phone rang. It was my friend and horticultural competitor Joe, and I made the mistake of telling him that I'd broken down and bought an orchid. There was silence at first, and then he said, "Why?"
"The Hausermanns said orchids are easier to grow than people think. There was an article about how simple it is tacked up next to the cash register."
"Oh yeah," he said. "And I read an article on how appendectomies are easier to perform than people think too, and how all you need is a knife and some Mercurochrome and you can do it yourself at home."
I launched into details about how it was true that there were orchids that need to have the house kept at 60 degrees by day and 45 at night, but that the Phalaenopsis was different.
He interrupted with the ominous tone of One Who Knows. "Just remember the bonsai, Jill."
This was cruel. He was referring to the beautiful miniature fig tree I'd bought for $40 at the Northalsted Market Days the previous summer. Even with the detailed instructions the enthusiastic grower gave me, the poor thing dropped its leaves within a week of my bringing it home. By the end of a month it looked like a skinny piece of gingerroot stuck in a square plate of dirt. "Very Zen," I told him.
He was unconvinced. "How much did you pay for the orchid?"
"Twenty dollars." (I'd paid $25.)
He paused as though figuring out the economics and slowly realizing (enviously I hoped) that this was a good deal. "I guess $20 isn't too much to pay for the privilege of having something beautiful come to your house to die," he said finally.
But for almost three months the Phalaenopsis bloomed exquisitely. Not to be outdone--and perhaps impressed, though he wouldn't admit it--Joe bought a stunning white Phalaenopsis for himself. Shortly after he got it home his cat Arlo batted all its blossoms off. When Joe grudgingly gave the plant to me to care for, my victory in our ongoing horticultural competition seemed secure.
I'd purchased the special diet my orchid required, fed it religiously in perfect proportions, and all in all treated it like a queen. But then it developed a raging infection. Soon sticky little parasites had thoroughly and disgustingly coated the orchid's leaves, turning them tan and sickly. I had to put it in a plastic body bag so it wouldn't contaminate any of my other plants as I carried it outside and unceremoniously dumped the precious $20--OK, $25--queen of the flower world in the garbage. God rest her soul.
That was a year ago. Today the leaves of the plant I'm keeping for Joe remain a peaceful, glossy green, and its aerial roots remain unrotted. It seems to be surviving nicely, though I haven't convinced it to bloom a second time. Still, I have hope. Enough hope that last week I paid another visit to Hausermann and E.F.G. Orchids and selected a petite Haemaria that's now blooming on the bathroom windowsill.
To make your own pilgrimage to orchid heaven, go west on I-290 about 15 miles past the Chicago city limits and exit at North Avenue (Route 64). Take North Avenue west four miles to Addison Road and turn right. The Orchids by Hausermann greenhouses are a block north on the west side of the street (708-543-6855). To check out E.F.G. Orchids, take North Avenue past Addison to Westwood and turn right. Turn right again almost immediately onto Gerri Lane, which leads directly to E.F.G. (708-543-5628).