Venture inside Ron Midgett’s greenhouse on Jaguar Road and you might feel like you’ve stumbled into another world. The language you hear can twist your own tongue into knots; words like Cymbidium, Paphiopedilum, Phalaenopsis, Cypripedium, and Oncidium are vestiges of an ancient time, and everywhere you look, shapes like alien faces stare back at you.
Spend an hour there, however, and you’ll realize that New Earth Orchids is anything but alien, despite the lingering sense of something otherworldly. The air smells like a tropical afternoon, and bright sunshine diffuses through the glass all around you, carving away the shadows. Orchid-filled planters hang from the ceiling, linger on the floors and cover tabletops. Midgett speculates that he has a couple of thousand plants but admits that he isn’t sure. “I’ve given up counting them,” he says with a wide smile.
To the untrained eye, everything looks finely orchestrated despite the sheer number of plants. The backstory, however, is anything but. “I was running around in Santa Barbara about 40 years ago with my girlfriend, and we happened to drive by someone’s yard that was filled with these blooming plants,” Midgett recalls. “So I asked my girlfriend, ‘What are those?’” She was a botanist and told him that the plants in question were Cymbidium orchids. “When she said that, a thought went through my head,” he says. “If they can grow them, I can grow them.”
With that, Midgett was officially an orchid enthusiast. He started with one flat and by the end of that year he had 100 plants. “By the end of the following year I had 300,” he says. “Then I got my own greenhouse.” Midgett hasn’t looked back.
For roughly three decades, from the late 1950s through the 1970s, Southern California was the hotbed of orchid growing and hybridizing. Opportunities to learn the craft were abundant, and Midgett quickly connected with those in the know. He went to Fred A. Stewart Orchids, in the San Gabriel Valley, where he and iconic orchid breeder Ernest Hetherington hit it off. “Ernest and another fellow named Rex van Delden would spend hours talking to me about orchids,” Midgett recalls.
Midgett later met Hugo Freed, brother of Hollywood producer Arthur Freed. “Hugo was set up by his brother to have an orchid nursery, and he had a great sense of orchid hybridizing.” Midgett laughs, then adds an obviously fond memory of Hugo Freed. “Hugo was about five-foot-four in about any direction you cared to measure, and he had a terrific wit.”
What Midgett didn’t fully understand at the time was that he was learning from growers who either were or would become legendary in the orchid world. “I didn’t know I was living in Mecca,” Midgett says enthusiastically. “Or the Garden of Eden, or … wherever!”
Later, Midgett moved to Pittsburgh, and it was there that he realized what an incredibly powerful position he was in, thanks to his tutelage in orchid breeding. “Comparatively, Pittsburgh was a backwater for orchids,” he says. “Then I went to New Orleans, and that wasn’t much better.” At the time, Pittsburgh and New Orleans were too isolated from both the east and west coasts, where the art of orchid breeding was booming.
“New England is where orchid growing really started,” says Midgett. “The American Orchid society and all of the hybridizing originated there.” From the east coast, the orchid business skipped across the country to California, and, subsequently, Midgett was swept up into it. Looking back now, he notes that it was all just an incredible accident of time, rather than some linear plan, that brought him to where he is today.
Thanks to that accident, Midgett has now been hybridizing orchids for about 35 years. In the last 20 of those, he’s established certain lines of his own and currently has about 40 to 45 registered crosses. “We’ll be registering a lot more,” he says, and gestures at several flats of plants under a table along the southeastern wall of his greenhouse. “Those are all seedlings from crosses I’ve made, and as those flower out, I’ll name the blossoms. That’s kind of fun.”
At this he laughs, then explains an anomaly in orchid nomenclature that strikes him as funny. “This is a Paphiopedilum,” he says, gesturing to a striking flower with a distinctive pouch-like formation at the bottom of the bloom. “When you translate that it means Aphrodite’s slipper,” he explains, then adds, “In the northern hemisphere, however, there’s a group of orchids called lady slippers that have the genus name Cypripedium, which literally means Venus’s foot.”
The difference between the Latin roots—pedilum, which means slipper, and pedium, foot—is apparently a mistake. As Midgett puts it, someone forgot an L. “It’s just one letter, but someone messed up,” he says. There’s more to the language of orchids than Latin, of course. As Midgett acknowledges, there are many misunderstandings that have nothing to do with names.
“A lot of people have a fear that they can’t keep orchids alive in this particular environment,” he says, referring to Santa Fe, where he’s been growing for three years. “Orchids are not high-maintenance. That’s one of the things I would like people to understand,” he says, emphatically. “Orchids, especially the most common Phalaenopsis, actually survive much better on benign neglect than on pampering.” Phalaenopsis are what Midgett refers to as “low light” orchids, which is admittedly vague. “One thing people have a misconception of is how much light Phalaenopsis needs.” Low light, Midgett explains, doesn’t mean no light. “It means the amount of light you’d get from an east window in the morning, then bright indirect light the rest of the day.” Leaf color is a good indicator of how much light the plant is getting. “Phalaenopsis leaves should be medium green, not dark,” he says. “Dark leaves mean that the plant isn’t getting enough light.”
The second issue with Phalaenopsis is re-blooming, says Midgett. “To get them to bloom again, they must have night temperatures in the range of 58 to 64 degrees for about four weeks. If you don’t do that, they’ll never bloom again.” This trick of temperature is something growers learned roughly 30 to 40 years ago and is used to get Phalaenopsis to bloom before being placed in stores all over the world. “You can find Phalaenopsis in bloom at any box store, because they’ve been triggered to bloom,” explains Midgett. “Generally, if the plant is really strong, it can be forced to bloom twice a year.” One of the other misconceptions people have about Phalaenopsis is that they have a rest period. That is simply not true. “They’re always growing roots, leaves or flowers,” Midgett says.
Phalaenopsis aside, there are about 35,000 species of orchids in the wild, and thanks to the activities of breeders, there are roughly 155,000 registered hybrid crosses. Orchids are so varied and widespread, in fact, that new species are discovered every year. “I forget how many orchids are discovered each year, says Midgett, “but it’s somewhere between 50 and 100. Some are miniscule, minute, but others are actually showy… big showy plants in all sorts of colors.”
If it’s difficult to believe that in these times of planet-wide heavy human activity new species of orchids are still being discovered, it seems at least as remarkable that most orchids are actually fragrant. “This is something most people don’t realize,” says Midgett. “Those that are bee-pollinated, like the Cattleyas, smell amazing,” he says. “They produce a very sweet pleasant fragrance.” So do those that are pollinated by moths, but those are only fragrant at night. “Then there are some orchids that have banker’s hours, like 10 to 3, because that’s when their pollinators are out,” he explains. “No sense in wasting all that energy to produce something when it isn’t needed.” Almost none of the lady slippers are fragrant, but there is one that is. “It’s a big wonderful flower that smells like raspberries,” says Midgett.
If all of that isn’t enough to inspire, here’s yet another fact about orchids that may very well change whatever presumptions you have about these amazing plants. Midgett pulls up a photo of a Paphiopedilum on his laptop and smiles. “This plant first flowered in 1863, and this is a piece of the original,” he says, pointing to the photo. “We tell people, if you take care of your plants properly, you have to will them to your children.”
This sentiment may also bear out for the business itself. New Earth Orchids is thriving, despite all the misconceptions that abound about this exotic plant. Midgett stays busy not only with the greenhouse (and the 2000-plus plants therein) but also with his leasing program, free workshops and the creation of gift baskets for any occasion. Recently, he also teamed up with local potter Ginny Zipperer, of Baca Street Pottery, who now makes all of the pots for his plants. “I like the collaboration Ron and I are doing,” says Zipperer. “It’s great to feel that what I am doing can enhance his product, and I appreciate the support he gives me in mine.”
Midgett concurs with this sentiment, adding, “Everything is local, and that is very important to people nowadays.” It’s very important, as well, to Midgett himself, who tends his otherworldly plants with the utmost care. It’s obvious after just a short time at New Earth Orchids that there is more here than meets the eye and that Midgett’s path was more than just an accident of time. What is sheltered in that nondescript greenhouse on the south side of town is passion and language and history, embodied in the gentle curves of hundreds of blooms.
New Earth Orchids is located at 6003 Jaguar Drive in Santa Fe. 505.983.1025. newearthorchids.com.
Story by Ana June
Photos by Gaelen Casey