Saving The Wild Orchids
By Janice Kimball
Lavender orchids blooming on trees high in the mountains above Lake Chapala.
Toward the end of a miserable winter, orchids bloomed in the conservatory on Belle Isle in Detroit. The director who introduced the rainbow of blooming orchids inside explained that these were cultivated orchids. I remember his saying, “I will never own a live thing that was once wild. Orchids that are free are not like the cultivated gorgeous creatures in here stripped of their tongues and in bondage. In Mexico I have had the magical experience of being among free orchids fluttering about in the treetops, their life substance being drawn from pure air.”
I sold my historical home in Detroit’s inner city not long after that, explaining to the street people for whom I’d been an advocate that I had to move where, like the wild orchids, I could bloom. They were the only ones that understood. My brother took me, my feline, construction cat, and three suitcases to the airport. I boarded the plane that would take me to Guadalajara and a new beginning. The year was 1998.
I was standing in my courtyard on the fringes of Chapala counting bananas when I had my first encounter with Jalisco’s silky lavender wild orchids. An unkempt man came walking in my gate with a clump of them in each fist, shaking them in the air as if they were rattles. “Muy bonitas orquídeas para ti,” (very pretty orchids for you,) he chanted. “Muy baratas, dos por una, especialmente para el jardín de la señora.” (Very cheap, two for one, especially for the lady’s garden.) I shielded my eyes from the sight as I remembered the words of the director and murmured, “No, please no,” shaking my index finger back and forth. He headed to the neighboring houses, following in the heels of the topsoil salesman, a man leading his old mule, from which I bought plenty—while still in ignorance that it had been stripped from under the trees in the wild. Visiting a neighbor, I noticed clumps of orchids tied to a tree. The owner said that the orchids were there when she moved in. I heard that explanation many more times, as the raising of my consciousness regarding the protection of wildlife began to take a foothold in Mexico.
In 2001, the federal government passed a law making the cutting or removal of orchids in the wild illegal. Soon after, they began to enforce stiff penalties. After that, the orchid salesman did not come down the street again, and later I heard the old man who hawked poached topsoil from the back of his decrepit mule had died. The nurseries are the place to buy cultivated orchids for your garden; they sell hybrids that will survive, and thrive if kept moist while making sure their roots do not rot from overwatering. For less than you would pay for cut orchids up north, you can buy real plants here, exquisite in every detail, in a myriad of mood and form and in so many combinations of waxed and silken colors. I find today’s viveros (nurseries) particularly exciting. When I feel restless, I head out to visit my favorites, and bask in their flowers.
I was fortunate to have my botanical consciousness raised before I retired to the land of wild orchids. Never did I dream I would be living on the shores of a lake, surrounded by an extinct volcano, below the forest whose heights harbored communities of wild orchids swaying in the breeze—some of the orchids that Belle Isles gentleman had described to me a lifetime ago.
After several failed trips into the wilds of the high Sierras, my health always betraying me, I have altered my dream to see orchids blooming in the wild. Maybe someday I will join them in their wild habitat. I fantasize my ashes being tossed from within the confines of a hot air balloon or perhaps a glider, to flutter down among the wild orchids in the breeze. In the meantime, the local nurseries with their magnificent cultured orchids will sustain me.