My mother celebrated her 100th birthday recently. I had planned to let it go by as quietly as possible. After all, she had told me on more than one occasion, that she felt she’d lived long enough, and was ready to die. If she’s sick or feeling badly, she is more emphatic about this. When she’s still in bed at 9:00 o’clock in the morning, and has absolutely no desire to get out of bed, she can be quite expressive about old age. But even when she’s feeling good, and has taken a walk in the morning, she still feels she’s had enough. And so, when one of my sisters wanted to make a party in honor of her birthday, I felt obligated to ask her what she thought about it.
She thought it was a terrible idea. She told me that there was nothing to celebrate, and that she finds it confusing when she has to relate to a number of people at the same time. And moreover, it’s embarrassing for her to meet with a grandchild, or a great grandchild, and not to remember his or her name; not to remember the exact connection to the person. I told her I could understand her point of view, but that there were a lot of family members who wanted to congratulate her on reaching this ripe old age. She made a face, and then said, that she would be pleased to meet with any of her descendents, but she would rather it was one or two at a time, and not a party. But my sister wasn’t about to make concessions when it came to something so important. And she insisted on a party. Not everyone came to the party. Some folks made private visits to her, and for a while there, she was dead tired by the end of each day after thanking one person after another for their good wishes. When I would get together with her, it was difficult to find room for all the flowers she received in her small apartment. But if I would suggest getting rid of some of them, she strenuously objected. It would be an insult to the person who gave her those flowers, to treat them lightly, she explained. She couldn’t remember who had given what, but she told me she valued their intentions, and she would keep the flowers as long as they lasted.
So there we were, surrounded by flowers, and some of them were exotic. I didn’t know the names of more than a third of them. One type of flower particularly entranced me, because the leaves of the flower looked something like a rose, only more ornate, but the cup looked like that of a carnation. Neither of us knew what it was called. And then, my mother told me that of all the flowers, she thought the orchids were the most beautiful. They weren’t cut. She had gotten a plant in a small pot. We both looked at the orchids, and I asked her to tell me a bit about them. She had always known more about flowers than I did. But she has forgotten a lot. Her memory gets worse all the time, and she claimed that she had never really known much about them.
So I started looking up information on orchids. I had always thought they were very delicate. I’ve known a few people who grew them, and I’d read a bit about growing them in the past. I thought of them as ‘hot house’ flowers, and believed they had only survived to the present day because of people who were crazy about them, and willing to invest time and trouble in taking care of them. But I quickly learned that the Orchidaceae, the proper name for the Orchid family, is a widespread family. It’s considered the largest family of flowering plants with more than 22,000 currently accepted species. The number of orchid species equals more than twice the number of bird species, and about four times the number of mammal species.
What surprised me most, was that the vanilla plant, which I especially love, is also part of the family. Charles Darwin discussed the ways in which orchids evolve in order to achieve cross-pollination, in his book, ‘Fertilization of Orchids’, which was published in 1862. It was also amazing to learn that they grow all over the world, and in almost every habitat. The majority are found in tropical regions, but they can also be found in the arctic circle and close to Antarctica! Since the introduction of tropical species in the 19th century, horticulturists have produced more than 100,000 hybrids. Reading about them, I was actually tempted to try growing some. But then, I remembered that I already have too much on my plate. There is so much more that I would like to do, than I have time for, in this world. So I suppose I’ll have to be satisfied, just contemplating their beauty from time to time.