Savage Beauty

Orchids are addictive.

  • Paraphalaneopsis

Paraphalaenopsis denevei, from Borneo

Paraphalaenopsis denevei, from Borneo

“I can tell you up front, it’s not an addiction. Everybody says it’s an addiction, and I don’t believe that at all. It’s a sickness. Seriously.”

Gary Pierwola is speaking. A retired National City cop, he has the look of a man who has stared at the dark side of life without blinking, a man who, in his day, could have taken down a tough punk without breaking a sweat. He points a large finger at me, like a gun. “There isn’t a pill and there isn’t a shot you can take once it gets started.”

Gary Pierwola

Gary Pierwola

He is warning me about orchids. We’re next to the swimming pool of his Chula Vista home, surrounded by ample evidence of his own sickness. He has about 5000 plants.

I’m visiting out of curiosity. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I have had orchids on my mind. God knows plenty of other things have been there too: Iraq, North Korea, the faltering economy, talk-show hosts cheerfully endorsing the torture of prisoners, America’s jettisoning of 1500 years of ethical thinking about what constitutes a “just war.” All this has put me in a foul mood, and none of it has anything to do with orchids.

So why do I keep thinking about them? They are so beside the point, so inconsequential. They just don’t matter. As the world crowds around the altar of Power, orchids are too fragile and weak to be admitted into the sanctuary. They are not Muslim or Christian or Jewish; they are fundamentalists of noncommitment. Is this why I’m attracted to them? Or is it simply their evanescent beauty — a blessed relief from the ugliness created by relentless arrogance and zealous ideologies? What causes my attraction to these flowers? Why do some people spend thousands of dollars and countless hours collecting and cultivating them? Does this passion tell us something about what it means to be human?

Highfalutin questions, I know, but they’re what’s going through my mind as I speak with Gary. I invited myself to his home because he is the president of the San Diego Orchid Society.

Cymbidium hybrid

Cymbidium hybrid

“I bought my first orchid at a place in National City,” Gary tells me. “It was a green Cymbidium similar to the one you see sitting there [he points to a plant a few feet from us], and it looked real nice. I had it about a year and a half, and the next time it bloomed it had three spikes and I was hooked. One thing led to another, and now when I go shopping I buy two or three hundred plants, not one or two. I probably have in the neighborhood of 300 different kinds.”

It surprises me to see most of your orchids growing outside, I say.

“Yes, 99 percent of what I have grows outside. They come from climates around the world very similar to ours. Everybody thinks orchids have to grow in a hothouse. That Cymbidium there comes from the Himalayas, and if it doesn’t get down to 40 degrees, you’d never see a flower on it.”

What is it about orchids that fascinates you?

Pansy orchid

Pansy orchid

“Well, orchids are so different from anything else. You can throw a pansy in the ground, and it blooms and it dies and goes away. The orchid — it will live forever. I have plants back here that I bought from a lady about ten years ago, and she bought them in the ’20s, and they’re still flowering and flourishing. So. They just go on and on, and every time you see a flower, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. It’s not like a rose. You stick a rose in the ground, and it grows and flowers and away it goes. But these, they don’t grow in the ground. They grow in a pot, they grow on bark, they have special things that they need.”

But why orchids and not roses or some other flower?

“There’s just something about the orchid. The mystique of the flower. It’s hard to say why. Until you get that feeling when you bloom it. I have people calling me and screaming on the telephone, ‘I just bloomed this plant!’ These are adults that are 40 and 50 years old, and they sound like a teenager.”

Gary has been a member of the San Diego County Orchid Society for 15 years, and he is in his third year as president. “Right now,” he says, “we have about 800 members. I don’t know this for a fact, but I think we’re one of the largest societies in the United States. When people come to speak at our society — they’ve been to places throughout the United States — they tell us we have by far the largest group they’ve ever seen anywhere. We meet the first Tuesday of every month at Balboa Park.”

How many attend your meetings?

“We have 250 to 300. We’re the biggest floral society in the county. We’ve increased our membership in the last year by 100.”

To what do you attribute that?

“Younger people coming in. When I joined the society, one of the prerequisites, I think, was that you had to be over 70. I slid in somehow. About 15 years ago, everybody was over 60. And now for some reason it’s turning around and we’re getting the younger generation in there. You see them from 25 on up. You’ve got doctors, lawyers, Ph.D. here and Ph.D. there, landscapers, and then you’ve got the guys that are completely crazy that do nothing but grow orchids.”

Tell me about some of these crazy people.

“We’ve got a couple that now live in Rainbow. When I first met them, probably six years ago, they had maybe 30 or 40 orchids. Now they have five acres of them. Well, probably three acres. He’s retired from the Navy. He’s put in a couple of greenhouses. He had a house a couple miles from here, and he grew out of it because of the orchids.”

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