PENOBSCOT, Maine — They all have something in common: Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Denis Roessiger.
That’s right. Like the former and current first ladies, Denis Roessiger, a Penobscot farmer, orchid wholesaler and grower, will be honored this year with a new variety of orchid that will bear his name. The honor came through the efforts of the Eastern Maine Orchid Society, which wanted to thank Roessiger, a founding member of the society, for the work he has done with that group.
“It’s an honor,” Roessiger said recently at his greenhouse, which is filled with the orchids he has collected over the years. “For some it’s very prestigious, those who are out to get a name. But everything I do, I do it because I enjoy it first. I do what I do because I love to do it.”
There is a lot to love about orchids, and the evidence stood all around him in his greenhouse.
There is a mystique to orchids, perhaps because they differ from other flowers in a number of ways. Some are voluptuous, sensuous, even sexy. Then there is one that looks — and smells — like rotting meat.
One variety is so small its blossom is only about a quarter of an inch long and is pollinated by a gnat. Some have leaves as tall as a grown man, and the largest of the orchids can weigh as much as a small car. Some orchids stay in bloom for as long as six months; others last for just a day.
They grow in the high mountains of South Africa, in the tropical breezes of Hawaii, the rain forests of Central and South America, and even in Maine, where 40 different varieties grow naturally.
Some varieties need no soil and grow hanging on a piece of bark. Some have blossoms that grow from the bottom of the plant and require special pots. Some need cooler temperatures, some more shade, less moisture.
Orchids have a reputation for being difficult to grow, but Roessiger denies that with a sly smile.
“You just have to find out what they want and give it to them,” he said.
That maxim leads to the mantra that Roessiger follows in growing orchids: “Observe. Observe. Observe.”
You have to watch everything: the temperature, the amount of shade or sunlight, the humidity. Fans run constantly in the greenhouse to keep the air moving. He noted one orchid at the end of a bench that is flourishing. If you move it eight inches to the left, he said, it will start to fail.
“You have to watch everything,” he said. “Observe. Observe. Observe.”
Roessiger, 67, has been observing and giving orchids what they want since he was a teenager in Connecticut where he tended plants at estates where orchids were being grown. He has done large-scale farming in New Hampshire and greenhouse farming there and in Maine, but throughout he has maintained an active interest in growing and collecting orchids.
The weather this summer affected the orchids even though they’re grown in a greenhouse, and he lost some. Even so, Roessiger estimated that he has more than 2,500 orchids in the greenhouse, some of them common, some not so.
He pointed to one orchid that is a rare, double-lipped variety.
“They’re virtually impossible to find,” he said. “You have to know how to look at the plant and look at how the flower looks when it’s closed to be able to pick out the double.”
That is part of the challenge of growing and collecting orchids and part of what he enjoys the most.
“I like finding the odd color, the odd plant,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of risk-taking in growing orchids. But I like the difficult ones, the ones that are going to push you to the wall and make you fight back against them.”
Along with temperature, humidity, shade and sunlight, orchids require patience. Some of Roessiger’s plants have been with him for as long as six years and haven’t blossomed yet. That doesn’t faze him.
“Do not rush an orchid,” he said. “It’s not going to do you a damned bit of good.”
Roessiger travels widely in the U.S. and around the world, lecturing, learning about the different areas and their orchids, buying plants and making contacts. Those contacts have helped him to run a small wholesale business supplying orchids, some to retail orchid businesses in Maine and elsewhere but mainly to individuals who, like himself, are looking for something different.
Many of the people he deals with sell only to a select clientele, which includes Roessiger. He keeps many of his sources secret.
The orchid that will be named in his honor has not yet been formally registered, and so Roessiger does not yet know what it will be called. It was grown and presented by one of his contacts, Fred Clarke of Sunset Valley Orchids in Escondido, Calif., who, according to the Eastern Maine Orchid Society, considered it a fitting tribute to Roessiger’s lifetime of dedication to and achievement in the orchid industry.
The new orchid variety is a hybrid, with several hybrids on both sides of its lineage. So although the six plants he has on display at his farm are the same, the blossoms on the different plants were different colors. Of the two that bloomed recently, one had a flower that was pink and red, while another had a flower that was yellow and red.
The orchids, which are no longer blooming, also will be on display at future meetings of the Eastern Maine Orchid Society.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DENIS ROESSIGER
A new hybrid variety of orchids will be named in honor of Denis Roessiger of Penobscot.