Orchids become lasting legacy of couple’s love

03/29/2014 12:00 AM

03/28/2014 9:50 PM

When Joan Gunn first dated her future husband, he confessed to a lifetime love. Soon, it became hers, too.

“When Howard and I met, we were both getting near retirement age,” Joan recalled. “He said, ‘I do have this hobby I’d have trouble giving up – orchids.’

“I was just glad it wasn’t something else,” Joan added with a laugh. “I could live with orchids.”

In October, the couple celebrated 32 years of marriage. Following several health issues, Howard Gunn died a week after their anniversary at age 88, leaving Joan a legacy in flowers.

“I inherited these,” Joan said amid a greenhouse packed with breathtaking orchids. “This is a collection of the weird, the wonderful, the unusual. Personally, I prefer the pretty ones.”

Lots of the strange and the beautiful will be on display this weekend during the 67th annual Sacramento Orchid Show and Sale at the Scottish Rite Center. Thousands of orchids will be showcased, including several examples from the Gunn collection.

This year’s show comes extra early.

“We usually hold our show on the third weekend of April, but that’s Easter (this year),” said Nick Burnett, who serves as the show’s judges chairman. “So, we had to move it to an earlier weekend. We’re very fortunate this year because of all the warmth. A lot of people’s collections are coming into bloom early.”

The Gunns have been longtime stalwarts of the Sacramento Orchid Society, host of this show and sale. Orchid lovers are relieved that Joan is as passionate about these plants as was her husband.

“The two of them have done so much for the club,” Burnett said. “When Howard passed (away), we were concerned if Joan could keep up their collection. But she’s done a wonderful job.”

Before they retired, Howard worked for a large trucking firm and Joan served as a mid-level manager in several state of California departments, including the Franchise Tax Board and Caltrans. They devoted their golden years to gardening.

“I’ve always enjoyed gardening,” Joan said. “If it grows, I’ll grow it.”

But orchids can represent a challenge to even the greenest thumbs. Joan credits Howard for being a patient and thorough teacher.

“I had never seen an orchid in my life until I married that man,” Joan said. “But we traveled all over the world for orchids.”

Reminders of their life in orchids fill their Sacramento home. While sorting papers, Joan came across a letter from England’s Royal Horticultural Society, requesting one of Howard’s unusual plants.

“We have some very rare orchids, species that were thought to be extinct,” Joan said. “(Orchid experts) would send them to my husband to try because he had a very good reputation – worldwide – for growing the unusual. Through my husband, I got to enjoy these oddities.”

Examples hang everywhere in her two large greenhouses. Like her husband did, Joan keeps careful count. Penciled notations are kept on each plant tag, marking when that orchid bloomed and other details. Many of the plants are decades old.

“There are 1,720 orchids right now,” she said. “They represent about 1,500 different kinds. There’s not much duplication; there’s not enough room.”

Vying for attention, blooming orchids crowd the greenhouse space. A top shelf is lined with rainbow-hued Vanda orchids where they thrive in the bright, filtered light. Rows of cattleyas offer coursagelike blooms as big as roses. Cascading from a ceiling-high perch, a pink and lavender moth orchid ( Phalaenopsis schilleriana) shows off 54 blossoms, all open at once.

“Moth orchids can last five, six months,” Joan said. “I don’t know of anything else that holds its flowers that long.”

With petals the colors of an Arizona sunset, an orange-hued Asconopsis “Irene Dobkins” looks stunning amid the more familiar pink and purple Phals. A specimen of Pleurothallis grobyii boasts more than 1,500 pale yellow flowers, each no bigger than a grain of rice. With tall canes, dendobrums in dozens of colorful combinations tower over Brassia with spiderlike blooms.

Like a weird plant from another planet, Pleurothallis pectinata blooms inside its leaf, with flower parts forming a spiky spine down the middle rib. With delicate striped throats, lady slipper orchids seem like alien creatures, too.

“Actually, they’re very clever plants,” Burnett said. “If an insect becomes trapped in the cup, the only way it can get out is to crawl up through this tiny space (between center petals). That’s where the pollen is; the bugs pollinate the plant as they escape.”

Orchid seed is as tiny as a pin point. But Howard Gunn collected that seed, too. As an orchid breeder, he hybridized dozens of new orchids.

“Every time Howard won a big national award for cultural merit (for creating a new hybrid), he’d give that cultivar a name,” Burnett said. “He always named them ‘Joan.’ That’s one way to keep your spouse happy.”

Said Joan with a chuckle, “There must be 49 or 50 ‘Joans’ in the greenhouse.”

Most unusual orchids need tropical conditions to thrive in Sacramento. The Gunn greenhouses are kept between 78 and 81 degrees and 50 percent humidity. That can make orchids an expensive hobby.

“I had a $400 utility bill in December,” Joan said.

For flower lovers, many moth orchids and dendrobiums adapt well to household temperatures in the low to mid-70s. But often, indoor gardeners kill these plants by overwatering.

“Here’s the secret to keeping them happy: Three ice cubes,” Joan said. “Put three ice cubes in the plant pot (not directly on the foliage) every Sunday. Just let them melt; it’s just the right amount of water, once a week. That’s one thing I learned from Howard.”

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