Survival Instincts

There is something charming and reassuring about our elder daughter coming home from Australia for a few days and deciding to repot the orchids. Working alongside me at the potting bench, she marvelled that the last time the orchids had been repotted was when she did them in 1995. They have been fed and watered regularly in the intervening years and there was an element of survival of the fittest, but it is a remarkable genus that can gently tick along while in the same sized pot and in potting mix that is coming up to fourteen years old.

When said daughter was about twelve, she developed an interest in orchids. She is inclined these days to smile wryly and observe that she always was a bit of a geek. Naturally her father was absolutely delighted and encouraged her interest with a joint membership to the Orchid Society. They would trot off together to monthly meetings where Mark used to joke that he was half the age of most of the members and she took the average age down further by several notches. But to this day, they both remember how very encouraging and generous the members were to them both, but especially to our young J.J. Over the years, Mark has been a member of various horticultural interest groups and he has always been impressed by the depth of knowledge shown by pretty well all the orchid enthusiasts – a far greater technical knowledge than is the norm in most special interest horticultural groups. And in terms of complex plant genus, orchids take the top position for having the most individual and diverse species of any plant.

Passionate plantspeople tend to be either collectors or gardeners. Mark is first and foremost a gardener. His motivation is to find the widest and most interesting range of plants he can grow in our garden here. But for some others, collecting a plant and finding out about it is more fun than actually growing it in the garden. So learning about orchids for Mark was primarily aimed at discovering which varieties are suitable for naturalising in our conditions here.

Our J.J is more of a collector and in that she has more in common with most orchid aficionados who tend to be collectors and enjoy the whole showing and sharing process more than practical application to gardening. It is probably that whole process of showing and sharing which means that the Orchid Society still exists in New Plymouth and with sufficient support to mount regular displays at a time when many other similar groups are folding in the face of declining membership. They have clearly remained as generous with their time, expertise and passion for the genus as they were 15 years ago and they have their annual summer show on this Saturday and Sunday at Highlands Intermediate. It is apparently the only summer show in the country and attracts exhibitors from outside the region. You can be assured of seeing orchids in flower which you may never have seen before, including displays of disas. Orchids being such a complex plant group, if you are keen to learn more, it is certainly easier to make contact with the local enthusiasts than to try and muddle along alone.

For the record (and I am sure I have written this before), the successful garden orchids we have here in mild conditions include cymbidiums (the classic orchid used in floral work and with a very long flower life), Australian dendrobiums, pleiones (sometimes called the teacup orchid), calanthes and dactylorhiza. And yes we do have native orchids in this country too, though the pterostylus are so modest and understated that only those in the know would pick them as belonging to the orchid family.

On another topic, along with much of the rest of the developed world, we have been gently drifting back into a more home-grown self sufficient lifestyle (easier with only two of us left at home) but we hit a new watershed on Saturday when we sat down to a dinner when I bravely served up rabbit with home grown vegetables. I know many people around the world eat rabbit. Our J.J. used to travel regularly with an Australian bus driver who would follow up all the rabbits advertised in the Pets column and take them home for the larder…. But I have always had my reservations though I can still hear the inimitable Kim Hill’s words ringing in my ears: “Take their little blue jackets off before you cook them.” We have been inundated with rabbits here, despite the cat doing her best. I have seen her eat Flopsy as a pre-breakfast snack, tuck into her serving of Mother Rabbit for breakfast, return with Mopsy for morning tea and then eat Cottontail for lunch. Mark is also shooting them in quantity and has been suggesting we should be eating the best of them.

At last I found a recipe (in a review book on Italian cooking) which clearly disguised the origin of the meat. It did involve Mark in some extensive micro surgery to bone out the carcase and I then rolled it with a pistachio, mushroom, lemon and thyme stuffing and wrapped it in bacon. It was delicious and the resulting meal served with potatoes, green beans and roasted Florence fennel owed a debt to the supermarket only for some of the stuffing ingredients and the bacon. I need to ease my way into rabbit gently as a regular addition but it could have been mistaken for chicken or pork.

Mark is now suggesting that we should be learning more about edible mushrooms. We have been so ingrained with the mantra that only the field mushrooms are safe to eat in this country, that we ignore a range of fungi which grow freely here and are valued in other parts of the world. Good identification is required because we also have fungi which are hallucinogenic and so toxic they can be fatal, but making the move to eating puffballs and pig’s ear fungi is a mind shift like the rabbit.

We are rediscovering the hunter-gatherer instincts. It is undoubtedly much easier in rural Tikorangi than in Central London where Second Daughter was much amused to see the local technical institute in Maida Vale offering a course in hunter gathering. Beyond squirrels and the occasional fox, we weren’t sure what there was to hunt in Central London and the gathering opportunities seem extremely limited in an environment where even the common sparrow is dying out for lack of food. But it is certainly quaint that in one of the world’s most urban environments, the hunter-gatherer instincts live on.