Many Are Drawn To The Mysterious Orchid
Buffalo News
Sunday, February 2, 2003

Brigitte Sauger knew she was either going to have to join in or get left out while her husband tended his collection of 80 orchids.

She did love the flowers. Especially the small, yellow dendrochilums that hang down from the planter in strands of 30 or so when they finally bloomed after months of watering and fertilizing and finding the right spot by the right window with just the right amount of light. So ever since her husband retired about two years ago and they moved here from Virginia, Brigitte Sauger has done more than the occasional watering she used to do. They joined the local orchid club, swapping growing tips for Buffalo 's long winters and making friends with those who come over to see their more spectacular blooms.

They marveled at the deep burgundy green and brown stripes of their paphiopedilum slipper orchid that lasted six months. One night she even got up from watching TV and ransacked the cupboards until she found a bag of chocolate chips to rip open and eat after the scent of the dark purplish brown, yellow oncidiums smelled so strongly of the best Belgian chocolate that it had made her hungry.

That's how it is now with Brigitte Sauger and orchids. They have become an addiction. Like chocolate candies. "I learned that I actually liked it," she said.

For Dick Sauger, sharing has made orchids more fun. The plants have even helped their marriage. "If we had to sit there and stare at each other all day long, we'd probably go stark, raving mad," he said.

Now as she looks after the details of watering, he thinks about the big things, reading up on greenhouse construction and planning automatic watering and a solar-powered exhaust system.

They've taken road trips to buy from greenhouses in Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina, Chicago and Canada. They have so many that Brigitte Sauger will allow no more until the greenhouse, now framed at the end of the snowy driveway, is finished.

Inside their one-story ranch, 202 orchids hang from every window, the dry squiggly brownish roots making patterns in front of the curtains. Spiky green orchid leaves poke from pots on the piano, the side table, the coffee table, the kitchen counter. Every surface has an orchid and in the skimpy winter light, only one blooms with a spray of white flowers with pale pink blush.

The couple spends two mornings a week getting the plants watered with Brigitte Sauger mixing fertilizer with the snow they melted in buckets for its better, purer quality. In the bathrooms, she wiggles the shower sprayer to give a good soaking, filling two tubs and two sinks with draining pots.

Some have thin green flower stem spikes creeping out from among the leaves, and this is the signal that the Saugers have done things right. Soon the reward will come. In perhaps two months, buds of tiny green, or plump red tinges, line the stems. Three or eight more months go by and, "all the sudden a little tiny hole opens and then a bigger hole and then, boom," said Brigitte Sauger. The flowers unfurl and she gets out a metal yardstick to measure the petal span.

"It's just an achievement," she said. "You're trying to produce a flower. It's almost like having a birth. It's something that you did," she said. "Anybody can have an ivy or an African violet. Anybody can do that. Orchids are a little more involved. It takes a little more intelligence. Orchid people talk about plants like they're children."

When Dick Sauger first started with orchids, he was a little boy of 10 in southern California and felt a psychic victory when the plants were healthy. His father had made a deal with a local greenhouse to trade in his orchids -- the cymbidiums of Mother's Day corsages -- after they had stopped flowering and take more blooming plants instead. They cheered up his mother who was often sick, and he was in charge of keeping them watered on the patio until they were returned.

By the time he was in his late 20s, he had presented his bride with a bouquet of white cattleyas with big fat petals and started his Army career. Once a fellow officer, stationed with him in Germany, brought an orchid to his wife as a gift.

"We were flabbergasted. We were like, 'Oh, my God, it's starting all over again,' " Brigitte Sauger said. They left 20 orchids behind when they moved back to the States, eventually settling in Virginia where the frustrations and sadness Dick Sauger didn't like to mention -- things that happened in Vietnam, the unpleasant parts of his job writing safety codes for the government, things he had to keep secret -- were exorcised when he made plants bloom.

"They don't talk back, they don't argue, they don't criticize. They either live or they die," he said. "If you kill another one, you feel bad about it, but it is not something that will break your heart. You just try again."

Now, the plants can cause arguments between the Saugers. Nothing big. It's just that she prefers colorful -- she's been looking for a good two- or three-tone yellow -- and he likes the weird -- for instance, the bloom that is supposed to smell like rotting meat when it opens; the really, really tiny flowers that his wife says you need a magnifying glass to look at, and the blue ones.

"I tell you I've seen 'em and as far as I'm concerned, it's a shade of purple," his wife said at the kitchen table one orchid-watering morning. He continued to study the flower in an orchid picture book. He said it's blue.

He has been thinking lately about taking a trip to see orchids in the tropics. The couple has imagined how the plants grow on the bark of trees, among the rocks and in the ground. When they entered their first orchid contest last September, they tried to make their plants look natural by covering the pots with Spanish moss and setting them among pieces of driftwood.

It was a surprise to win an etched plate for best amateur display and 11 ribbons for first-, second- and third-place flowers. People talked the most about the one they got in Wisconsin with greenish white petals, a pink center and yellow at the tips.

Now Dick Sauger believes seeing how orchids grow in nature is the real way to be successful.

"I think it's just the idea of going to a jungle and looking up and seeing it," explained his wife.

He has read about a man who went to Brazil and was stopped, improbably, by a little girl who offered to take him to see a rare orchid. Sounds fishy, he said, but still he'd like to check out the place for himself. Maybe he'll find something exciting, get a permit, take an orchid home from Brazil's jungles and figure out a way to make it bloom in his own greenhouse jungle at the end of his driveway in the snow.