The Nun Orchid (phaius tancarvilleae) is native to Southeast Asia and China. Unlike most orchids, it grows in the ground like a lily; also like a lily, it blooms just once a year, in early spring. Given enough time, the plant adds new bulbs that can be separated into new plants.
For the last ten years, I’ve kept and managed not to kill a specimen here at Oakhill. It came to live with me after my mother’s death in 2008…. along with the entire rest of her household. Furniture, china, silver, and boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff.
As we age, we accumulate…stuff. As parents, grandparents, or other family members pass, their belongings come to live with us. We have our own stuff, so their stuff goes into storage. We feel guilty about getting rid of it, like we’re somehow losing our connections with our dead relatives. So it piles up, just like dust in the vacuum cleaner bag.
Last weekend as I was watering the nun orchid, I realized it was a living connection to my mother that no mere photo or paperweight could provide. All that…stuff packed in boxes in my barn were just collecting cobwebs, just shadows of someone else’s past life. The plant summed up my mother’s life better than an entire houseful of things I will never use.
Multiple trips to the dumpster and mission stores later, I now can say my kids won’t wonder what to do with that…stuff. I realize now that her stuff was hers, not mine, and it didn’t define her or me or our relationship or our lives together for fifty years. This nun orchid is all I need to maintain my ties to her.
It’s been divided three times since it came to live with me: soon there will be eight pots from the original. I have plenty of memories, but even when they fade, this plant, this living thing, will, with care, still be here.