OUT OF LEFT FIELD
Wood's definitive book on
Howard Wood knows it all about Dendrobiums
By STAN ISAACS
Once upon a time there was a celebrated French boxer with the nickname The Orchid Man. In a ballyhooed bout, Georges Carpentier fought Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship, suffering a four-round knockout in 1921. I now know another Orchid Man.
He is Howard Wood, a friend who is the author of a book on orchids entitled, The Dendrobiums. It is nearly 1,000 pages, weighs 7.2 pounds, has 655 color photographs, 67 diagrams and seven maps. Published last year, it costs $150. It took him 12 years to write it.
Though I dont pretend to grasp the material, I am awed by it-and by Wood and his effort. So I sat down with him for a little bit of understanding about orchids.
Dendrobium, Wood explained, is a genus of about 1,500 of the total of 30,000 species of wild orchids. It is a type of orchid that grows on a tree. Dendro means tree, and bium means life. They vary in size from miniatures to 15-feet high. They come in all colors except true blue. The name, dendrobium, was coined by a Swedish botanist, Olof Swartz in 1799. There are 100,000 more hybrid orchids.
Heres one description of his book: It covers the evolution and distribution of orchids, evoking the collision of continents. Wood talks about the plants morphology and anatomy, discusses its cultivation and taxonomy and delves into biological topics such as pollination, adaptive resemblances, genetics, photochemistry and ecology. He also does a geographical survey of the plant species and devotes several chapters to five genera and sections in the Dendrobiinae.
There are chapters entitled:
Ethnobotany; Gregarious bloom; Phytochemistry; Mimicry, deception and adaptive resemblance; and Epigeneium: basal position in the Dendrobiinae.
Wood is a youthful 83, serious, yet cheerful; a wiry, sprightly man with a twinkly smile. He is a Quaker, a do-gooder in the best sense of the word, a graduate of Haverford College, 1944, and the University of Penn Medical School, 1947. He was a psychiatrist at Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood, outside Philadelpia, for 35 years until he retired in 1989 and started his serious pursuit of the dendrobium.
Wood was always interested in nature, started green houses in various locations after taking up gardening while in the Army, including a stay in Clarksville, Tenn. He and his wife, Anne, were avid travelers to wildlife sites. They went to the World Orchid Conference in Bangkok in 1978 where the inspiration to grow and study the dendrobium took hold.
These were tricky plants, not easy to grow, he said, and as a psychiatrist I was attracted to these intriguing waifs. He found a tremendous resource about orchids, the Academy of Natural Sciences, in Philadelphia. He became the librarian for a local orchid society. His personal collection contained more than 1,500 specimens of orchids. He has grown more than 350 species of Dendrobium.
Orchids flourish in the South Seas. The theory is that the Dendrobiums of Asia and Australia merged in New Guinea. Wood studied plate tectonics to track this change. He attended another orchid conference in New Zealand in 1990, made side trips to New Guinea and Australia. A fine photographer, he delivers weekly slide lectures on birds and wildlife at a health care facility.
He published more than 20 scholarly articles on orchids. What started out as a relatively small 300-page book grew into the handsome tome that emerged with a German publisher last year.
I wondered if Wood got discouraged along the way. Was there ever a time when he thought he might not finish the book?
Absolutely not, he said.
He was encouraged by an odd sort of support system. Orchid experts around the world who came to know he was working on this book were gung ho about his finishing it. When he floundered with organizational problems, he consulted a fellow psychiatrist who helped put things into a workable system of writing and research. The doctor was excited about an 80-year-old gent writing such a book.
Some friends said, Ill believe it when I see it [a finished book]. And he took good-natured kidding from his irreverent wife, Anne. But she liked the travel we did for my research, he said with a smile. (She said, In the 60 years weve been married, Howard has read three novels-and they are all Moby Dick. ) He has traveled to some of the far reaches of the globe to seek out orchids in their natural habitats.
I got a sense of the Orchid Mans perseverance from his tennis game. He had stopped playing tennis in the years he was writing the book. When he resumed last year he found he had lost his serve. He would throw the ball up nine, 10, as many as 12 times before he could hit the ball into the service box. He kept working at the serve; we could see him practicing each day swatting serves against a backboard. By the end of the season he had improved to the point of throwing the ball up only once or twice---or maybe three or four times.
The world of orchid fanciers is somewhat precious. He estimates that the magazine Orchids has a circulation of 30,000 and that there are some 100,000 serious growers of orchids. Hybrid Dendrobium are becoming popular house plants.
The book has been well received. A reviewer in Orchids wrote, Wood must be congratulated for producing what is simply the best and most informative book ever written on this gigantic genus. It will be, others agree, the standard for the field.
©2007 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photo of the book cover is courtesy of the publisher and Amazon.com. This column first posted March 26, 2007.
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