Book Review: From the Hand of God to the Miracles of Orchids

Milton Carpenter. 2012. Everglades Publications, Belle Glade. Hardcover. 217 pages. 172 black-and-white and color photographs (including more than 100 color photographs of orchids).

When Milton Carpenter’s wife, Nancy, was in the hospital for the delivery of their second daughter, Peggy Ruth, he gave her a flowering plant of Rhyncholaeliocattleya (Brassocattleya) Springtide (Madame Charles Maron × C. Monica [1925]). The large, pinkish, fragrant cattleya cast its spell over this Florida native and so began his journey into the world of orchids. Decades later he has written the lavishly illustrated book From the Hand of God to the Miracles of Orchids that chronicles his life with these seductive plants from many angles, including that of grower, hybridizer, judge, speaker, traveler, photographer and owner of the nursery Everglades Orchids. Coupling this book with the two discs that come tucked inside the cover — one with narrative of 10 trips, the other filled with music − reveals that the joy of orchids is rooted in the friendships these plants make possible, both at home and abroad.

Carpenter welcomes the reader into his world, providing a glimpse of his upbringing, college, work, public service and hobbies (singing, tennis, fishing), all the while mentioning orchids as one progresses from one chapter to the next. It’s a sort of family–orchids scrapbook crammed with adventures, tales, facts, personalities and destinations, plus mentions of his involvement with the American Orchid Society, which he served in various capacities, including that of president. Carpenter’s casual writing style makes for engaging reading that is made even more so because the lively text is peppered with the names of orchid personalities that will be familiar to long-time growers as well as orchid trivia that offers newcomers a glimpse of just how much fun orchids can be.

Of particular interest to orchid enthusiasts are the chapters “The Road Less Traveled” and “Our 40 Best Hybrids in 50 Years.” In the former, Carpenter shares his breeding experiences, revealing how 15,000 hybridizing attempts resulted in 3,000 capsules and eventually to his registering more than 500 grexes. Yes, 500 – amazing. Early on, he focused on creating heat-tolerant cymbidiums and Oncidiinae, a natural choice for his nursery located just south of Lake Okeechobee, Florida. For example, in cymbidiums, he sought to develop plants with heat-tolerance, smaller stature and fragrance, all with an eye toward making orchids that were “easy to grow and easy to flower.” In the next chapter, he focuses on 40 of his grexes made over five decades that are grouped into three categories – cymbidiums (14 entries), Oncidiinae (20) and other (six) – sharing personal anecdotes for each. Among the cymbidiums is the standout Cymbidium Carpenter’s Golden Anniversary ‘Green Pastures’ (Golden Elf × Nellie Preston), which bloomed in time for Milton and Nancy’s 50th wedding anniversary on March 11, 2001. Highlights of the Oncidium alliance include what the author terms “the most famous,” Aliceara (Beallara) Peggy Ruth Carpenter ‘Morning Joy’, AM/AOS (Tahoma Glacier × Milt. Purple Queen), which has been cloned and recloned and distributed worldwide, and "possibly the most eye-catching Oncidiinae hybrid we have made," Oncidium (Wilsonara) Jerry Stephens (Space-Pow × Bubba Mock), which is named for a good friend in Texas. In the last category the star attraction has to be Laeliocattleya Ruth Carpenter ‘Mother’s Love’, AM/AOS (C. Empress Bells × L. anceps), his first hybrid (made in 1965), which is named for his mother. Illustrating the diversity of genera he has explored as hybridizer are Cyrtopodium Brazilian Adventure ‘Everglades’, AM/AOS (glutiniferum × polyphyllum), and Galeopetalum Belle Glade ‘Everglades Splash’, AM/AOS (Miami Conference × Z. Syd Monkhouse). Reading these vignettes of hybrids makes one wish for a supplement with additional spectacular photographs and candid observations on other grexes he has found good enough to name and register.

The colorful layout juxtaposes family photographs with large portraits of orchid flowers that splash color across the pages. The handsome volume is printed on high-quality paper and presented in a sturdy binding with an eye-catching dust jacket showing an orchid named for the author, Cymbidium Milton Carpenter ‘Everglades Gold’, AM/AOS (Golden Elf × Via Ambarino), which was registered by friend Bartley Schwarz (although Carpenter had made the same cross simultaneously). Orchid photographs show grexes made by Carpenter as well as some created by others (and these are clearly marked with noh = not our hybrid).

A passion for orchids can be sparked in many ways, and for Carpenter, after making that initial purchase it was a leap of faith that inspired him to make them a cornerstone in his life’s philosophy. Reading From the Hand of God to the Miracles of Orchids shows just how vast the world of orchids is and for those willing to take the plunge the rewards – and life-long friendships – are plenty.

— James B. Watson is editor in chief and art director of Orchids and director of publications for the American Orchid Society.