By: Norma Raiff

OSWP! It’s a great way to learn and to pick up growing tips. And as a side benefit, you can get to know incredibly interesting and talented people who share your orchid passion. This month’s column introduces Don Ammon: orchid grower, film writer, newlywed. I first met Don as a new member. Yet even though an orchid “neophyte”, Don had bravely agreed to take the plunge into designing an orchid exhibit for OSWP’s annual show. More about that below.

So, Don how long have you been growing orchids? Don has just passed his 10th year orchid anniversary. It wasn’t a planned activity. As he relates, a friend said, “I’m moving to Arizona and here is my orchid collection.” Unfortunately, Don had never grown orchids and was pretty clueless about the whole orchid thing. Tragedy unfolded. “There were about 30 orchids and most died.” Don decided to join OSWP, shortly after attending our 2013 Spring Show, reasoning that it would help him to figure out what he was doing wrong. 

About how many plants do you have? Don’s collection is up to 95. He can tell you this because he keeps two inventories. Does that seem a little redundant to you? Well there’s the “Orchids List” and “The Orchids I’ve Killed List.” The explanation makes a lot of sense: Don saves all the tags from his deceased orchids so he knows what plants he wants to replace and/or which orchids not to get again because they were too hard for him to grow.

Don now has about 30 different genera and does best with oncidiums. These are his “faves” because of their extensive variety. Ranging from tiny to large, they’re easy to grow, easy to flower. He also collects cattleyas and dendrobiums that, along with his oncidiums, he considers his “regular bloomers.” Helpful hint: Don often gets his plants at Phipps May Market. At three for $10, you can’t beat the price.

Funniest/weirdest mistake or experience: “My friend gave me all his orchids, and the first thing I did was to throw out the tags because I figured well, they’re all orchids. I already know that they’re orchids, so why do I need the tags?” Like many orchid first-timers, Don was unaware of the importance of nomenclature and that the information tags provide can be linked to orchid culture. But he knows better now. As for the unfortunate original gift plants, Don reports that he still has a few alive but that “they haven’t bloomed for me since I don’t know what they are.” Hint 2: you can always bring a mystery orchid to a society meeting and we can try to help.

When did you join OSWP & why? As mentioned above, after killing so many orchids, Don wanted to find out what he was doing wrong. “The monthly speakers are a big draw,” he acknowledges. However, having been bitten by the Orchid bug, there was also an acquisition (read: greed) factor at play. “Before I was a member I would go to a show and buy an orchid. Now I can go to the meetings and get an orchid every month from the speakers or the members.” As for the bonus! “They won’t be the everyday orchids that you see at the big box stores. So I go to learn more and to buy different plants.” Don also reminds us that an equally important reason to join OSWP is the opportunity to connect with enthusiastic people who share your interest and offer comradery and friendship.

Other OSWP involvement. One of the facts that stands out is Don’s openness to taking on new challenges. Within a year of becoming an OSWP member, Don joined several others who had agreed to try their hand at constructing “novice exhibits.” This was a new show category and the society offered to provide mentors and design tips as well as help with finding plants to borrow. And, Don, thank you, has continued to exhibit in each consecutive year. As he remarked, someone told him at a meeting, “If you want it to be successful, you have to participate.”

Don’s experience shows that you don’t have to have a lot of plants to create an exhibit– and you don’t even have to know beforehand what materials you will actually have to work with. He’s comfortable with uncertainty. Then and now his exhibits rely both on what he has in bloom and plants volunteered by family, acquaintances, and other OSWPers. Because even though he usually has some plants in bloom, Don knows that he can count on others and his own design sense to create delightful exhibits for the public to enjoy.

You might also be interested to know this about me: Don’s an accomplished screenwriter. A former teacher at St. Vincent College and Seton Hill University, he had to stop because of illness. So today, Don focuses on screenwriting, working out of his home. His first screenplay “Summerlings,” is based on a short story he developed while in high school. The current version, co-written with a former student, won the 2015 Steeltown Indie Award for best feature length screenplay!

Summerlings is tentatively scheduled to shoot in summer 2018. An updated classic American coming of age story in the Huck Finn tradition, the story line is as follows: “It’s 1985. The American steel industry collapses.” Billy and Sid, two isolated teenage boys in Pitcairn Pennsylvania, a small town east of Pittsburgh, “rampage together through an idyllic summer” just before their senior year, one step ahead of the tough kids and a common enemy.

This production is really gearing up. Award winning Pittsburgher Melissa Martin, who you may/may not recognize as the writer/director of A Wedding for Bella (formerly titled The Bread, My Sweet), signed on as director after reading an early draft. Are you also interested in Summerlings? You can read more at

Other facts of passing interest. Don and long-time partner Paul, who have been together 22 years, just got married. They have three toy poodles: Portia (mom) and two boys, Rex and Ninja. Music is also one of Don’s hobbies: he has thousands of CDs, but especially likes alternative rock and at last count owns some 2,500 titles in this category. Finally, Don has also written five other screenplays and is currently working on his sixth. Space doesn’t permit going into these, but they are widely different, inventive, imaginative. Fingers crossed. You rock Don!

Don Ammon

Meet the Member