Meet the Member
By Cristina Eyler
Our newest members to this Society will recognize this month’s Orchid Gem, Valerie Robey (Val). She was probably the first person from the Society to greet them when they walked into the Phipps Garden Center and she is the OSWP Membership Chair. Val is herself a relatively new member, having been in the Society about three years. Still, like most of us, she has dived right in to the community.
Val first dipped her toe into orchid growing about 3 ½ years ago. She had been involved in a lot of volunteer work with her church, but her husband, Bryant, thought she should do something more. “You need to find a hobby,” he suggested, and so, Val started taking flower arranging classes online. That’s when she first noticed orchids. Within several bridal arrangements were beautiful orchids and Valerie decided to purchase one. Her first orchid was a phalaenopsis from Walmart. It bloomed all on its own with minimal attention from her. After it had lasted three months, Val thought, “Maybe I can do this. I can handle neglected orchids!”
Around this time, Valerie met our current OSWP president, Demetria Marsh, at Phipps who told her about an OSWP meeting happening the following day. Val went to that meeting and not only became a member, but joined the AOS as well! She was hooked. “You know it is a hobby you love when you find a way to do it even when you don’t have the time.” Sometime later, Demetria approached Val and asked if she would be the next Membership Chair. Since she has an administration background, she said yes, and boom! Five minutes later the position was hers.
From there, she started collecting orchids and now has 100-125 that she nurtures under grow-lights. Her favorite orchids are the phalaenopsis, followed by the lady slippers (paphiopedilums and phragmipediums). Regarding the phals, “My favorites? From the elegant Phalaenopsis amabilis and the larger white hybrids to the whimsical P. lowii and the diminutive P. bellina, I love them all!” She continues to state, “They are very dramatic looking. I love them even if they aren’t very popular among Society members.” She grows her orchids in a grow room in the garage and on her new south-facing wrap around porch in a home they are renovating, as discussed below. Val is also in the process of setting up an outdoor lattice wall so the orchids can have a healthy summer break outside.
There have been challenges along the way, however. Learning about the different pests, fungicides, and other things that attack orchids has been one of those challenges. “It is a hard thing to learn when growing living things, but to nurture a plant back to health is wonderful!” She’s had an especially difficult time with the dreaded mealy bugs. “Growing mostly indoors, I had unknowingly brought home some mealy bugs. Over the winter, in crowded conditions, I had a sudden eruption that required persistent action to get them under control. Between dipping them in Enstar AQ and some extra attention with insecticidal soap, I was able to get them under control. The orchids are now outside where natural predators help to control them. Mealy bugs love orchids – especially phals. It takes some work to keep them apart.” Joining the OSWP has helped broaden her knowledge. “The mini-classes are wonderful. To see how more experienced growers do things is fascinating and helpful.” One useful piece of information Val has picked up from her time with the Society is how to decode orchid labels. “I thought, ‘I’ll never understand this language’, but you eventually pick things up.”
Besides being the Membership Chair, Val loves participating in Phun at Phipps. “I learn a lot. It is a neat experience especially for new members.” The first time she took a tour of the grow houses at Phipps she was awestruck by the enormous collection and getting to see all the different types of plants. “It was just so fascinating!” She truly enjoys seeing Phipps behind the scenes having visited the conservatory as a child off and on over the years and later as a young adult.
On a personal note, Valerie is originally from the tristate area of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Her father was a master mechanic for an interstate highway company, which meant her family had to move every 2-3 years. “I returned [to Pittsburgh] after I married my high-school sweetheart who had grown up in the Pittsburgh area.” She worked in accounting for twenty years before retiring. “I was happy to leave it behind. I was not a happy accountant.”
She and Bryant lived in Sewickley, but with such high taxes they decided to look for a home in the country with a wooden hillside, but still close to Pittsburgh. They found one in the form of a 1840s farmhouse built by the Mennonites and have been remodeling it for about twenty years! Many parts of the house have been updated with orchid growing in mind. There is a grow room in the garage and a year ago they finished their south-facing, enclosed, and heated wrap around porch which is perfect for growing their orchids year-round. To finish it off, they will add a greenhouse. All of this remodeling has been made possible because Bryant is an architect and knows what needs to be done and when.
Valerie’s advice: As with any organization, get involved! “It is easy to skip meetings otherwise. Everyone is a cheerleader and it gives you an opportunity to see how people do different things. It’s a good group of people and a fun place to learn and grow. Not just the plant side of things either, but the interpersonal relationships as well.” Val is thankful the OSWP is here and available for people. “It is a wonderful legacy that has been passed down.”