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Orchid Gems



The Healing Power of Orchids -- Ernest McCobb

By: Norma Raiff

Ernie McCobb is a recent OSWP member who has dedicated his working years to ensuring that our final resting places – cemeteries -- are well looked after areas of natural beauty. He also loves many different types of plants, orchids included.

Ernie is compassionate, responsible, and was one of the first recent members to volunteer to tell his story so that others would become aware of OSWP’s secret ingredient: that membership involves socialization, learning about local orchid culture, sharing successes and failures, joking, and finding friends. This is what makes OSWP involvement different from just watching YouTube.

After speaking to him at some length I came away with the impression that Ernie is a kind person who is extremely responsible and who takes care of others, even if it means putting his own plans on hold.

Ernie graduated from Penn State with a degree in horticulture (1980). And although he had planned on studying medicine, his options dramatically changed during his Junior year when his much-loved stepfather had a serious stroke. The family physician put it bluntly: from this time forward Ernie would be the family bread earner. So Ernie shifted to horticulture for the pragmatic reason that he had already accumulated numerous science credits.

But Ernie also “always knew he had to take care of his family.” His dad died when Ernie was only two years old and Ernie came to an early understanding that he would have to take care of his mother and grandmother. That’s because his mom had polio as a child and resulting medical complications made it impossible for her to continue working.

Ernie’s stepfather, Harris Fritz, was a bright spot, a person who Ernie recalls as kind and as someone to look up to. “It was a pleasure knowing my stepfather who was a highly decorated soldier in the Armored Division. He was a good man. He also apologized to me for his inability to continue working after his stroke.”

Ernie’s horticultural degree provided entry into the field of cemetery management, which included tending the facility’s greenhouse, supervising plants for funeral arrangements, cleaning up weather-related damage, and taking care of the landscape. His career involved positions at both the Homewood and the Allegany Cemeteries.

Ernie recently retired from work because of chronic health issues. He is now occupied with growing plants and remodeling his home which is located outside of Brackenridge Borough, 22 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Ernie’s history with orchid growing was sporadic, marked by failures and personal resilience. His mother paved the way by being extremely fond of orchids. Unfortunately, Ernie’s first attempts at growing orchids were unsuccessful: a fate which he eventually attributed to unfavorable growing conditions. However, he remained unfazed. “I always wanted to try again, and one year I got a phalaenopsis for Christmas that I successfully grew for many years.”

Sadly, his subsequent attempts at orchid cultivation failed for reasons related to mealy bug infestation and using decayed potting bark. Undeterred, Ernie then adopted a different approach to learning. “During the pandemic, I listened to YouTube a lot. I listened to a gentleman from the UK who is an amateur grower who specializes in orchids. His channel is Roger’s Orchids ( Through listening, he encouraged me to start growing orchids again.” (Note: Roger’s Orchids has 3,932,166 followers, near-daily postings, and emphasizes orchid growing.) “And so I learned more about humidity, how orchids could be grown successfully. I now know that I should have put them in the basement where I could control the growing environment.”

Ernie’s collection currently consists of some 20 orchids, including phalaenopses, zygopetalums, and cattleyas. And his adventure continues. His recent Spring Show acquisitions included an oncidium and a catastetum from the Raj collection, a cattleya from Ecuagenera, and a Habanera Pinkie from Edgar Stehli (Windswept in Time).” I enjoyed the show this year, especially the international vendors and the new supply vendor. They were very nice to deal with.”

“I’m willing to experiment with different genera and learning what they need.” For example, “Stenoglottis Venus (purchased from OSWP member Hossein Noorbaksh)– is beautiful, a bluish purple similar to violet.” And like many of us, Ernie has a number of $5 Lowes’ orchids. He also grows various houseplants.

Although Ernie had attended some shows and several meetings earlier, he did not join OSWP until March 2022. “I knew I was going to retire in June and I wanted to grow more orchids and learn how to flower them better.”

Ernie also values the friendships he has made and how nice people are. “I enjoy the comradery of everybody. I enjoy that people bring in plants for Show and Tell. I love the experience of growing orchids and the challenge of learning how to grow them.”

And to shift focus, this is also a story about orchid-friend relationships that make an unexpected difference. When Ernie was telling me about being informed that he would now have to be the “family breadwinner”, I shared a story about Rich Sipko, a former OSWP member whose mother and grandmother also told him that he had to be “the man of the house” when his own dad died. I further remarked that while Ernie wouldn’t know Rich Sipko, both had also inherited their love of orchids from their maternal side.

“But no”, he said, “I do know about Rich Sipko.” When Ernie was at the point of seriously doubting that he could successfully grow orchids, he also worked with Mike Lysy (newcomers will know Mike as the person in charge of the Show kitchen – among many other things.) And while working at the greenhouse, Ernie was responsible for growing one of Rich Sipko’ plants that Mike had acquired.

Talk about coincidence: “The greatest thrill I can say, is when I was looking at Rich Sipko’s plant and seeing the sheaths extend, and then having the thrill of seeing the plant bloom.” And in fact, it was seeing Rich Sipko’s orchid thriving that prompted Ernie to start listening to the above-mentioned Roger’s Orchids on You Tube. Ernie’s still hoping to acquire a piece of that particular plant.

Final words: I will keep growing orchids and plants until I die. When I die I hope I have a plant in my hand.

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