Orchids R Us

Michael Homoya's passion bloomed amid Mom's azaleas.

Michael Homoya, orchid guy.
Michael Homoya, orchid guy.
Most people's encounters with orchids are limited to one specific context: They're either buying them as a corsage to grace the wrist of a prom date, or they're wearing the corsage. Because orchids are seen on such rare occasions, and since most people never set foot in the woods, it's easy to assume that these beautiful flowers grow only in tropical regions or floral hothouses.

Not so, says Michael Homoya, an Indiana botanist who will present a lecture and slide show called "Looking for Orchids in All the Right Places" Friday at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

According to Homoya, more than 30,000 species of orchids can be found in the most disparate places, from the Arctic tundra to desert-like scrub forests. Of those that grow in temperate regions, many are found in Northeast Ohio. There are several species of lady's slipper in the Cleveland area, including showy yellow and pink varieties. Also found nearby are the spotted coralroot and the rattlesnake plantain.

To Homoya, orchids are "beautiful, mysterious, and complex . . . floral royalty in the kingdom of plants." But he wasn't always smitten by flowers. Growing up in Illinois, he grudgingly prepared the garden beds for his mother's azaleas. Over the years, he became interested in the plants he tended, and eventually he learned that wild azaleas could be found in southern Illinois. So he set off into neighboring woods to see what else he could find.

"I vividly recall the day I met my first wild orchid," Homoya writes in the preface of his new book, Orchids of Indiana. A guide led the teenager into a deep sandstone gorge in southern Illinois and pointed out a rattlesnake plantain. "Such a sight astonished me," he says. "Because, like most people, I believed orchids were inhabitants only of the mystical and distant lands of the equator."

His passion for orchids was born that day. "I find it exhilarating to sight a new species," he says. "[It's] like a birder observing an unfamiliar bird or an art connoisseur encountering a lost Renoir."

Like many other plants, orchids are endangered by habitat destruction and competition with invasive species. Homoya's job is to identify natural areas that contain orchids -- as well as other plants -- for protection. "We try not to concentrate on specific species protection, but on systems, but I can't deny that the 'orchid factor' adds to the interest in a particular tract of land being considered for purchase.

"Some orchids, as indicators of specialized habitats, have led to the discovery and protection of significant natural areas," Homoya concludes, optimistically on his way to making the world a safer place for orchids everywhere.