“To me,” said Junior, who is 87 years old, “they are the most fabulous things that have ever happened to me, outside of my family.”
Junior started the couple’s affection for orchids a few years after they married 63 years ago because, he said, he inherited his father’s love for growing things. The couple works together to care for the flowers. Junior mixes soil, waters the plants, reports them annually and repairs the greenhouse, when needed. Becky is his backup gardener and has been for most of their marriage, especially when he traveled throughout the United States for his job. He worked at Birmingham-based Gold Dome Credit Corporation and covered 43 states for the company.
“I used to tease him,” said Becky, “because he would telephone us and ask about the orchids before he asked about me and the children.”
Recently, the couple sat in the greenhouse/sitting room off the back of their home on Cheaha Acres Drive. Spanish moss hung from an arch above their chairs, and a few anthuriums, African violets and a lemon tree also surrounded them. Hundreds of orchids sat on shelves and tables or hung from the ceiling in the special room created just for the flowers. Also, fans surrounded the plants, as orchids thrive better when air moves around them.
In the summer, an indoor fan pulls air from the outside through a swamp cooler that covers a sidewall where water cascades over a corrugated structure. The cooler moisturizes the air and also helps the orchids thrive.
Junior built his own swamp cooler, and he also devised a system of water pipes and a dispenser so the orchids could receive the perfect amount of fertilized water. Unlike many ordinary houseplants, such as wandering Jew or mother-in-law’s tongue, orchids are demanding, as if they were divas. They won’t “perform” unless certain conditions are met.
Junior arose from his white rocking chair where he had been holding his wife’s hand. He stroked a nearby orchid stem filled with dozens of orange blossoms.
“A friend in Hawaii gave this to me provided I did not share it with anyone or try to hybridize it until he had it registered,” said Junior. “Every orchid in here has a story.”
Indeed, both Coxwells told how they have traveled the country, even making several trips to Hawaii where orchids thrive best, to show their own hybrids. They talked of species, primary hybrids, crossed hybrids and even crisscrossed hybrids. They talked of their membership in the American Orchid Society and the Northeast Alabama Orchid Society. They mentioned shows they have attended in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. They named friends who grow orchids and told how others with a love for orchids congregate here and there on a regular basis.
“Don’t try to understand it all, honey,” said Becky, fluttering the fingers of one hand into the air. “There is more to it than anyone can understand.”
Junior said the most they have ever paid for an orchid is about $250, but he has heard of a few times when a prize orchid was sold at an auction for as much as $50,000.
Orchid growers might be a little heady when looking at one gorgeous blossom after another, and who could blame them? In the sitting room, the Coxwells have a stunning yellow blossom peeking over their shoulders. Its name is “lady slipper,” because it is shaped a lot like the rare bog plant with the same name. There are two or three white blossoms sitting further back on the table behind them with petals that look like white, dewey silk. Purple blossoms the color of a sky at dusk hang off several plants, and, here and there throughout the greenhouse, orchid blossoms with dots and stripes of all colors peek out from beneath their shiny green leaves or extend over them like a burst of color from a fireworks display.
“Come back in about six weeks and take some pictures,” said Becky. “They will be in full bloom then.”
Both of the Coxwells know orchid growers throughout the world. In fact, they are so well connected that each of them has an orchid named after them, names given to brand-new orchids by friends who also are growers.
“My orchid is registered at Kew Gardens in London – Paphel pedlum Junior Coxwell,” said Junior, without hesitating a moment when spelling out the complicated words.
“And mine is from Line’s Orchids in Signal Mountain, Tenn.,” said Becky, “Phalaenopsis Becky Coxwell.”
Junior helped her with the spelling of “Phalaenopsis,” and he rattled off a few more spellings of the blossoms surrounding him, some with names as fancy as a debutante at a coming-out ball.
Junior gives credit to his family and his love for orchids for his longevity.
“I’m alive today because I want to see what the next orchid I’ve pollinated will look like,” he said.
Junior will likely be around a long time, as it takes six to seven years for a newly pollinated orchid to bloom. Of course, often in life, things that take a long time to develop are sometimes the most long-lasting, just like the love affair between Junior and Becky and their orchids.
Anyone interested in orchids can join the Northeast Alabama Orchid Society for $20 for a single or $25 for a family. They meet at 2 p.m. the second Sunday of each month at the Anniston Museum of Natural History.
Call Sherry Kughn at 256-235-3533 or email to email@example.com.