From Chicken Ranch to Orchid Hothouses

Vanda Pachara Dellight 'Isabella' (photo by Alfred Hockenmaier)

Vanda Pachara Dellight ‘Isabella’ (photo by Alfred Hockenmaier)

Phalaenopsis Sogo Lawrence 'F1982' (photo by Alred Hockemaier)

Phalaenopsis Sogo Lawrence ‘F1982’ (photo by Alred Hockemaier)

Pleurothallis pectinatus 'Champagne Bubbles' (photo by Alfred Hockenmaier)

Pleurothallis pectinatus ‘Champagne Bubbles’ (photo by Alfred Hockenmaier)

Epicat Rene Marquez 'Flame Thrower' (photo by Alfred Hockenmaier)

Epicat Rene Marquez ‘Flame Thrower’ (photo by Alfred Hockenmaier)

narrow-leafed bird of paradise (Strelitzia juncea) (photo by Alfred Hockenmaier)

narrow-leafed bird of paradise (Strelitzia juncea) (photo by Alfred Hockenmaier)

Alfred Hockenmaier is one of those rare Valley souls who, although middle aged, lives in the same house in which both his father and his great uncle resided before him. That’s right. A third generation Valleyite who has not abandoned his ancestral home, a home in whose kitchen he was born. Just over two decades ago, his family still nurtured 6,000 egg-laying chickens on the same plot of ground where, today, Alfred Hockenmaier grows exotic orchids.
Hockenmaier appears to be inextricably entwined with the flora and fauna that inhabit his property. Situated on Parthenia Avenue in Northridge behind an unassuming block wall, nothing prepares you for the opulent Eden that flourishes within. In addition to many unusual tropical plants and a sunny rear driveway flanked by beds of rare succulents, he farms several raised vegetable beds, encased by stout planks of wood, where gigantic lettuces, cabbages, and chards are thriving. There are also two orchid houses, inhabited exclusively by varieties that, unless you are a member of an orchid society, you have never seen before and will probably never see again. In the fauna department, Hockenmaier has a fat cylindrical birdfeeder that serves as a magnet for goldfinches, a large family of which is conducting a visit that coincides with my own.
A few feet from the bird feeder, I am introduced to leafless bird of paradise (Strelitzia juncea). Who knew that such a botanical wonder existed? Apparently, it grows in the same conditions as common bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae), but is slower growing. Common bird of paradise has paddle shaped leaves that fray easily and take away from the beauty of the orange and blue crested fowers. Leafless bird of paradise offers a clean and refreshing contrast. Hockenmaier also has a stout specimen of yellow bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae ‘Mandela’s Gold’).
A significant horde of honeybees hovers at the base of a tool shed close by. Hockenmaier explains that there is a large hive beneath the shed and, sure enough, you can see bees enter and exit at an opening below the soil surface at a corner of the shed. When I ask Hockemaier why he allows the beehive to remain, he mentions the decrease in honeybee populations everywhere. This decline is due to colony collapse disorder, which is thought to be caused by a virus vectored by honeybee mites or fungi. Thus Hockenmeier, in his own small way, encourages honeybees that found a home on his property to be fruitful and multiply. He also personally benefits from the bees, since they abundantly pollinate the flowers of his fruit crops.
I spent more than an hour gazing at Hockenmaier’s plants and, at the end, felt as though I had visited the Uffizi, the Louvre, the Prado, or the Hermitage. These world famous museums will mesmerize you with their priceless works of art and yet, after an hour or so, you may very well reach a visual saturation point, a fatigue brought on by overexposure to just too much beauty. You say to yourself, “This is wonderful but I can’t absorb anymore. I’ll just have to come back another time.” That was my feeling after spending an hour in the company of Hockenmaier’s gardens and orchid greenhouses. A small sample of his orchids is described below.
Among the most noteworthy of Hockenmaier’s orchids, the ones that really shout and demand to be noticed, are the Vandas. Vanda flowers do not appear on the long stems for which orchids are famous. Instead, individual blooms are clustered around stems embedded in the foliage. Blue and purple are the rarest of orchid colors and the royal purple Vandas cultivated here are spectacular, although brilliant yellow, orange, and red varieties are also on display. Vandas demand consistent applications of water and fertilizer and probably require more expertise to grow properly than other orchid types. Renanthera imschootiana ‘Pololei Lava Flow’ makes a suitable companion, in terms of its cultural requirements, to Vandas. Its wispy flowers also contrast well with the rounder, more substantial Vanda blooms.
Hockenmaier is proudest of a truly bizarre orchid by the name of Pleurothallis pectinata ‘Champagne Bubbles.’ He received three awards from the American Orchid Society for his perfect ‘Champagne Bubbles’ specimens. ‘Champagne Bubbles’ are grown upside down, suspended from their roots and, despite their name, appear to be a collection of inverted martini glasses. Zipper-like flowers, pollinated by bats, fit snugly on the undersides of the leaves.
A lime green lady’s slipper (Paphiopedelium Clair de Lune ‘Edgard Van Belle’) includes a green and white seersucker ensemble of floral appendages. Dendrobium speciosum, native to Australia, may have the largest flower spikes and endure the toughest conditions of any orchid. Encountering it in full bloom is a jaw-dropping experience.
A two-tone reed orchid, Epicat Rene Marquez ‘Flame Thrower’, is a cross between an epidendrum orchid, the kind anyone can grow in a patio flower pot, and a Cattleya, one of the most drought tolerant orchids and famous for its large and frilly blooms. Phalaenopsis Sogo Lawrence ‘F1982’ is another multi-colored beauty, staritng yellow on the edge of its petals, picking up red venation along the petal length and ending in a magenta centerpiece.
Hockenmaier has two greenhouses. Temperatures stay above fifty degrees in one and above sixty degrees in the other, reaching a high, in summertime, of the mid-eighties. All the water received by his orchids is demineralized through reverse osmosis and he has a fertilizer injection system so that plants are fertilized each time they are watered. Still, he insists that most of his orchids may be grown on a sunny kitchen window sill with tap water, even if their performance may not be as glamorous as what you see in greenhouse grown plants. “As in every other area of life,” Hockenmaier says, “the more you put into it, the more your get out of it.”
Not far from Hockenmaier’s rare plant and orchid conservatory, I meet up with Art Mendoza, who grows nothing but Cymbidiums which, in Southern California, are invariably grown outdoors, generally under shade cloth. Unlike the more tropical species I have just encountered, Cymbidiums absolutely require a dose of cold weather in the fall to bloom well the following spring. Mendoza hangs his Cymbidiums from wooden beams overhead since cymbidiums whose containers rest on the ground are highly susceptible to fungus problems. Mendoza will be holding a special Cymbidium sale on March 22, 23, and 24, from 9am to 5pm, at 16057 Nordhoff Street, in North Hills. Refreshments will be served. His nursery is also open daily to the public by appointment only. For more information, call (818) 903-4073.
Tip of the Week: For years I had seen a plant called living stones (Lithops spp.) growing in the succulent section of local nurseries. I had done some investigation of these plants, only to learn that they could only be grown in containers and did not reach more than an inch or two in size. Imagine my surprise when I saw robust living stone look alikes, a full four inches across, growing in a planter adjacent to Hockenmaier’s driveway. What I saw was not actually a living stone but a relative called a split rock (Pleiosopilos nelii). Split rocks, it seems, are not at all finicky and can grow in any sunny garden spot with decent soil drainage.

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