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Archive for Sunday, June 27, 2004

Omnipresent orchids

Once considered exotic, plants are everywhere

June 27, 2004

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Orchids, once an exotic breed not available to the masses, are everywhere now.

They're superstars in home decor, and people are snapping them up faster than almost any other potted flower.

Orchids were second only to poinsettias in wholesale value in 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its annual survey of floriculture crops, released this spring. Growers sold almost $121 million worth of orchids to florists, grocery stores, home improvement centers and other retailers last year. That value far outpaced the likes of spring bulbs, chrysanthemums, Easter lilies and azaleas.

In Europe, where poinsettias are not a traditional holiday fixture, orchids are No. 1 in value, says Rob Griesbach, a floral geneticist who also serves as president of the American Orchid Society.

"They beat out everything else," he says. And while they might be more expensive than a pot of mums, he adds, orchid flowers can last up to two months, they hardly require watering, and don't need much light.

"If you're buying a plant and you just want it for display purposes, orchids -- hands down -- beat out everything."

But that wasn't always the case -- in perception, if not in reality.

Orchids were not even offered to the mass market until 1980. Before that, their realm existed in the greenhouses of wealthy estates.

Jane Pepper recalls with amusement her own wealthy great-great grandfather, who "spent the family fortune" growing orchids on his estate in England.

An ascocenda orchid blooms at the Fantasy Orchids greenhouse. It
houses 120,000 exotic orchids for commercial and retail sale.

An ascocenda orchid blooms at the Fantasy Orchids greenhouse. It houses 120,000 exotic orchids for commercial and retail sale.

"Nowadays you can buy them for $12," says Pepper, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which organizes the Philadelphia Flower Show.

Surveys of visitors to the annual flower show indicate that orchids, along with roses, are consistent favorites, she says.

Walter Off, owner of Waldor Orchids in Linwood, N.J., showed off the profusion of his wares at this year's Philadelphia Flower Show.

Off's South-Pacific-inspired display was the central feature of the show on its 175th anniversary. It consumed more than 12,000 square feet of space with more than 100,000 blooms.

Specimen-quality orchids, akin to purebred champion dogs, take 12-15 years to cultivate into a mature state, with some flowers as big as a baby's head.

Dendrobium reaches skyward at Eddon Orchids in Fresno, Calif.

Dendrobium reaches skyward at Eddon Orchids in Fresno, Calif.

"To have this many big plants, it really is unusual," Off says.

But for the home gardener who just wants a couple pots around the house, Off adds, "orchids are really easy. It's just a matter of educating (people)."

Or un-educating them.

Orchids have developed a reputation as a wild, esoteric and difficult flower. Books like "The Orchid Thief," which was later made into the film "Adaptation" with Nicholas Cage, perpetuate that notion, along with the perception that people who grow orchids are bizarre, if not downright crazy.

A myriad of orchids grows at Eddon Orchids in Fresno, Calif.

A myriad of orchids grows at Eddon Orchids in Fresno, Calif.

But as orchids become omnipresent in Home Depot, Target, Lowe's and the local grocery store, Griesbach says, "what's happening is these fallacies are basically being broken."

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