A Quarter Century of Orchids

Everyone remembers their first orchid. Mine was a greenhouse full – given by my father on the day that I went into the orchid business. It was the late 1980’s and I was leaving a promising engineering career – a move that raised a few eyebrows from my technical colleagues.

In those days, orchids were still the sport of hobbyists who collected a wide range of genera and belonged to local orchid societies. Phalaenopsis breeding was just getting started. Small commercial growers were trying to be the first to hybridize a well-shaped miniature using P equestris or a solid yellow using P venosa or amboinensis. I found great delight in watching my first Phal seedlings bloom.

Today, orchids are no longer the love of just flora aficionados. Proudly ranked as the #1 Houseplant in America, orchids surpassed chrysanthemums, African Violets, and Poinsettias. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that over 21 million plants were produced in 2010 alone. Phalaenopsis are leading the way and are even found in grocery stores. These plants are not seedlings, which produce variability, but instead are clones or identical copies. Most phals are mass produced overseas and shipped to the U.S. to be ‘finished off’ by local greenhouses.

Orchid boarding, an unheard of idea several decades ago, has become big business. What started out as “Will you take care of my orchid until it blooms again?” has turned into 11,000 boarded plants in our greenhouses. Growers in select cities also offer this service. Some charge by the plant while others charge by the square foot. Clients are assured that they will see flowers again and again.

Although orchid corsages went out of fashion in the 1980’s, the plant that produced those stunning blossoms is alive and well. Cattleyas remain the pinnacle of the hobby for many who delight in the large frilly petals and intoxicating fragrance. Every United States First Lady since 1929 has one named after her. This stalwart epiphyte ‘reinvented itself’ from the cut flower industry to potted plants – a real coup in the business world.

Some of the big commercial names on the East Coast are gone – victims of changing times. Kensington Orchids, circa 1945 and located near Washington D.C., was legendary with enormous glass greenhouses and hot water boilers. The owner had been president of the American Orchid Society and even has an annual conference named after him. I was lucky to get the redwood doors before the property was cleared for condominiums. Breckenridge Orchids of Brown Summit, N.C. revolutionized the use of peat moss for Phalaenopsis production and received hundreds of American Orchid Society awards for their cutting edge hybrids. Once again, the increasing value of the land outweighed the net worth of the company.

It is common today to see orchids shipped through the mail – not just small seedlings but blooming plants. Improved packing techniques and delivery times provide safe arrival for these perishable treasures. Orchid of the Month programs and Holiday orchid gift websites guarantee that the delicate buds will open within a few days.

Cut orchid sprays have been in existence since the 1800’s but they are rapidly being replaced by orchid plant arrangements. Groupings of blooming specimens are displayed in fancy containers then accented with Spanish moss and Curly willow. These living centerpieces can last for months with minimal care and are far more economical than any cut flowers.

As we embark on our 25th year in the orchid business, I reflect on the many changes that have occurred in the industry. My father has grown these fabulous flowers since 1943 and his stories fill an entire hardback - literally. He still has book signings. Back then, there was only one orchid fancier in an entire housing development. Today, virtually every house seems to have an orchid. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012 - 17:00