New York Times - July 15, 2012

Celebrity Hybrids

By Jason TesauroAn Orchid by Another Name Is a Marquee

LIZZY SCARLETT JAGGER, the oldest of Mick Jagger’s and Jerry Hall’s four children, is a visual hybrid, with elements of her father, the undulating Rolling Stones frontman, and her mother, the leggy flaxen-haired model. And the splashy Honky Tonk Woman orchid, first bred in the late 1990s by a North Carolina greenhouse, is, too: one parent is Schomburgkia undulata, a wavy brown and purple cattleya; the other is Rhyncholaeliocattleya Bouton D’Or, a showy “golden button” cattleya that lends glam to the red lip that marks the plant.

There are more than 30,000 naturally occurring types of orchid, but the white moth orchid phalaenopsis, like smoked sea salt, has gone from hard-to-find gourmet treat to suburban grocery staple. Cattleya, on the other hand — a fragrant, slow-to-grow but showstopping genus dripping with blue ribbons and horticultural sexiness — has thus far defied commercialization and all but the most attentive south-facing windows. This leaves a fertile market for hybridizers and so-called plant artists who are increasingly adding their names to botanical annals by creating new variations.

One is Fred Clarke, owner of Sunset Valley Orchids, based in Vista, Calif., who bred a black orchid for the designer Tom Ford. “Anyone can get a dozen roses, and anyone can keep a phalaenopsis,” Mr. Clarke said. “They’re so common.”

This isn’t the first time mass marketing had led to the demise of a flower’s mystique. African violets ceased to seem special when they started showing up at the Home Depot for $1.50. And the Stargazer lily, developed in 1978, has gone from cachet to cash crop.

Historically, cattleya hybridizing, like that of roses, was done to honor royals, as in Russia in the 1800s, and wealthy benefactors would pay collectors to sniff around Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil for new varieties, according to “The Classic Cattleyas,” by A. A. Chadwick and his son, Arthur E. Chadwick. Later, plants were hybridized to coincide with the corsage crunch around Easter, Mother’s Day and prom time.

Some 150,000 orchid hybrids are logged in Britain with the Royal Horticultural Society International Register of Orchid Hybrids. According to Julian Shaw, senior registrar for orchid hybrids, “In Singapore, it’s become quite trendy to name an orchid for your local school, hospital, notable anniversary or as social commentary of events and people: Titanic, 9/11, tsunami warning.” An English breeder recently added Oncidium alexandrae Diamond Jubilee to the list.

Then there’s the step beyond: custom hybrid cattleyas. For instance, if you see an orchid, and you want to paint it black, you can. But Mr. Ford beat you to it, conceiving of Black Orchid for his brand’s first fragrance. “I’ve been obsessed with black orchids for years,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding: “For me, it’s really the perfect flower. Elegant, luxurious. The only thing is, it didn’t exist.”

Mr. Ford turned to Mr. Clarke, who created Fredclarkeara After Dark, a cross of Mormodia Painted Desert and Catasetum Donna Wise. “You’ll never see these at Walmart,” said Arthur E. Chadwick, the author, at Chadwick & Son Orchids in Powhatan, Va. This fancy-pants plant earned top awards from the American Orchid Society, but while judges look for color vibrancy, splash petals, spots and different-colored lips, they don’t measure merit with an orchidometer. (Turns out that this is the name for an archaic medical apparatus used to measure the volume of the testicles.)

With seven years from seed to bloom, a get-rich-quick scheme these cattleyas are not. And traditionally, named orchids are reserved by breeders for honoring wives, daughters, dignitaries and dedicated orchidophiles. “We like to keep it in the family or name them after famous orchid people who haven’t been recognized yet,” said David Off of Waldor Orchids in Linwood, N.J., which has bred hundreds.

There are celebrity exceptions: Michelle Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker, Priscilla Presley, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Martha Stewart and Elton John have all had cattleyas named for them by various breeders.

But Mr. Chadwick takes a more enterprising approach, offering named hybrids to anyone willing to pay $1,500, a price that includes 20 seedlings, and a Royal Horticultural Society stamp of approval and verification of lineage.

“We’re running out of ways to honor people,” he said. “Sure, you can name a star or customize a Harley, but with this you can time the flowering to a birthday or anniversary.”

And, Mr. Ford wrote, “orchids are one of the few flowers that can be masculine or feminine.”

(This article appeared in print on July 15, 2012, on page ST6 of the New York edition with the headline: An Orchid by Another Name Is a Marquee.)