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After Work: Crazy For Orchids

…Here in South Florida it’s easy to catch what the Victorians called orchidelerium, a madness - an obsession - with orchids. Orchids especially Phalaenopsis, Palm Beach matrons’ favorite house plants; Dendrobiams that often resemble a whirl of dancing butterflies and Cattleyas, the long ago corsage favorite are increasingly common….

Dona Gibbs confesses to a demanding floral obsession.

For lots more of Dona’s gloriously colourful words please click on After Work in the menu on this page.

“I really have to watch myself, especially around plants. Even now, just being here, I still get that collector feeling. You know what I mean. I'll see something and then suddenly I get that feeling. It's like I can't just have something - I have to have it and learn about it and grow it and sell it and master it and have a million of it.” – John LaRoche, convicted orchid poacher. - From Susan Olean’s book, The Orchid Thief.

I understand the longing of this dreamer of big, but illegal dreams. Laroche was convicted in 1994 when he and a group of Seminole Indians illegally took rare orchids from the Fakahatchee State Preserve. They had hoped to cultivate them, sell them and make a bundle.

Here in South Florida it’s easy to catch what the Victorians called orchidelerium, a madness - an obsession - with orchids. Orchids especially Phalaenopsis, Palm Beach matrons’ favorite house plants; Dendrobiams that often resemble a whirl of dancing butterflies and Cattleyas, the long ago corsage favorite are increasingly common.

“Common, huh?” Wealthy Victorian men would snort in disbelief. Yes, men. Orchid collecting was a manly endeavor. For manly men with pockets full of cash.

In a froth of competition they would send explorers in the wilds, braving malaria, murky waters filled with crocodiles and alligators, anacondas - and each other. They were armed to the teeth and risked injury, even death - all for what is essentially a beautiful plant, one that on the whole has no commercial value except for its often-fickle beauty.

So they would be flabbergasted, if such a word existed in Victorian times, to see trucks filled with orchids backed up to the loading docks of home improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowes.

I keep an eye out for those trucks. I want to score the best ones before they suffer the indignities of careless handling.

Orchids in Florida are cheap. Relatively speaking. Buy one for about $25 or $30, take it home and plop it in a pretty pot, water it from time to time and enjoy it for three months. Orchids are a better deal than cut flowers and add just the right exotic Florida note.

Orchids can be found almost in every part of the world except desert regions and Antarctica. Experts - and there have been experts since Theophrastus back in 371 B.C. - now estimate there are 25,000 to 30,000 species. Why they even grow above the Artic circle and in southern Patagonia. But don’t even think about bringing one home from the wilds. All orchids are potentially endangered in their natural habitats.

The orchid lover doesn’t have to risk time behind bars – deprived of orchids. Now orchids are grown from seed or tissue culture. They’re test tube babies grown in sterile laboratories. It takes from one to five years of patience and care to produce a mature plant.

With 100,000 plus cultivars and hybrids with more developed each year, even the most obsessed collector should find an orchid that will scratch the itch.

I read about orchids because I, like Laroche, like to learn about objects of my varied obsessions. I’ve found that vanilla orchids are the only orchids that are cultivated for more than their beauty. It’s the seedpods that give us that wonderful vanilla flavor.

Vanilla orchids were first cultivated in Central America. Now Madagascar is the biggest producer shipping three million metric tons. Producing vanilla is a labor-intensive business. The flowers have to be pollinated by hand and most of the businesses are small family farms. So there’s a reason why a skinny plastic tube holding two vanilla beans costs so much once it reaches the grocer’s shelf.

While Coca-Cola formula is highly guarded, it’s no secret that Coca-Cola is the world’s biggest buyer of vanilla.

Tuck those orchid facts away and they’ll come spilling out at the next cocktail party. People will back away from you with glazed eyes. Trust me. I know.

It’s the beauty of orchids that I’m after though.

“ I don’t care if housewives take’em home and kill’em,” I once heard an orchid grower confess. “They can throw’em out once the blooms are gone. Better for my business.”

I have to keep reminding myself that orchids are a business.

So I had a lot to think about as my friends took me to their favorite grower. I had imagined that we’d be venturing deep, deep in to what passes as Florida’s backcountry, braving rutted roads, which of course would be canopied by ancient banyan trees.

That was the adventure I had imagined.

Instead we met up at my local mega-mall, fueled ourselves for the journey at a newly opened chain restaurant and drove a couple of miles away to a tidy housing development.

We opened an unlocked gate and pulled into the driveway.

There before us was a shed, three-quarters filled with orchids. Glorious orchids loaded with blooms. Waving to us. Beckoning.

This was a mom and pop operation. They buy their stock from another (unnamed grower) and then resell it to avid plant lovers like my friends and me. From November through mid-March they are busy, busy, busy so they sell by appointment only.

“I’m glad to see the season end,” the owner, a frenetic blowsy woman, confessed as she sprayed the leaves of our treasures with leaf shine, attached stems to curly willow and tucked moss around the base.

Orchids from a “grower” such as this one sell for more than the big box stores or the local supermarket but they’re bigger, healthier plants – and they’re dolled up with little extras such as willow replacing plain green stakes.

“We go up to Maine for the summer. Built a house up there. Built a house for our son too. We’ll drive up with a trailer of orchids. And we hired another man with a truck.

“First we’ll go to New York and see our customers. Then out to the Hamptons” -- a famed New York summer home area where a million dollars won’t buy you much.

“I give them Florida prices so they’re real happy,” she said as she finished primping our purchases.

She carefully loaded the orchids into the car for us, warning us to “go right home” and in the same breathe telling us about the new gourmet market that had opened.

She had cautioned us about over watering and thrown in all kinds of orchid advice. It was obvious she didn’t want us to kill our purchases quickly-- unlike the other grower I had talked to.

Much of Florida’s population heads north for the summer, even though air conditioning has made year-round living bearable. So what happens to all those orchids?

Some are given away. Some are driven back north in already stuffed cars. Some are tossed in the garbage.

Me? What happens to my orchids? Well, after months of having them as a beautiful part of my life, I’ve almost given them names. I can’t toss them in the garbage like orange peels.

I’ve learned a couple of tricks from the native Floridians. I attach them to trees. A hand full of grey moss, a bit of cocoa fiber, some thin wire makes a nice new home. Native Floridians use old, holey panty hose but I guess I’m too hoity-toity.

So my passion for orchids turns out to be pretty tame. Easy to keep under control.

And you won’t find me poaching in the Fakahatchee State Preserve. Or behind bars.


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