IT SEEMS a curious malady has taken hold of a significant number of Florida residents, ensnaring their hearts, minds and wallets.
Its roots are horticultural. It’s highly contagious. There is no cure.
Call it orchid mania.
Those who have it don’t mind being referred to as obsessed or addicted. They admit it cheerfully and without apology.
“We’re all orchid nuts,” said Elaine Gates, first vice president of programs for the Gulf Coast Orchid Alliance, a group of orchid aficionados, hobbyists and collectors based in Naples.
Even the American Orchid Society acknowledges the obsession. “Trying to own only one orchid is like trying to eat one peanut,” states a Q&A page on the society’s website.
And orchids are a big business in Florida. There were $85 million worth of potted orchids sold wholesale in Florida in 2020, according to the USDA Floriculture Crops Summary. Nationwide, the value was $276 million. Globally, orchids are a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Fans share their passion — there are at least 53 orchid societies or organizations in Florida, according to OrchidWire.com, which lists orchid organizations, growers, vendors and resources. The Florida groups listed include one in Charlotte County, one in Lee County, two in Collier County and five in Palm Beach County. The site lists 86 growers and vendors in Florida; worldwide, OrchidWire lists 700 organizations and 965 vendors.
It begins innocently enough. First there is one plant, picked up at a supermarket or a big box store.
“That’s how it usually starts — the orchid addiction, shall we say,” Ms. Gates said. Then curiosity grows, as does the collection. Suddenly there are 10 orchids. Then 25. Then 50. For some, there are hundreds, even thousands.
Ms. Gates estimates she has 300 to 400 orchids, all growing in the lanai of her townhouse. “It’s kind of a jungle,” she said. Others, like Jim Longwell, president of the alliance, have more than 1,000.
The alliance is a nonprofit organization of beginners to advanced hobbyists who share their knowledge and reach out to inspire others to learn about orchids and orchid conservation. Each month, members bring some plants in for a friendly competition, and vote for their favorites.
Orchid hobbyists and growers come from all walks of life — builders, retired professors, real estate brokers, “from farmers to physicists,” said Marija Rosenfeld, an alliance member. Ms. Rosenfeld has “only” 40 orchids. She lives in a condominium without a lanai, so they are all attached to trees outside. “The best people are in the orchid world.”
Ms. Gates has been a national parks ranger, small business owner, teacher, librarian and worked for the Peace Corps. The lure for her is the beauty, sentiment and science. Her mother always had blooming flowers in the house when she was growing up. “I just tried to recreate that.” Then she delved into the science behind them.
Her favorite is one of Florida’s native orchids, Encyclia tampensis. They grow in a variety of colors and they are a kind of harbinger of summer, because they bloom right before the start, she said.
The idea that orchids are rare belies the fact that they belong to the family of Orchidaceae, one of the two largest families of flowering plants. There are 880 genera (plural of genus) and more than 25,000 species, said Jason Downing, orchid botanist for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, just south of Miami. Then there are hundreds of thousands of orchid hybrids. “That’s when it gets really crazy,” he said.
Orchids have also been around for, well, almost forever. Biologists at Harvard University identified orchid pollen found on back of a fossilized bee, suspended in amber, according to a 2007 article published in the journal Nature. Their DNA analysis of the pollen indicated that orchids could go back as far as 76 million to 84 million years ago, much earlier than scientists had estimated.
Some say orchids are positively uplifting. If so, when you’re around more than 25,000 at once, you must be in heaven. That’s how many are growing at Sundance Orchids & Bromeliads in South Fort Myers. Jacki Garland has owned the nursery for 13 years with her husband Elijah Spurlin. With nine greenhouses on five acres, the nursery claims to be the largest retail orchid nursery in Southwest Florida.
Ms. Garland has her own private collection of 2,000 to 3,000 orchids on the premises along with those she sells. “Whenever I fall in love with one I have to keep it,” she said. “How do you not love them?” There’s not another plant out there as unique, she said. “There are some that look like animals. Some remind you of going to prom. Some smell like rotting fish” to attract the particular insect that pollinates it, she said.
But some orchids smell like chocolate, some are spicy or sweet and all fragrances in between, including fruity smells like raspberry, coconut and citrus. Some have no fragrance at all.
Ms. Garland insists orchids are not hard to grow and care for. You just have to follow instructions for that specific variety. If you’ve killed one or two before, you may not have paid attention to their lighting and watering needs, she said.
When he spoke at their August meeting, Thanh Nguyen, owner of Springwater Orchids in Melbourne, told alliance members, “I’ve killed more orchids than you’ve ever grown.”
They laughed, but his message was clear: Don’t get discouraged. Somehow, he got the hang of it. The proof is in the 30,000 or so orchids he has growing at his nursery.
Mr. Nguyen recently retired after 37 years as an electrical engineer with the U.S. Department of Defense. He’s been growing orchids more than 40 years and selling them for more than 25 years. He describes his relationship with orchids in two words. “Pure love.”
“I grew up in Vietnam, orchids all around me,” he said. “It was just always a part of me. Put it that way.”
When asked to name his favorite orchid, he responded “Negative.” There would be too many. He has been offered thousands of dollars for one of his orchids. Did he sell it? No.
The top price he paid for an orchid was $1,500. Did it survive? “No,” he said.
“Some people don’t want to buy an orchid as a challenge. Some people only buy an orchid to challenge them,” he said.
People have been obsessed with orchids since ancient times, said Mr. Downing of Fairchild Garden. “They were depicted as jewels of the forest.” Orchid species can be found all over the world, except the Sahara Desert and Antarctica, he said. “Even in Siberia.”
The current fascination is an outgrowth of the late 1800s, when a craze called “orchidelirium” took hold, Mr. Downing said. The orchid became a symbol of rarity, wealth and aristocracy. The wealthy would send orchid hunters to take the flowers from their native forests. Sometimes they would burn the forest down so they could have exclusivity of that particular orchid, he said.
When Henry Flagler extended his East Coast Railway through South Florida in the late 1800s, “the trees were dripping in orchids,” Mr. Downing said. “In my opinion, orchids were likely the first resource taken out of South Florida,” even before the logging of cypress trees for lumber, he said. Wagonload upon wagonload of orchids would be shipped by rail up north to become disposable houseplants, he said. “When they stopped flowering, they threw them out.”
When the Tamiami Trail was built across Florida in the early 20th century, the route went right through the area where the highest density of native orchids grew, he said.
Fairchild’s 83-acre botanical garden has about 50,000 orchids. “We do source orchids from around the world,” Mr. Downing said. He has traveled to the Caribbean islands, Asia, Malaysia, Borneo, China and Vietnam in his search.
Fairchild differs from other botanical gardens in that they are permanently attaching the majority of their orchid collection to trees, he said. The American Orchid Society has also been headquartered at Fairchild since 2012.
In West Palm Beach, the 16-acre Mounts Botanical Garden is the oldest and largest botanical garden in Palm Beach County. West Palm Beach is still known as “The Orchid City,” said Joel Crippen, horticulturist at Mounts Botanical.
The garden is kicking off the “Year of the Orchid” for its 2022-2023 season. The year-long tribute will include special exhibits, events and presentations and the garden will begin planting 1,000 new orchid plants, said Rochelle Wolberg, Mounts curator-director.
While orchids propagated in gardens and grown commercially keep increasing in numbers and popularity, native orchids are in trouble. Florida has 106 native orchids, with about 58 of them listed as endangered and protected by the state, according to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Since there are more than 200 native orchids in all of North America, Florida is home to about half.
One of the main reasons Ms. Rosenfeld joined an organization, she said, is to promote the importance of preserving the native orchids found in South Florida and Cuba. “It’s a worthwhile thing to do for prosperity. The habitat is disappearing. Trees are mowed down to build communities.” She has lived 54 years in Florida, about 30 of them in Naples, she said. In the last five years, she’s seen a seeming nonstop acceleration in development and population. She wants the orchids to be placed on the trees they have an affinity for.
At Fairchild Garden, Mr. Downing leads The Million Orchid Project, the nation’s largest educational outreach program dedicated to orchid conservation. The goal is to place 1 million orchids in urban areas. When they started the project, no orchids were left in the urban landscape.
So far, nearly 500,000 orchids are now planted and flowering across the Miami area for the first time in 60 to 80 years, he said. The plan is to extend it gradually elsewhere in Florida. “West Palm Beach — we’re working on that right now.” On Florida’s west coast, an initial planting is going on in Lehigh Acres in Lee County, he said.
Mr. Downing was tasked with developing an education and outreach program as well as curriculum for schools.
“The program is driven exclusively by students and volunteers,” Mr. Downing said.
Populations of native orchids decline because of habitat loss, development, changing hydrology and the impacts of climate change, scientists and conservationists say.
Over-collecting native orchids and poaching of endangered orchids continues to be a problem.
“The orchid is the most-poached type of plant in the world,” said Mr. Crippen of Mounts Botanical.
Perhaps the most famous of the native Florida orchids is the endangered ghost orchid. There are about 1,500 to 2,000 left, with the majority in the Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida. They are also found in in Cuba.
The ethereal-looking orchid is white with petals that look like long curling tendrils. Its roots wrap around trees and there are no leaves, so it looks like it’s floating in mid-air.
The ghost orchid gained notoriety through the book “The Orchid Thief,” and the later movie, “Adaptation,” based on the real-life tale of a Naples man, John Laroche, who stole several ghost orchids in 1994 from Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, adjacent to the Big Cypress.
Ordinarily you would have to search through the wilds of Florida swamps to find a ghost orchid, but the largest specimen ever found can be seen in Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples. Discovered in 2007, the “Super Ghost” blooms annually, usually June through August, but it has also been known to bloom every month of the year.
Several conservation groups filed a petition in January with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the ghost orchid protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The poaching continues. The petition states that as recently as the summer of 2020 many individual ghost orchids were poached from the Big Cypress.
At a Gulf Coast Alliance meeting, Joy Erickson proudly showed a photo of one of her orchids that had just been given an award by the membership. She has about 250 orchids.
They make her feel connected with the earth, she said. “It makes me feel more grounded. I go out there and completely forget about anything else. It is an actual escape from reality. I talk to them all the time.”
What does she say to her orchids? “I love you, baby.” ¦
Really nice article!! I’ve been putting orchids in trees around our neighborhood for many years now here in Forest Glen. Great to have the word spread.
Rae Jean Walker