I've had a long and funny relationship with orchids. Selling them in our stores, shipping them to different parts of the country, or just buying them for my home, orchids are a lot like people in that they never fail to surprise me and, like me, are full of contradictions. They grow just about everywhere in the world and are an odd combination of tough and fragile - needing some very specific environmental conditions to grow and then needing entirely different conditions to produce a bloom. I have a few at home pretty much all the time since I'm fortunate enough to live in a part of the world where the conditions for growing them are ideal. I am also fortunate enough professionally to have a reason to visit an orchid farm on occasion - my most recent trip coming just this week, in time for the build up to Valentine's Day.
Walking into an orchid green house is an otherworldly experience. The optimal temperature for orchid growing is identical to the ideal zone for people (65 to 75°F), the humity is high but not overly so and the room is alive with vivid splashes of color. The farm I visited this week had some 60,000 plants in bloom - the grower explained these were plants staged for Valentine's Day shipping across the country. Walking through the greenhouse is like entering a giant room full of happy children - you can't help but smile at this intense concentration of beauty.
Orchids grow in a remarkable range of climate zones: from the Equadoral tropics to near the north and south poles. The Orchid family of plants is also extremely old, with fossilized evidence dating back more than 15 million years. Orchids are certainly valued for their prized blossoms and fragrances but the plant has a practical side as well - vanilla, a common commercial flavoring, owes its origins to the orchid family of plants.
The most common orchid variety produced commercially is the Phanaenopsis (pronounced fay-lee-in-op-sis), a scentless multi-bloom variety with a dizzying color and size range. Developing a new color or enhancing a desirable characteristic requires patience and perseverance - plants with a new look can commonly take as many as six years to develop and bring to market. The production of established varieties is also long and painstaking - from "flask" (tissue culture take from the stem of the mother plant) to finished product is an almost two year journey.
One of the odd things about orchids is the process that growers use to trick the plant into producing a bloom. Cool weather triggers the reproductive cycle for orchids so while the plant likes a moderate to warm climate to grow, it needs a period of nippy weather to produce a flower. In coastal California, Mother Nature provides this chill naturally in the fall and winter. In places like Florida and in the summer season, growers place orchids in large coolers to simulate the same conditions.
A new trend among producers is the mini-orchid. Growers are experimenting with smaller plant and pot sizes to reduce growth time (and it's associated expense). The effort is producing some positive results in shipping as well - another area where conditions must be exacting otherwise the plant will stress and drop its blossoms. Plant breeding is also focused on ways to coax plants into producing multiple "spikes" and blooms. Growers will often experiment with different temperature, humidity and light conditions to determine which are best for each plant. Oftentimes this experimentation will produce accidental characteristics that are both positive or negative and the plant itself will also naturally produce genetic irregularities - again, like us (ex: the one blond cousin in a family of brunettes).
I like orchids because the relationship is longer than with most blooming plants. Orchids are a nice kitchen and bath flower that will last a long time and needs little maintenance. The slightly higher humidity of these two rooms is ideal for the plant. I've had orchids that have bloomed for upwards of four months - the blossoms fading to a softer hue before finally dropping. I have also had very good luck getting mine to rebloom the following year with just a little effort and love. In contrast to the fleeting beauty of cut flowers and the rugged rewards of my outside garden, an orchid is more of a companion. A friend who is particular and knows what they like, just like me.