Cathie O'Rourke, co-owner of PressCheck Printing & Graphics, a three-person company in Bloomington, Minn., was a serious backyard gardener until a back injury 10 years ago. Soon after selling her house and moving into an apartment, she received an orchid as a housewarming gift. It was a magenta dendrobium, a blossom often found atop tropical cocktails. "Real ordinary," she says. It captivated her anyway. "It bloomed for six months and I thought, what am I going to do when it's out of bloom?"
O'Rourke's answer was to buy more. The 63-year-old has filled her St. Paul home with some 100 orchids, including her favorite miniatures, such as neofinetias, a Japanese variety she discovered through her local grower, and a four-inch-high Leptotes bicolor that recently sported 100 half-inch blooms. "You need a magnifying glass if you want to see detail," explains O'Rourke. She also has an exotic orchid from Madagascar that fascinated Charles Darwin: Angraecum sesquipedale, which has a large, star-shaped white flower with a long spur at its base.
For O'Rourke and for many like her, growing orchids is an obsession. Orchids now rank behind only poinsettias in sales of potted plants, with 15.6 million sold in 2003, a 17% jump from the year before, according to the U.S. Agriculture Dept. One reason is that people are discovering orchids aren't as hard to grow as they thought, says Steven Royer, director of program development for the 24,000-member American Orchid Society in Delray Beach, Fla. "They're actually easier than many houseplants," he says. "They thrive on neglect."
Prices are coming down, too, as more varieties are mass-produced. You can start your collection with a $10 or $20 potted orchid, although species and hybrids that can't be propagated quickly or easily cost more. A good place to learn about orchids is the American Orchid Society's Web site, www.aos.org, which has tips for beginners, growing information on the 13 major orchid genera (or categories), and a directory of orchid societies. There's also a calendar of orchid shows. Attend one and you'll see hundreds of species and hybrids on exhibit and for sale. You can also grill growers about which orchids -- out of more than 20,000 species -- will thrive (or survive) in your home. Two suitable for novices are the light-loving oncidium, with a spike of vividly colored blossoms, and paphiopedlum, or slipper orchid, a moisture-loving species that bears a single flower. "The nice thing about lady slippers is that the blooms last a long time," says Norman Mizuno, co-owner of Haiku Maui Orchids in Makawao, Hawaii. Both varieties, along with miniature cattleyas (the "corsage" orchid) and phalaenopsis, are good for growing indoors, he says.
NOT SO FAST
No matter which variety you choose, buy a plant that is blooming or has already bloomed at least once, Mizuno says, because it will have a better chance of blooming again. Leave the orchid in the pot it came in to give it time to acclimate to your home -- especially if the orchid is not from a local grower. Most orchids require water once a week, but if your home is hot, they may need more. Use a low-nitrogen fertilizer or you'll have "big green plants with very few flowers," Mizuno says.
Most of all, an orchid grower needs patience. "A lot of times these plants need a year in a new location before they're willing to bloom," says O'Rourke, who recently splurged on a $2,000 orchidarium, a tabletop greenhouse with controlled light, humidity, and airflow. If you're lucky, your orchid will reward you with gorgeous blooms at the same time next year.
By Christine Summerson