Growth Rate? Let's Talk Orchids

When Texaco CEO James Kinnear and two other prominent executives took a few minutes to shoot the breeze at a meeting on education reform, they didn't talk football, golf, or the economy. Their topic of discussion was more flowery--orchids, to be exact.

Raising and collecting orchids is all the rage among executives and other hobbyists, who derive satisfaction and serenity from coaxing colorful, fragrant blooms out of these mysterious plants. With more than 30,000 species, each orchid seems to have a unique temperament and beauty.

MULCH ADO. But for all its rewards, the orchid habit can be time-consuming, costly, and frustrating. One day you might have a plant that appears to be thriving, and the next day it's ready for the compost heap. So if you're thinking of taking up the hobby, Keith Lloyd, curator ef orchids for the New York Botanical Garden, suggests starting with a reputable supplier who can help you solve care and feeding problems. Then pick a plant from a popular genus group, such as phalaenopsis, cymbidium, or cattleya.

Major orchid houses are located nationwide--and many ship plants and supplies. They include Rod McLellan, South San Francisco (415 871-5655); Orchids by Hausermann, Villa Park, Ill. (708 543-6855); Orchid World, Miami (305 271-0268); and Kensington Orchids, Kensington, Md. (301 933-0036). You can also get information from botanical societies and at orchid shows.

Caring for orchids takes more than a green thumb. "It's not like buying petunias for the driveway," cautions veteran hobbyist Peter Maida, an executive at Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va. Orchids require specific light and humidity levels and are easily plagued by viruses and insects such as scale and aphids. "I used to joke I was raising aphids and I'm pretty good at it," says Malcolm Stamper, retired vice-chairman of Boeing. His solution was a greenhouse that electronically controls climate, watering, and spraying.

While many collections begin with a gift, the hobby can blossom into a major expense. Individual plants range from $20 to thousands of dollars each for the most exotic varieties. A $30 fluorescent light might do at first, but your investment can run into tens of thousands of dollars when your collection outgrows the bathtub and requires a properly appointed greenhouse.

For those not inclined to fuss with climate controls and moisture levels, boarding services charge about $25 a month to pick up dormant plants and return them at peak bloom a year or so later. Among the hundreds of plants in McLellan's greenhouse "spas" are cattleyas that get moved to a crypt when they're in bloom.

FLOWER ALARM. The benefits of collecting orchids can be as varied as the blooms. Stamper makes a "sporting game" of keeping a fragrant orchid over the kitchen sink and a half-dozen blooming plants in his hallway.

For one collector, an orchid proved to be a danger sign. Tom Perlite, owner of Golden Gate Orchids in San Francisco, paid a house call on adendrobium that was inexplicably drooping. After checking for drafts and excess heat, he realized the plant was suffering from exposure to gas. The leak got fixed; both the plant and the owner survived.