Orchids: Not just a Specialty Crop Anymore By Catherine Evans

Scientists have recently discovered that orchids are membersof the asparagus family. According to the researchers, the find is abreakthrough in modern plant genetics. What does that mean for orchids; are wesupposed to chop them up and serve them with hollandaise? No, but there aresome new things going on with orchids that are just as exciting as joining thefood chain.

In the past few years, orchids have become less of aspecialty crop and more of an every day staple. People from all over the worldare requesting more and more of the plants each year to add some pizzazz totheir homes. Growers are accommodating, and the orchids are flying off theshelves. The big question is how do they do it?

All the Popularity

Five to ten years ago, orchids were primarily bought bycollectors at orchid shows for hundreds of dollars. Now, people are requestingthe long-blooming flowers at an all time high, and from every imaginablesource, to decorate their homes. What variety does the average consumer wantfor this purpose? According to Larry Ohlman from Ohlman Farm and GreenhousesInc., Toledo, Ohio, “By far, phalaenopsis, the common moth orchid, is thebest seller. From what we see, that’s probably 85 percent of the market.”Other orchid growers agree. The majority of sales go to phalaenopsis because,”It’s a great value. The flowers last for three months on phalaenopsis,and they’re not that much more expensive at retail than other flowering plants,”said Kerry Herndon from Kerry’s Bromeliads, Homestead and Apopka, Fla.

People want something that is going to last and look nice atthe same time. “In dollars, orchids are the second largest in the country,and that’s not per unit — that’s in dollars. You can see how it’s reallychanged,” said Gene Hausermann from Orchids by Hausermann, Inc., VillaPark, Ill. One advantage is that growers have mastered the effects of growingall year long as opposed to just when the plant is in season, allowing them togrow more plants and build a larger market. Growing more plants means that theycan retail for less money than the previous years when prices were in thehundreds, enabling more people to buy because they can afford to.

Another factor that is helping bring orchids into the marketis the use of tissue culture. A number of growers are working with tissueculture because it allows more orchids in less time for less money. Don DeLeonfrom DeLeon’s Bromeliads, Goulds and Mt. Dora, Fla., explains, “Because oftissue culture, we are able to take expensive, rare plants and multiply theminto large quantities. That’s what’s new on the market. Americlones are theseexcellent new varieties.” People want what they can afford, and massproducing orchids in new ways that can add more colors, spikes and otherexciting things to the plants is a good way to do it. The demand is from thecustomer, and if new methods arise that can help with the demand, growers mightsee a hike in overall profits.

Heating and Cooling

Orchids are very particular when it comes to their hot andcold preferences. That makes it difficult for growers to work around theorchid’s schedule; however, growers are using different methods of automationto help the tricky plants grow year-round. The most popular type of orchidgrown, phalaenopsis, likes cool temperatures, and growers have to rely ondifferent methods to cool them, even in warm weather.

Cooling phalaenopsis at night brings forth flower spikes, sousing lighting, fans, cooling pads and even air conditioning can help theflowers bloom. Orchids by Hausermann utilizes temperature controlling withlighting to control its orchid crops. While Ohlman Farm and Greenhouses Inc.has installed HAF fans to cool down its best orchid crop at night. Kerry’s Bromeliadsuses air conditioning at one facility and fans and lighting at another.DeLeon’s Bromeliads works with cooling pads to cool off the crops. Growers haveobviously found success with many different cooling processes.

Phalaenopsis is not the only orchid crop that needstemperature control. Crops such as catalayas need different temperature carebecause they don’t always bloom at the time when there is a demand for them.”With a little bit of temperature variation on varieties such ascatalayas, you can change blooming seasons — for instance, a catalaya thatwould bloom in March, we can get it to bloom at Mother’s Day just by puttinglights on it in the fall at night,” said Hausermann. “Just a smallamount of light at night delays blooming, so a natural March bloomer will bloomin May.”

The same type of process happens with dendrobium orchids andother similar types. “The dendrobium orchids are warmer growers; when theyget cold, they tend to fall apart,” explains DeLeon. That means they haveto be treated differently than phalaenopsis and grown differently to besuccessful. With fewer fans, no air conditioning and more light, dendrobiumwill do much better.

DŽcor Helps Sales

One of the most obvious changes since the increase in orchidpopularity has been the container the plant comes in. Many growers now useceramic or terracotta pots with their finished orchid product. Adding a heaviercontainer, such as terracotta, also has a very practical advantage: It helpsplants stand up straight instead of being pulled over by the weight of theblooms and the light media. Another reason for the terracotta is, according toDeLeon, “We don’t like to use colored pots. We like neutral because theorchid flowers are so beautiful by themselves, we don’t want to take away fromthat.” The trend seems to be toward whitewash, soft glazed pots anddecorative baskets as the most used pot upgrade for orchids.

Growers are also experimenting with larger sized pots, aswell as combination planters. Ohlman explains, “We’re doing quite a fewcombination planters — two orchids in an 8-inch, three in a 10-inch, four in a12-inch and five in a 14- to 16- inch. That’s impressive to look at; you talkabout a focal point for a vestibule or a foyer.” More and more, decorativeorchids are being used as backgrounds in consumer magazines, weddings,restaurants, etc., and people are seeing that and wanting it for their owndŽcor.

Orchids are also widely used in the gift market, so basketsare being added to bring a little more pizzazz to the already extravagantplant. Some growers and retailers allow the customer to choose the basket andthe flower to be shipped as a gift to people all over the country. However,there is a small problem with being part of the gift market, “We’re in areal tight consumer battle,” explains Herndon. “I don’t considerother growers our competitor; we’re competing with other consumer things likevideos and chocolates and other consumer items. People have only so muchdiscretionary income, and they have to make a choice — it’s not my orchidagainst somebody else’s orchid; it’s my orchid against movie rentals, chocolateand wine. As consumer products improve in value to consumers, we have to bemore competitive as an industry to maintain any sort of share,” Herndonadded. However, if growers keep working their dŽcor and adding moreexciting new products to their line, orchid gift giving will rise to theoccasion.

Even though researchers argue that orchids are millions ofyears old, it is only within the past decade that people are really noticingthem. Ohlman puts it best, “Diversification is the key to our livelihoodand survival in the industry. And it looks like orchids are a really goodchoice in that regard — to diversify both product line and customer base. Itserves a twofold purpose, and it looks like that is the direction orchids aregoing to take.” There are varieties added to the list every year thatcatch the eye of consumers; as long as they are still in demand, growers willcontinue to have success with the plant.

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Catherine Evans

Catherine Evans is associate editor of GPN. She can be reached by phone at (847) 391-1050 or E-mail at [email protected]

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