- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

Few flowers can claim as many human admirers as orchids. The slim-stemmed, sometimes fragrant beauties have become so popular that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of orchid groups and societies meet across the globe to trade cultivation secrets.

"What is the big deal with orchids? They're the biggest blooming family in terms of diversity in the world, and they're all beautiful," says Linda Kennedy, vice president of the National Capital Orchid Society, a local group with about 300 members.

Ms. Kennedy's group will hold its 54th annual orchid show and sale this weekend at the U.S. National Arboretum, at the intersection of 24th and R streets in Northeast.

This free event starts Saturday at 10 a.m. and will continue until 5 p.m., with tours of an orchid exhibit, sales and seminars. The schedule is the same for Sunday. On Monday the hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

One of the vendors at the show and sale will be Merritt Huntington, who owns Kensington Orchids, one of the largest orchid growers and stores in the Northeast region of the United States.

Mr. Huntington plans to bring about 20 kinds of orchids to the show. In the greenhouses and showrooms at his Kensington location, he has about 100,000 orchids of different species.

Vendors at the show will be selling orchids starting at $5 and going up to about $250, says Ms. Kennedy, who grows about 150 orchids under artificial lights in her house.

Mr. Huntington says he has seen a sharp increase in the popularity of orchids since he started selling them about 37 years ago.

"One thing that customers say is [orchids] last so much longer than cut flowers," says Mr. Huntington, who owns one orchid that's about 80 years old.

"The Phalaenopsis, for example, will bloom for three or four months," Mr. Huntington says, "and it will live for decades if treated right."

Basics in orchid care include providing humid conditions and not covering the root system completely, because that will increase chances of rotting.

Orchids are remarkably durable, however, and in the wild they have adapted to just about any type of climate. They exist in places as different as Jamaica and within 1,000 miles of Antarctica.

In the United States, the orchid has gone from mostly a cut flower used in corsages to being sold almost exclusively as a potted flower. The Phalaenopsis is the second-most-popular potted flower in the country after the poinsettia, Mr. Huntington says.

Among other popular orchids are Cattleya and Dendrobium.

Some people become so attached to their orchids they bring them along to country homes during summer or winter getaways.

"They become like friends," Mr. Huntington says.

His own attitude toward his favorite, lifelong hobby and mainstay is remarkably unsentimental.

"I fell into it, and I've done it all my life," says Mr. Huntington, who is 75 years old and started growing orchids close to 60 years ago.

Elsewhere in the world, the orchid, of which there are up to 35,000 species, is used as a remedy, flavoring and food, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The only commercial product from orchids is vanilla, grown in such places as Mexico and Madagascar. In parts of Malaysia, women take a drink made from boiled leaves to prevent sickness after childbirth.

The word orchid is derived from the Greek word "orchis," for testicle because of the shape of the roots of certain varieties. During Victorian times, Englishwomen were forbidden to own these plants because of their suggestive shapes.

This weekend, District residents and others can get an eyeful of this enigmatic, popular plant if by attending the orchid society's event.

"When you walk into the [arboretums] auditorium and you see thousands of orchids, it'll blow you away. It's nothing like you have ever seen before in your life," Ms. Kennedy promises.

The show also will feature orchid-themed jewelry, ceramics and paintings, says Yassir Islam, president of the National Capital Orchid Society. He expects as many as 3,000 people to attend the event.

"I would say anyone who appreciates natural beauty would be drawn to this event," Mr. Islam says.

For more information, call 202/245-2726.

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