- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006

BOLINAS, Calif. (AP) — They’re temperamental but tough, sensitive yet strong. They bloom infrequently but beautifully.

Some say figuring out how to make orchids thrive at home can be as challenging as raising children. And like parents packing children off to camp, orchid lovers across the country are paying hundreds of dollars each month to professionals to take care of the plants when they’re not in bloom.

“I have the sickness,” said Jeff Doney, a San Francisco architect who estimates his collection of 200 orchids is worth $10,000. He spends $300 a month boarding his plants at California Orchids in Bolinas.

“The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession” by Susan Orlean about the shady, sleazy world of orchid poaching, and Spike Jonze’s film “Adaptation,” based on the book, have only added to the orchidelirium, the name Victorians gave orchid-collecting fever.

Specialists conservatively estimate there are 25,000 varieties of orchids, excluding hybrids. The flowers are magnificent: reds and pinks, whites and yellows, speckled and striped; some have softball-sized blossoms, others sport flowers so tiny they need to be tilted upward with a pinkie fingernail.

Orchids are big business. Worldwide, the retail economy in orchids adds up to about $9 billion; in the U.S., wholesalers ship nearly 8.5 million plants a year.

Improvements in breeding and production have resulted in plants that look flashier, last longer and cost less. In the early 1980s, the Phalaenopsis, the most popular type of orchid, sold for about $40. Now, one costs as little as $10 at Home Depot.

Mary Nisbet, the owner of California Orchids, boards about 12,000 plants in five temperature-controlled greenhouses for 200 customers. She and five employees repot, fertilize and water the orchids in their care.

Every Friday, they set aside the plants that are beginning to bloom, notify their owners and deliver them to their homes. When the blooms fade, a driver retrieves the plant.

Vienna Anderson, who has 15 flowering plants in her Richmond home, switched from buying fresh flowers every week to orchids.

“I like the serenity of the plant,” she said. “I like the beauty of the plant.”

Miss Anderson spends about $50 a month boarding her 45 plants at Chadwick and Son Orchids in Powhatan, Va.

“We find we’re much like the guy in the wealthy neighborhood where someone’s cutting the lawn, someone’s trimming the bushes,” owner Art Chadwick said. “We’re taking care of the orchids.”

Most orchids typically bloom once or twice a year, some for just a few weeks at a time.

Mr. Doney, the San Francisco architect, is fighting his addiction. He recently reduced his monthly bill from $500 by weeding out less desirable plants. And he’s trying to buy fewer new ones, although he’s constantly tempted by an endless parade of new breeds and hybrids.

“Everyone’s interested in them,” Mr. Doney said. “They’re a good conversation piece.”

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