Orchid Sales Move to #2

May 27, 2005 - 12:26

One of the latest USDA statistics shows that orchids are near the top of the best-selling potted flowering plants in the United States second only to poinsettias, according to Texas A&M University.

However, Yin-Tung Wang, associate professor at the Texas Agricultural Research and Extension Center for Texas A&M University, recalls rejection letters he received from the nursery industry 13 years ago when he proposed researching potted orchids.

"They told me scientific research of orchids would not have an impact on the industry," said Wang. "They just couldn't see what I saw in my crystal ball."

Undaunted and with limited funds, the horticulturist began his research in 1990. By 1996, potted orchid sales were so strong that the USDA began including them in their annual floriculture crop survey, according to the university.

"Between 2003 and 2004, while most plants declined in sales," Wang said, "the wholesale value of potted orchids grew by 5 percent, and the number of pots sold increased by 14 percent to 17.2 million pots. If sales continue at the same rate, orchids will exceed the value of poinsettias by 2020 to become the most valued potted floral plant in the country."

During the same period, the wholesale value of poinsettias grew by only 1 percent, ending several years of declining sales for the traditional Christmas plants, according to Texas A&M. Despite the larger growth rate of orchid sales in 2004, the wholesale value of poinsettias is $250 million, almost double that of orchids.

Wang said 90 percent of the potted orchids sold in the United States are moth orchids, or phalaenopsis, the plant that drew his attention to orchids while on a trip to his native Taiwan in 1990.
"I just knew it would be a huge crop in the U.S., but industry leaders didn't believe me. They said it had no chance, and they refused to fund my research," he said.

A review of published scientific research revealed that information on how to grow orchids existed only for hobbyists; little research was available for large scale, commercial orchid production.
By the end of 1990, Wang began his original studies to improve cultural production techniques and to control flowering so growers could produce moth orchids that bloomed year round.

Once Wang began publishing his findings, the nursery industry began feeling the impact, according to Texas A&M. Sales in the United States began to rise steadily, as much as 15-20 percent each year in the late 1990s.

Wang gained the reputation in the nursery business as "the" potted orchid expert, according to the university. Commercial nurseries nationwide began calling on Wang for his expertise.

Wang now has collaborative research programs with colleagues at Michigan State University and in Taiwan. But despite a proven track record, promising sales and a need for developing advanced technology, he said research funding remains tight.

However, one of the country's largest potted orchid producers, Matsui Nursery in Salinas, Caif., recently gave Wang a $20,000 research grant. Matsui produces about one quarter of the nation's orchids, with an annual wholesale value of about $30 million, according to the university.

The increasing sales figures of orchids are gratifying, Wang said, because they verify that he researched the right plant at the right time. He's also pleased to see so many potted orchids in the movies, in fashion and gardening magazines, as backdrops to TV interviews, on shopping channels and in newspapers.

"All that exposure helps sales. People are attracted to the long blooms on plants that can last up to four months, sometimes longer," Wang said. "And commercial growers are attracted to the plants because they can produce revenues of $60-200 per year per square foot of nursery space, versus $5 for poinsettias or $4 for tropical plants."

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