Orchids: Not just a Specialty Crop Anymore

June 12, 2003 - 09:51

Orchids are going through a transformation from specialty crop to common décor.

Scientists have recently discovered that orchids are members
of the asparagus family. According to the researchers, the find is a
breakthrough in modern plant genetics. What does that mean for orchids; are we
supposed to chop them up and serve them with hollandaise? No, but there are
some new things going on with orchids that are just as exciting as joining the
food chain.

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

All the Popularity

Five to ten years ago, orchids were primarily bought by
collectors at orchid shows for hundreds of dollars. Now, people are requesting
the long-blooming flowers at an all time high, and from every imaginable
source, to decorate their homes. What variety does the average consumer want
for this purpose? According to Larry Ohlman from Ohlman Farm and Greenhouses
Inc., Toledo, Ohio, "By far, phalaenopsis, the common moth orchid, is the
best 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 at
the 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 really
changed," said Gene Hausermann from Orchids by Hausermann, Inc., Villa
Park, Ill. One advantage is that growers have mastered the effects of growing
all year long as opposed to just when the plant is in season, allowing them to
grow more plants and build a larger market. Growing more plants means that they
can retail for less money than the previous years when prices were in the
hundreds, enabling more people to buy because they can afford to.

Another factor that is helping bring orchids into the market
is the use of tissue culture. A number of growers are working with tissue
culture because it allows more orchids in less time for less money. Don DeLeon
from DeLeon's Bromeliads, Goulds and Mt. Dora, Fla., explains, "Because of
tissue culture, we are able to take expensive, rare plants and multiply them
into large quantities. That's what's new on the market. Americlones are these
excellent new varieties." People want what they can afford, and mass
producing orchids in new ways that can add more colors, spikes and other
exciting things to the plants is a good way to do it. The demand is from the
customer, and if new methods arise that can help with the demand, growers might
see a hike in overall profits.

Heating and Cooling

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

Cooling phalaenopsis at night brings forth flower spikes, so
using lighting, fans, cooling pads and even air conditioning can help the
flowers bloom. Orchids by Hausermann utilizes temperature controlling with
lighting 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 Bromeliads
uses air conditioning at one facility and fans and lighting at another.
DeLeon's Bromeliads works with cooling pads to cool off the crops. Growers have
obviously found success with many different cooling processes.

Phalaenopsis is not the only orchid crop that needs
temperature control. Crops such as catalayas need different temperature care
because 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 as
catalayas, you can change blooming seasons -- for instance, a catalaya that
would bloom in March, we can get it to bloom at Mother's Day just by putting
lights on it in the fall at night," said Hausermann. "Just a small
amount of light at night delays blooming, so a natural March bloomer will bloom
in May."

The same type of process happens with dendrobium orchids and
other similar types. "The dendrobium orchids are warmer growers; when they
get cold, they tend to fall apart," explains DeLeon. That means they have
to be treated differently than phalaenopsis and grown differently to be
successful. With fewer fans, no air conditioning and more light, dendrobium
will do much better.

Décor Helps Sales

One of the most obvious changes since the increase in orchid
popularity has been the container the plant comes in. Many growers now use
ceramic or terracotta pots with their finished orchid product. Adding a heavier
container, such as terracotta, also has a very practical advantage: It helps
plants stand up straight instead of being pulled over by the weight of the
blooms and the light media. Another reason for the terracotta is, according to
DeLeon, "We don't like to use colored pots. We like neutral because the
orchid flowers are so beautiful by themselves, we don't want to take away from
that." The trend seems to be toward whitewash, soft glazed pots and
decorative baskets as the most used pot upgrade for orchids.

Growers are also experimenting with larger sized pots, as
well as combination planters. Ohlman explains, "We're doing quite a few
combination planters -- two orchids in an 8-inch, three in a 10-inch, four in a
12-inch and five in a 14- to 16- inch. That's impressive to look at; you talk
about a focal point for a vestibule or a foyer." More and more, decorative
orchids are being used as backgrounds in consumer magazines, weddings,
restaurants, etc., and people are seeing that and wanting it for their own

Orchids are also widely used in the gift market, so baskets
are being added to bring a little more pizzazz to the already extravagant
plant. Some growers and retailers allow the customer to choose the basket and
the 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 a
real tight consumer battle," explains Herndon. "I don't consider
other growers our competitor; we're competing with other consumer things like
videos and chocolates and other consumer items. People have only so much
discretionary income, and they have to make a choice -- it's not my orchid
against somebody else's orchid; it's my orchid against movie rentals, chocolate
and wine. As consumer products improve in value to consumers, we have to be
more competitive as an industry to maintain any sort of share," Herndon
added. However, if growers keep working their décor and adding more
exciting new products to their line, orchid gift giving will rise to the

Even though researchers argue that orchids are millions of
years old, it is only within the past decade that people are really noticing
them. Ohlman puts it best, "Diversification is the key to our livelihood
and survival in the industry. And it looks like orchids are a really good
choice in that regard -- to diversify both product line and customer base. It
serves a twofold purpose, and it looks like that is the direction orchids are
going to take." There are varieties added to the list every year that
catch the eye of consumers; as long as they are still in demand, growers will
continue to have success with the plant.

About The Author

Catherine Evans is associate editor of GPN. She can be reached by phone at (847) 391-1050 or E-mail at cevans@sgcmail.com.

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