Orchid Fever

Sexy. Sensuous. Stunning. That's how you can describe the orchids at the Atlanta Botanical Garden's Fuqua Orchid Center. Clinton Ross Smith chats with Greenhouse Manager Becky Brinkman on Atlanta's newfound love affair with the exotic darlings.


Clinton Ross Smith: Okay, so why are orchids so alluring?

Becky Brinkman:
You know, even after 20 years I wake up every morning and canít wait to get to the greenhouse. There’s such a sense of excitement and discovery every time a new flower opens. It’s a balm, an effervescent tonic that never loses its fizz. People need that. The desire to create or experience a serene, sensual environment is not a frivolous one, particularly in a culture that spends so much of its time in arid, fluorescent interiors.

CRS: There are trends with everything – interiors, fashion, etc. Are orchids riding a wave of newfound popularity? They’re $10 at Target and Home Depot!

BB: That’s an astute observation. There are trends in ornamental horticulture, just as there are in fashion, and the two seem to parallel each other, oddly enough. I was astonished and amused to see the revival of ’70s-era terrarium plants recently at Pike’s. Remember the plants we used to stuff into glass brandy snifters – while wearing platform shoes? Theyíre back!

Trends in the orchid industry are not as cyclical. The tremendous number of new hybrids released into the market every year means that many orchid hybrids seem to vanish completely after a few years. And cheap mass production of certain orchids only stimulates the demand for new varieties.

CRS: What’s the biggest misconception about orchids?

BB: That they are the domain of thieves, obsessives and other crazies – the lunatic fringe, in other words. Or at least that’s the notion that the popular press has fostered. Not true!

CRS: So who should grow orchids?

BB: Everyone should. (Perseverance produces character, right?) The key to success with orchids is twofold: first, to have an understanding of your plant as an epiphyte; and second to take the time to observe how your plant changes and responds to its environment over time. Of course this requires some patience and commitment.

CRS: What are some of the easiest orchids to grow at home?

BB: Given that light is often the biggest limiting factor indoors, I would recommend a Phalaenopsis (Moth Orchid) or Paphiopedilum (Asian slipper orchid) for a low-light room (i.e., east or north exposure). Rooms that have a brighter exposure (west or south) offer more options. You could try Oncidiums, Dendrobiums or Cattleyas.

CRS: People think of orchids as strictly tropical plants. That’s not true, is it?

BB: No, you’re quite right. While the vast majority of the 30,000 orchid species occur in the tropics, 56 species occur right here in Georgia.

CRS: What types of resources are available for serious growers and collectors? Do rare orchids really fetch thousands of dollars?

BB: There is no better resource available to orchid hobbyists than the American Orchid Society. They offer a tremendous range of materials and information to their members. The Atlanta affiliate is an active thriving group. They meet at ABG on the second Monday of every month.

Newly discovered species and their hybrids often fetch thousands of dollars when they first appear on the market. The prices generally fall after the plants have been put into large-scale production. Sometimes very select clones of certain hybrids will sell for extraordinarily high prices. There is a thriving retail niche that caters to the high-end market, particularly in Japan. There will always be customers who are willing to pay these prices. I am not one of them.

CRS: People are often the unexpected recipients of orchids, and, oftentimes, the orchid doesn’t have a fighting chance with novice growers. Complete this sentence: “If you receive an orchid from a florist or buy one as a gift, you should…”

BB: …attend one of the Orchid Care Clinics at the Atlanta Botanical Garden to learn how to water, fertilize and repot your orchid. We also discuss how to create the right environment for an indoor orchid. (The clinics take place the last Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. until noon in the Georgia Pacific classroom of the Fuqua Orchid Center.) Or register for one of our Orchids for Beginners classes. Check class listings on our Web site, atlantabotanicalgarden.org.

CRS: I’ll do just that!