Here's Looking at You Orchid
Once Rare, Now They're Cheap, But Will They Bloom? We Do the Windowsill Test

By Danielle Reed
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Not long ago, Ellen Ronis was looking for a quick plant fix, so she grabbed 100 potted plants at the local Home Depot for about $20 each. Was she after geranium? Tulips?

Nope, orchids.

Orchids? Once the sole province of moneyed collectors, these persnickety flowers have become this winter's hot indoor plant and increasingly an alternative to cut flowers. Nationwide sales are up 50% over two years, with 2001 sales estimated at about $121 million. And with prices down 40% in five years, they're leaving other plants behind, trailing only poinsettias as the nation's top-selling flowering potted plant.

Indeed, some buyers are downright cavalier about the once-precious plants. New Yorker Doug Garr and his wife now pick them up and discard them regularly. "They eventually die, and you get another," says Mr. Carr.

That's a far cry from the days when rich collectors combed faraway jungles in search of this exotic blossom. In 1992, the orchid industry was reshaped by Hurricane Andrew. Florida nurseries spent insurance money on hightech, automated orchid greenhouses, and prices tumbled. Today consumers can buy dendrobiums, phalaenopsis and oncidiums-some of the easier-to-care-for varieties-anywhere from Costco to the local grocery store.

But will they bloom or even live-in a beginner's hands? To find out, we tested five plants, all but one under $30, from big-box retailers and Web outlets. Then we brought in two experts-Rozalia Rau, a grower for four decades, and Marilyn Shapiro, treasurer for the Greater New York Orchid Society to judge our purchases. Then we put the plants to the ultimate test: two weeks on our windowsill.

First thing we learned is: Orchids are weird. Most are epiphytes, or air plants, meaning they cling to tree bark rather than burrowing in dirt. You can fake them out by filling a pot with bark, but because the roots aren't worried about staying "underground," they grow out of the pot for a bizarre Medusa effect. Of course, they can yield stunning flowers a living Georgia O'Keeffe painting in your own home. But someone forgot to tell some of our plants about that part. Here are the results:

THE DIRT: By far our cheapest plant, but if you're buying from a mass-market retailer, it pays to be there the day the orchid truck arrives. We shopped at a New York Home Depot a week after the shipment came, and found a dozen plants, shivering in the dim warehouse. A spokesman says many, but not all, stores have employees trained in orchid care, and says plants can last a considerable time on display, particularly in stores close to growers.

We bought the best of the lot, but our experts said its buds had "blasted," meaning they weren't likely to open. "This is not a happy plant," said Ms. Rau. Big retailers try to time their shipments so plants are in bloom or "spike!' (meaning with buds) boosting the odds of your seeing actual flowers. But after two weeks, all four of our buds had fallen off.

Olomana Orchids
Dendrobium hybrid (hot pinkish/purple), $24.15 (shipping included)
THE DIRT: The runner-up in our test. It arrived from this 30-year-old family nursery in Hawaii in great shape, with two spikes with six buds on them, two of which were in bloom. And it stayed that way, with two of the remaining four violet-magenta buds opening by the end of two weeks. The rest might have bloomed, too, but our experts said dendrobiums, which grow high in the trees near the sun, need more than the merely semi-bright light in our apartment. Artificial fight can help, says Ms. Shapiro, but "it has to be full spectrum." read: pricey special fight bulbs.

Discount Orchids.com
Dendrobium "Miss Singapore" $17.99 ($12.12 shipping)
THE DIRT: This Florida-based online store caters mostly to serious orchid hobbyists rather than novices. How can you tell? Plants on the site are specific hybrid crosses like the baffling "P. speciosa 'tetraspis' x P. iamellighnra" meaningful to knowledgeable growers, maybe, but it's all Greek (or is that Latin?) to us. Thankfully, there are pictures. But the site doesn't guarantee that plants will be shipped in bloom, or even in bud. For a beginner, like us, that could be a problem, warned Ms.Shapiro.

And she was right. Our pedigreed, not-yet-blooming hybrid was healthier than our Home Depot plant, Ms. Shapiro said, but that didn't mean we'd get flowers. Ms. Rau offered some firm advice for coaxing out the blossoms: Move it right up to the south-facing window. "It'll bloom," she said. We did. It still hasn't.

Dendrobium hybrid (purple), $29.95 ($19.95 shipping)
THE DIRT: One of the risks of buying online, of course, is that you don't know the plant's condition until it lands on your doorstep. This not-yet-blooming orchid from a grower in California (the site connects buyers directly with growers) came with an impressive 2 feet of growth-and brown spots on the leaves. Our experts diagnosed a bacterial or a fungal infection. Soon, most of the leaves turned yellow and dropped off.

If we'd known better, we could have asked for a replacement right away (like all the online stores we bought from, 18880rchids.com guarantees safe arrival). "It's most likely a problem that happened during shipping," says owner Steve Peralta, who says the plants are healthy when they're sent out. Ms. Rau also suggested repotting to change the bark, but we were afraid of damaging the roots a big risk with orchids.

Beautiful Orchids.com
Vuylstekeara hybrid $75 (shipping additional)
THE DIRT: Our winner by a long shot. Geared to gift-buyers instead of hobbyists, the site makes a point of only selling plants in bloom. It cost more than our other plants, but the company concedes there is another option: It sells not-yet-blooming orchid on eBay for $15 or so, a business that's up almost sixfold from six months ago, the company says. But with those, you have to know what you're doing.

This plant came with one flower spike with five butterfly-shaped pinkish-purple flowers bloom. More buds have since opened and even after weeks in flower; they have yet to fade, despite our worst efforts. And while the price tag is pretty steep, it did include two-day shipping, a decorative basket and, of course, those O'Keeffe quality blooms.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2002, pW10