Harry grew up with flowers, of course, and orchids were always around. But he resisted the addiction for many years. His brother Andy, ten years younger, was the one who first fell in love with them. Harry was supportive, though, building Andy’s greenhouses and helping him move to their grandparents’ estate in Leucadia. When Andy took an extended trip through Costa Rica, Harry was put in charge of the collection.
“I didn’t screw it up too bad,” he says. “Actually I did pretty good, considering the diversity of the collection. And then Andy went to South America for a little over two years, cycling and having fun. After his trip, he came back. Some things died, but I actually did pretty good again, and so by that time I was pretty much addicted.”
What year was that?
“He took off in ’87 and came back and got married. I run the office end of things. Sales and marketing. Andy’s the genius grower.”
Andy had entered the office while Harry was talking. Out of the corner of my eye I see he is unwrapping a package that contains small plants wrapped in newspapers, and he is throwing them into piles. When Harry mentions that he’s the genius grower, I turn to him. Andy looks up and nods, acknowledging the truth of the matter. Facts are facts. He smiles like a kid the teacher has singled out for special recognition. For some reason, he reminds me of Dave Barry.
“I told my wife when she was marrying me,” Andy says, “she was marrying somebody with plants. She would know where to find me. Not in bars, but in my greenhouse in the middle of the night.”
You’ve been collecting orchids since you were how old?
“Hard-core, since I was about seven. That’s when I first started focusing on them.”
Harry interrupts, “Yeah, but six when you got your first orchid.”
“Five or six. Probably had the Cymbidium around the age of five, and then I got a Paphiopedilum, a bloomed-out lady’s-slipper orchid, from my father’s flower shop when I was about six, and they both flowered at the same time when I was seven. And I said, ‘Dad, what’s this cool flower?’ And he said, ‘It’s a lady’s-slipper orchid.’ But I was going, ‘How can the lady’s-slipper be an orchid and the Cymbidium be an orchid?’ Totally, totally different looking.
“So I started collecting both species and hybrids. Just anything that was an orchid. I started filling up the house. First, the kitchen window, then the living room window, and then the TV room window, and then when I went into my dad’s bedroom window, he said, ‘Okay, enough of the orchids. Everything outside.’ So he ripped out my sandbox and built a lean-to greenhouse. I filled that up quickly. And being half Mexican — you know, my mom’s from Mexico and my dad’s as gringo as could be — I went to visit relatives down there in Mexico when I was 13 and 14 years old, and they asked me, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to see?’ I wanted to see orchids and how they grew in the wild. One of my uncles was going to run a hotel down in the state of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, and we drove all the way down there, and every time I would see a tree full of plants, I’d go, ‘Uncle, Uncle, stop!’ And he’d stop and I’d climb the tree and pull off some plants and bring them back down. I was just enamored with the way they attached themselves to rocks, to trees, the diversity of orchids.”
When was this?
“This was 1977 and 1978. CITES has been in force since 1972, but this was when they started enforcing it, making it regulatory. So the first year I went down there, no problem bringing plants back. The second year I had some problems bringing plants back.”
Growers and collectors of orchids sooner or later get to the subject of CITES (pronounced “sigh-tees”), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which has its headquarters in Geneva. CITES aims to protect orchids, an admirable intention, but its regulations have taken on a life of their own and, many would say, have become a perfect example of the lunacy toward which bureaucracies can evolve. I know we will have to return to this subject, but considering the agitation this arouses in orchid people, I think it best to hold off as long as possible.
What exactly is an orchid? Given the diversity, what ties them together in one family?
“It’s basically how the stigma and the column are fused together into one organ. And also, they have one petal that’s been modified to function as a lip, as the central attraction. That’s what gives the orchid symmetry. In other words, if you cut a butterfly in half, there are two identical sides, like a mirror image. They always have that modified lip.”
“Another thing that’s unique to orchids,” Harry adds, “the pollen is in packets. They don’t disperse in the air. It’s actually carried by insects from plant to plant.”
So at what point did you decide to concentrate on species?
“Well, it was down there when I was in Mexico. I became enamored with the diversity of how they grew in trees. Wow, look at this! How the roots attach to the trees! And I came back and started tying everything on branches, on sticks, and it just went from there.”
“I remember when he came back,” Harry says. “Everything was in pots in his greenhouse, and all of a sudden I’m out there and I’m seeing him yanking stuff out of the pots, and I’m going, ‘What are you doing?’ and he goes, ‘I’m tying them on sticks. This is the way they grow in nature.’ I was like going, ‘I think he’s nuts!’ And then we built him another greenhouse that was bigger.”