“I can tell you up front, it’s not an addiction. Everybody says it’s an addiction, and I don’t believe that at all. It’s a sickness. Seriously.”
Gary Pierwola is speaking. A retired National City cop, he has the look of a man who has stared at the dark side of life without blinking, a man who, in his day, could have taken down a tough punk without breaking a sweat. He points a large finger at me, like a gun. “There isn’t a pill and there isn’t a shot you can take once it gets started.”
He is warning me about orchids. We’re next to the swimming pool of his Chula Vista home, surrounded by ample evidence of his own sickness. He has about 5000 plants.
I’m visiting out of curiosity. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I have had orchids on my mind. God knows plenty of other things have been there too: Iraq, North Korea, the faltering economy, talk-show hosts cheerfully endorsing the torture of prisoners, America’s jettisoning of 1500 years of ethical thinking about what constitutes a “just war.” All this has put me in a foul mood, and none of it has anything to do with orchids.
So why do I keep thinking about them? They are so beside the point, so inconsequential. They just don’t matter. As the world crowds around the altar of Power, orchids are too fragile and weak to be admitted into the sanctuary. They are not Muslim or Christian or Jewish; they are fundamentalists of noncommitment. Is this why I’m attracted to them? Or is it simply their evanescent beauty — a blessed relief from the ugliness created by relentless arrogance and zealous ideologies? What causes my attraction to these flowers? Why do some people spend thousands of dollars and countless hours collecting and cultivating them? Does this passion tell us something about what it means to be human?
Highfalutin questions, I know, but they’re what’s going through my mind as I speak with Gary. I invited myself to his home because he is the president of the San Diego Orchid Society.
“I bought my first orchid at a place in National City,” Gary tells me. “It was a green Cymbidium similar to the one you see sitting there [he points to a plant a few feet from us], and it looked real nice. I had it about a year and a half, and the next time it bloomed it had three spikes and I was hooked. One thing led to another, and now when I go shopping I buy two or three hundred plants, not one or two. I probably have in the neighborhood of 300 different kinds.”
It surprises me to see most of your orchids growing outside, I say.
“Yes, 99 percent of what I have grows outside. They come from climates around the world very similar to ours. Everybody thinks orchids have to grow in a hothouse. That Cymbidium there comes from the Himalayas, and if it doesn’t get down to 40 degrees, you’d never see a flower on it.”
What is it about orchids that fascinates you?
“Well, orchids are so different from anything else. You can throw a pansy in the ground, and it blooms and it dies and goes away. The orchid — it will live forever. I have plants back here that I bought from a lady about ten years ago, and she bought them in the ’20s, and they’re still flowering and flourishing. So. They just go on and on, and every time you see a flower, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. It’s not like a rose. You stick a rose in the ground, and it grows and flowers and away it goes. But these, they don’t grow in the ground. They grow in a pot, they grow on bark, they have special things that they need.”
But why orchids and not roses or some other flower?
“There’s just something about the orchid. The mystique of the flower. It’s hard to say why. Until you get that feeling when you bloom it. I have people calling me and screaming on the telephone, ‘I just bloomed this plant!’ These are adults that are 40 and 50 years old, and they sound like a teenager.”
Gary has been a member of the San Diego County Orchid Society for 15 years, and he is in his third year as president. “Right now,” he says, “we have about 800 members. I don’t know this for a fact, but I think we’re one of the largest societies in the United States. When people come to speak at our society — they’ve been to places throughout the United States — they tell us we have by far the largest group they’ve ever seen anywhere. We meet the first Tuesday of every month at Balboa Park.”
How many attend your meetings?
“We have 250 to 300. We’re the biggest floral society in the county. We’ve increased our membership in the last year by 100.”
To what do you attribute that?
“Younger people coming in. When I joined the society, one of the prerequisites, I think, was that you had to be over 70. I slid in somehow. About 15 years ago, everybody was over 60. And now for some reason it’s turning around and we’re getting the younger generation in there. You see them from 25 on up. You’ve got doctors, lawyers, Ph.D. here and Ph.D. there, landscapers, and then you’ve got the guys that are completely crazy that do nothing but grow orchids.”
Tell me about some of these crazy people.
“We’ve got a couple that now live in Rainbow. When I first met them, probably six years ago, they had maybe 30 or 40 orchids. Now they have five acres of them. Well, probably three acres. He’s retired from the Navy. He’s put in a couple of greenhouses. He had a house a couple miles from here, and he grew out of it because of the orchids.”
Is interest in orchids growing?
“Very much so. When Home Depot first started with orchids, if they sold two orchids a week they thought they were doing utterly fantastic. Now they sell several thousand a month. Home Depot sells them quite well. Trader Joe’s, supermarkets. It’s become the big thing. Let me give you an example. In 1994 we decided to have a yard sale to clean out some plants. All we did was advertise a yard sale and orchids. Over a two-day period we did about 5000 dollars’ of business. I was shocked. In the south county here, you have a large population of Asians, and the Filipinos and Japanese dearly love orchids. I mean, they dearly love them. I don’t think you can go to one of their homes without finding orchids.”
We have an economy that’s hurting. There are enormous tensions in the world. A case could be made that orchids are, well, frivolous. They don’t do anything. They’re just beautiful. And I’m intrigued by people who are committed to something that’s just beautiful.
“And relaxing. At our orchid show, on Friday night when we open the doors, within ten minutes you won’t be able to walk in there. That’s how crowded it will be. We’ll get 2000 just on Friday night. Between 6000 and 7000 for the weekend. They’ll line up for three blocks just to get in. The first time I walked into this show, my jaw hit the floor, and it stayed there for an hour.”
You were in Vietnam; you were a cop, a job that can be pretty rough, filled with stress. Some might say the growing of flowers seems an interesting contrast to that. Have you ever thought about that?
“Yes, I have. My dad put it real well to me, years ago, before he passed away. He told me that the orchids I had were the only thing that helped me relax and enjoy. What you did on Friday goes away on Saturday and you just enjoy.”
A total escape. As a cop, you probably saw a lot of ugliness.
A lot of things you’d just as soon not have in your memory. But then, you come home to these orchids, and there’s nothing but beauty.
“Yeah. And they’re hard work, but that hard work’s enjoyable. It’s a way to get into la-la land.”
When I tell Gary I want to interview some orchid growers, he immediately mentions two names — Andy Phillips and Fred Clarke. “Andy’s a species grower,” he says, “and Fred may be the best hybridizer in the state.” These are the two basic divisions of orchids, Gary tells me. Species are those that grow naturally in the wild; hybrids are human creations, crosses between different species.
So I’m off to Leucadia to visit Andy’s Orchids, a one-acre lot on Ocean View Avenue that has, in addition to a home, three greenhouses — warm, temperate, and cool — to simulate the various growing conditions around the world. I’m met by Harry, Andy’s older brother.
“Andy’s not here yet,” he says, “but sit down.” He’s about 50, compactly built, with prematurely white hair. He seems tightly wound, at least when it comes to orchids. He’s unable to contain his enthusiasm for the flower and his brother’s skills in growing it. He speaks in exclamation points.
“Our grandmother, Adelaide, started Flowers by Adelaide, which is now in La Jolla! She started here in Encinitas as a flower stand, and had a store, and then I guess in the late ’40s or early ’50s people wanted a flower shop in La Jolla. They used to come up here and buy flowers from her and talked her into starting a shop in La Jolla. They’ve been there for over 50 years. It’s a full florist shop. They do everything.
“Andy and I have sort of branched out into strictly species orchids. The commercial value is different. It’s not your typical hybrids that you see at Home Depot or Trader Joe’s or at your nursery. A species is something that’s created in nature. I saw a program the other day that said orchids have been around since all the continents were one! So it’s one of the oldest plant families, the largest plant family, the most diverse plant family. They’re found on every continent in the world except Antarctica, and to be honest with you, it wouldn’t surprise me that if they looked hard enough they found some up in the Palmer Peninsula area!
“You go to an orchid show, especially if you come to our booth, and you look at all the different shapes and forms — vegetative as well as flower forms — and you look at these things, and they’re all orchids! It’s just amazing! You go to a rose show, you go to a begonia show, or you go to an African violet show, you will more than likely always recognize that that’s a rose or a begonia or a violet. But an orchid — you could look at that thing and go, ‘There’s no way!’ ”
I’m going to have to be alert for opportunities to insert my questions. When Harry takes a breath, I say, Is that part of the appeal of orchids?
“There’s a lot of different reasons for people getting into them. They grow under a wide variety of conditions. They grow from sea level to the tops of mountains where it snows. So people, depending on what their conditions are, can pick an orchid that will do well for them.
“It’s kind of like a dating service! You look at the date and you say, ‘I love her face, but I don’t like her personality.’ Well, it’s a package! You can’t separate them! It’s the same with an orchid. You might not like the flower, but you like the plant, or you go, ‘Gosh, I wish it was fragrant.’ Well, some orchids are fragrant and some are not. You know. So you have to accept the plant the way it is. And what I find a lot of people make mistakes doing when they’re first getting into orchids is they go, ‘Wow, that’s a cool flower, I gotta have that.’ Well, that’s like looking at a picture in a dating service and going, ‘Wow, that’s a great-looking girl. I want to go out with her.’ Well, you know nothing about her! You just saw the picture! And all of a sudden you start dating her and you go, ‘Wow, too much maintenance’ or ‘Too much excess baggage.’ Well, orchids are similar in that respect. Unless you know more information about the orchid, your chances of growing it successfully are minimal.”
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.”
So, Andy, what did your friends think of this? There aren’t too many 13-year-old boys who are into orchids.
“No, I kept a kind of low profile. But it kept me out of trouble. Well, it kept me out of some trouble. But my friends knew I had a green thumb. I was a tree trimmer too. I did a lot of my neighbors’ trees. I enjoyed that quite a bit. I’ve got a really good eye for nature. Always have. I was also into reptiles. I would make my cages as natural as could be.”
“He had a reptile enclosure in our bedroom,” Harry remembers. “He had a daytime community and a nighttime community. My friends would love to come over. ‘Andy, go feed your lizard. We want to watch you feed your lizard.’ I mean, he had them trained. He’d put his hand out there, and they would jump on his hand!”
Did you go to college?
“My dad wanted me to go to four-year college right away. I wanted to play first. I dabbled in and out of school a lot. Took all the biology classes. All the classes I wanted to take. Took classes at San Diego State, and some classes at Palomar College, and Mesa College. I was really good in the science classes, botany classes, and all that sort of stuff. My botany teacher called me ‘the 60-mile-an-hour botanist.’ We’d be driving down the freeway, and I’d say ‘Oh, stop!’ And I’d rattle off the scientific name. He’d go, ‘There’s no way you could see that.’ And I’d make him turn around and then I’d point it out, and he’d go, ‘How in the hell did you see that?’ And he’d hit his head on the steering wheel.”
“One time,” Harry says, “we took our wives to Puerto Vallarta, and they told us, ‘No orchids, no orchids.’ We’re going, ‘Okay, no orchids.’ But they wanted to go into town and do something, but Andy and I didn’t want to do it. So we rented a car and drove up into the mountains to look at orchids. It was a little Volkswagen Beetle, and we’re driving up there, probably doing about 50 miles an hour up this windy road, and all of a sudden Andy goes, ‘There’s an orchid!’ Back it up, stop. You know, about a hundred feet off the road, up in a tree, and sure enough there’s orchids! He can see ’em. You go into East County here, with the rolling hills and oak trees — we were in an area very similar to that, just south and east of Puerto Vallarta, and we were walking through this grassy field, everything was brown, and Andy goes, ‘There’s an orchid.’ And I’m looking down at this grass going, ‘Where the hell is the orchid?’ It was a dead flower spike! So he digs it up, and there’s the bulb of the actual orchid, dormant, and I’m going, ‘How the heck…?’ ”
“One of the things that helped me learn to spot things was night driving for reptiles. This would be going up to the desert. We’d be going about 40 or 50 miles an hour, trying to spot a gecko that’s two or three inches big on the road, and trying to discern a gecko from a rock or a stick or human garbage that’s out there. And that really helped me perceive details.”
But how did you learn about orchids?
“When I was a kid, I would buy any book I could. I would go to orchid shows. I read about species like crazy. I still have some of my original books.”
Andy takes me to a bookshelf and reaches for one that looks as if it had been in use since about 1928 but was actually printed in 1970. This is his original book. It is dog-eared, with notes and stars next to pictures.
How did you learn how to pronounce all those Latin names?
“That was a learning process. I’m still learning. One of the genera I was looking for was Coelogyne. I’d always go to these orchid shows and ask the vendors, ‘Do you have any koligones?’ They’d say no. That went on for several years. One day someone said, ‘How do you spell it?’ So I wrote it for him, and he said, ‘Oh, silojenees.’ ”
I see a lot of plaques and ribbons on your walls.
“These are all awards, things I’ve won. But I haven’t entered anything into judging for years. Most of the things I’ve entered were before I was 20. But others enter for me. I know I’m good. But I don’t want to toot my own horn, so to speak. The reason I go to shows is to make a nice display. Just because I like to do it. Not for the competition aspect of it. Let the beginners get it, the other hobbyists. I’m not into competition. I just love what I do.”
Harry can contain himself no longer. “There was a grower at one of the shows that was complaining that Andy wins all the awards. ‘Why do I waste my time?’ I said, ‘You know what? You’re doing it for the wrong reason. Andy doesn’t even want to win an award. He does it because it’s his passion. You just want to win an award. Andy would never care if he won an award. It’s his passion!’ ”
What is it about orchids that gives you this passion? What do you love most about them?
“Diversity,” Andy says.
“You can’t get bored with them!” Harry adds. “There’s just too many! You can spend your whole life doing it, like Andy has. As much as he knows, I watch him learn something new EVERY DAY! It’s overwhelming, the amount of stuff he learns every day.”
When you get up in the morning, what fires your energy?
“Well, now it’s people coming back to me, telling me, ‘Andy, I got this orchid that you recommended, that I bought last year from you, and it’s doing great and flowered.’ ”
How many plants do you have?
“About 400,000,” Andy says. “About 4000 different species.”
All here? On one acre?
Harry says, “The Ag Department, sometimes they like to come by, bring a new person, and they’ll open the door to the greenhouse and their jaw drops and they go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen more plants grown per cubic foot ever!’ ”
Many of Andy’s species are seed grown. But he also manages to bring in plants from around the world, even though CITES is making it more difficult. I tell them that I’ve just read Eric Hansen’s book Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy and that he had quite a tale to tell about CITES.
“It’s very accurate,” Andy says. “CITES made sense for animals. But then at the last minute they decided, ‘Oh, let’s throw in plants too’ just to appease certain people.”
Harry explains, “So an elephant might have one offspring every two years. They definitely need some protection. But an orchid pod can have millions of seeds!”
“Minimum, hundreds of thousands of seeds,” says Andy, “and maximum of multimillion seeds. It’s sad that one seedpod that could save a species from going extinct cannot even be legally traded.”
Have you had any trouble with CITES? Any raids?
“No. Not here.”
Harry says that “one of the big problems is that all orchids fall under CITES. Not all orchids are endangered. Let’s say out of 35,000 species, only 3000 or 4000 would need protection. So it’s the United States Department of Agriculture’s job to inspect plants that are coming into the country. They inspect all plants. So from a CITES standpoint, they have to know 35,000 different species of orchids, where if they were to narrow that down and eliminate the ones that don’t need it, then they could focus on the ones that really do need protection. One of the problems is that many orchids look very similar until they flower. There’s not that many people that have the knowledge Andy does!”
Andy agrees and says, “I had a shipment that came in from Panama on a holiday weekend. This was about ’97. It wasn’t that many plants. Maybe about three or four hundred plants that came from a very reputable nursery down in Panama. All these plants were cultivated, seed grown or division in a nursery.
“The guy says, ‘I don’t think we can get to it this week.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d like to take care of them as soon as I can. They’re kind of delicate. I’m willing to pay overtime.’ And they kind of like hopped on that right away. So I contacted my broker and arranged to pay overtime for one inspector. And when I get up there, there were three inspectors. Not too long before that there was a suicide in that office; one of the employees had come into the office and shot himself. So all the employees I knew had quit. This is at the USDA there by LAX. The three people there were new. A husband and wife were entomologists, and they were foreigners. And there was one guy who was an American. They didn’t know me or my extensive knowledge of orchids.
“So the first thing, this guy goes, ‘Oh, there’s a scale on this. We’re going to have to confiscate this shipment.’ And I was 10 or 15 feet away, and I was going, ‘That’s not a scale, that’s an empty spider casing. I can see the hole, the exit hole.’ It was just an empty spider casing on the back side of a leaf. I was going, ‘That’s empty.’ So they went into a back room and came back out and said, ‘Okay, okay, we’ll let that slide.’ This guy’s an entomologist. He knows what he’s looking at. He was just pulling my leg.”
Harry adds, “They were just messing with us!”
“So he says, ‘Oh God, these are wild-collected plants.’ And I was going, ‘These are not wild collected.’ And they said, ‘Yes, they are.’ And I said, ‘You tell me how roots grow through Styrofoam peanuts on these plants here.’ ”
Harry adds, “In the jungle, right?”
“Yeah, they picked the wrong guy. And so they disappear again into a back room, and then they say, ‘Okay, well, they’re not wild-collected plants.’ At that point the American guy was getting a little nervous, because I was saying, ‘Why are you guys doing this to me?’
“So they come back to me and say, ‘These are CITES I plants.’ CITES I need special permits because they’re under more regulation, and I had all the paperwork for CITES II. These guys were essentially trying to bribe me. They said, ‘This is Lycaste skinneri, and these are CITES I plants and we can’t let them in.’ And I was going, ‘No, this is Lycaste brevispatha,’ and I ask if the book collection was still there, and I went and got one of the books and showed that Lycaste skinneri had an absence of spines on the bulbs. Lycaste brevispatha has spines on the bulbs, these gnarly little horns…”
Harry adds, “You sit on them, you know it!”
“Yeah. So I showed them the spines on the bulbs. They went in the back room again, and they finally said, ‘All right, we’ll let these plants go.’ This is after, like, three or four hours. The whole thing turned out to be, like, 600 bucks, paying overtime. I went back to my broker and complained. But they said, ‘Don’t say anything or they’ll just make it harder the next time.’ They’re corrupt. To add insult to injury, he said, ‘Guess what country I’m from and I’ll let you take all your plants right now.’ ”
Harry adds, “He’s really lucky I wasn’t there!”
“My brother would have really gone after him. And so I guessed he was from Turkey. And he said, ‘No, I’m from Egypt.’ So he let me have most of the plants, but he kept the Lycaste, and then I got them in a box two weeks later. He held on to them for two weeks, just to be an asshole.”
Harry adds, “Not a jerk, an asshole!”
I’m beginning to like Harry. He made a distinction that would have never crossed my mind but might someday be useful. His interruptions are hard to ignore, like the spines on Lycaste brevispatha.
How many countries have you collected from?
“I’ve only been through Latin America personally. But I’ve imported from China, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Australia, Vietnam, Nepal, Borneo, Philippines, South Africa, Japan, Madagascar.”
How do you propagate?
“Through division, through seed,” Andy says. “Division is taking a plant that I’ve been growing for a while and breaking it up into more plants. Orchids have two basic growth habits. One is monopodial, or in other words, it will grow from the tip up, like the common houseplant, Phalaenopsis. The other is sympodial, which means it will grow from one bulb and a shoot will mature and grow from that, and then from the base of that it will produce another bulb and continue to propagate that way year after year.”
And you take off those bulbs?
“Yeah. You can divide them up into two or three bulb pieces.”
Do you do any insect pollination?
“No, because we don’t have a lot of the correct insects to pollinate one specific orchid.”
Tell me about the sex life of orchids. It seems appropriate to put it this way because the word “orchid” comes from the Greek orchis, which means testicle.
Andy says, “Most orchids have their specific pollinators, and most orchids evolved with a specific pollinator or a specific group of pollinators.”
Harry adds, “Orchids use a lot of deceit and deception.”
That’s what the flower is all about, isn’t it?
I’m looking at Harry when I ask the question, and he’s ready to explain. “Yeah, they offer something and then they kind of take it back. But sometimes the pollinator gets a reward, gets something from it. With some bees, for example, the male goes to the flower to get the scent, and he uses the scent from the flower to attract the female bee. So it’s kind of like you going to the store to get some nice cologne for a date. So the flower will offer the bee the scent, and there is only one way to get it. He has to go a certain way through the flower to get to the scent, and in doing so he’ll pollinate the flower.”
Andy takes over. “There’s some that are actually intoxicating to the insect. They get drunk and fall into a bucket — a bucket orchid, they call it. It’s a very phallic-looking orchid. The bee is attracted to it, runs around the rim and gets somewhat intoxicated and usually falls into this little bucket of solution. The orchid has this gland that actually drips this solution into the bucket.”
“And there’s only one way out! They can’t climb up the walls because it’s too slippery.”
“Yeah, one way out. So it goes through this little tunnel, and then when it comes out the tunnel it will have the pollen stuck on its back.”
“And then it goes to the next one and picks up the next pollen. They have a short memory. They forget and do it all over again.”
Like a lot of guys’ drinking on Friday nights.
“Yeah,” says Andy. “The interesting thing, it has a mechanism to keep it from self-pollinating. The pollen, when the bee takes it, is really large. So it pulls out the pollen, and these two large masses are on the bee. In time, as the bee flies around, the pollen will actually shrink, so it can fit into the stigmatic opening, which is just a little narrow slit. So it can’t go back to the same flower and pollinate it because the pollen is too big. It has to fly around a bit and has to visit other flowers, but it won’t start depositing it until it visits other plants and shrinks. Orchids have evolved a good mechanism to keep from self-pollinating.”
Andy’s words make me think of a possible wisecrack, but I decide to maintain my professionalism and keep the interview on a scientific level. Why do they keep from self-pollinating?
“To keep the inbreeding down to a minimum,” Harry explains. “To keep diversity. There are some orchids that actually look like the insect, and they will produce the same pheromones as the insect. So the insect will come up to it, look at it — visually that’s an insect, smells like an insect — and they’ll be bumping and grinding and mating with that flower. And another insect will come along and go, ‘That’s mine,’ and knock it off and be fighting over the flower.”
Andy gets up and finds a picture of a flower that looks like a wasp. “This flower will produce the scent of a female wasp, and so the male wasp is humping away and it’s not getting anything.”
As I’m contemplating this sad image, Harry exclaims, “It’s deceit and deception!”
So pollinators are bees, wasps…
Harry continues the list. “Hummingbirds, gnats, fungus gnats. There’s even a group of orchids called Draculas, and the lip on the flower looks like fungus, and it even produces the scent of the fungus, and the gnats are milling around and going, ‘Wow, we found our fungus!’ ”
Andy says, “And I’ve got some orchids that smell like shit. Literally.”
So flies are attracted to them?
“Oh, yeah,” says Harry. “One is Bulbophyllum echinolabium, and it’s got a beautiful flower — top to bottom it will be 16 inches. Andy brings it in one day, and he sets it up there [he points to the top of the filing cabinet], and I’m not paying attention, and I’m working away, and all of a sudden I’m looking in the trash can, I’m looking at the bottom of my shoes, and I’m going, ‘Did I step in it?’ And I look up. ‘Oh, it’s you!’ We have one customer that’s going to send one back to us. She e-mailed to say, ‘I had a gut-wrenching experience to decide whether to throw it out in the freezing snow or send it back to you guys.’ I told her to send it back and we’d give her a credit.”
“It’s from the Celebes,” Andy says.
“There’s some that smell like a herd of rotting elephants.”
“Flies will come along and lay eggs on it because they think it’s rotting flesh.”
So each species wants its own insect. But here…
“We do it with a toothpick,” Andy explains. “I try to do it as much as an insect would do it, rather than a human eye would do it. Humans tend to breed for certain characteristics. They want to make the flower bigger or rounder or flatter or a different color. I try not to do that.”
To whom do you sell your orchids?
“Could be an office worker,” Andy says, “or a construction guy…”
“CEO of a company, high-powered lawyer, doctor, trash collector. It doesn’t matter. Male, female, all ages, all religions, all levels of economic…”
Andy and Harry are not letting each other finish sentences. “Some people just dive in headfirst,” says Andy. “They got a shot of heroin and they want more. Other people, they flower the Trader Joe’s orchid and they go, ‘Oh, I flowered that!’ and they want to see what else there is.”
That’s what I did this week. Got my first one to bloom.
“Congratulations,” says Andy.
“Buying it to bloom is one thing, but getting it to rebloom, that’s the challenge!”
“It’s not really that much challenge. You just have to know the basic concepts of the orchid, what it needs…”
“Once you understand how orchid roots function. But also the thing is, not only do you have to water correctly, but you have to maintain the right temperature, light, and air movement.”
The books I’ve read say the biggest problem is watering orchids too much.
“I disagree,” says Andy. “More people kill their plants due to underwatering than overwatering.”
“Because of the myth of overwatering!” Harry is nearly jumping out of his chair. “Now, it’s not to say that you can’t overwater a plant. You certainly can. But so many people are afraid of overwatering that when I go to see these collections, they’re underwatering.”
I want to clarify this, for the sake of the half dozen I have at my home. Really? The books I’ve read say…
“They’re full of it,” Andy says.
They say the moment you see it dripping through, stop.
“Treat your orchids to a good rainstorm,” says Harry. “In the tropics it rains! It rains bucketfuls! Thoroughly drench them. And it doesn’t mist in the tropics! People go, ‘Should I mist my orchids?’ I HATE that word ‘misting’! I hate misting and spritzing!”
Harry is so worked up over this, I’m glad I wasn’t the one to bring up the subject of misting. I might have been punched.
“The other misnomer about orchids,” says Andy, “is that you should water orchids in the morning. You know, I’m sitting down there in the tropics, and every morning when I get up it’s nice. And noon comes around, it starts to cloud up, and about two or three in the afternoon it starts pouring, until about six. Then it clears out. Most of these orchids in the wild go to bed with their feet wet. My personal philosophy, water in the afternoon and evening. But you may not want to water your orchids at night if you’re growing an orchid in the wrong temperature condition.”
But the books say…
“Screw the books!” says Andy.
“The books don’t know anything. They were maybe right at one time.”
“No, they’re wrong, they’ve always been wrong.”
I decide to drop the subject of what the books say. What about bugs?
“One thing you have to watch out for are ants,” says Harry. “Ants are ranchers!”
“Ants are little farmers. They herd aphids and mealybugs.”
“Yeah, in winter they will actually take them down into their nests and protect them. They will actually milk the honeydew from the insects.”
“So if people control their ants, usually they’ll minimize their insect problems. The ants will protect the aphids from predatory insects. So even though you release ladybugs all over the damn place, ants will chase them off.”
“It’s just like a rancher protecting his cattle!”
What do the ants get out of it?
“They get the honeydew,” says Harry.
“Essentially, their poop is the ants’ food.”
“It’s not really poop…”
“It is poop.”
To end this sibling squabble, I ask how many customers they have. “My database is about 14,000 people,” says Andy. “My goal for hobbyists is to turn everybody into species lovers, growing species-only collections. The reason I’m really into species is because a lot of these things are going to disappear in nature because of habitat destruction, and once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. But as long as they’re maintained in private collections and people are propagating them, they can always be reproduced.”
Do you see yourself as a steward of orchids?
“Yeah, I really do.”
What’s the highest price you’ve asked for an orchid?
“See, I’m not one of the so-called gougers for orchids. There are a lot of people who do that. The highest price I’ve sold one for is $800. A plant I brought back from Mexico in 1977. It was a very select clone of a specific thing that went to a certain Japanese breeder. But he could have taken it and divided it into ten plants. I’m not one to sell really expensive plants at a high price. There are plants that have sold for over $100,000.”
Because they are so rare?
“They’re rare, and somebody knows how to sell them to…”
Gullible people who have money to spend?
“Yeah, and there are a lot of people like that. I don’t like putting a high price on plants. Most of what I sell is under $100.”
By now I’m ready for the nursery. I’ve had enough of the office and my hard chair, and I’m ready to see some flowers. But somehow the conversation comes back to CITES. We won’t be going anywhere for a while.
They explain that in this country U.S. Fish and Wildlife is the enforcement arm of CITES and that this department had been working a sting against cycad smugglers. Cycads are ancient palmlike plants that are seriously threatened and propagate very slowly. An Ecuadorian friend of theirs was set up and convicted with the help of a government informant — an informant whom they caught breaking into their nursery.
“Andy caught him going over the fence with about 6000 dollars’ worth of plants! He went through our greenhouse like it was a shopping spree. And he was the one going to orchid shows with hidden microphones, asking questions and taping people!”
“It’s really scary the power that U.S. Fish and Wildlife has. They’re out of control. They’re doing some good things, yes, but…”
“This is my own personal opinion,” interrupts Harry, “and it doesn’t reflect Andy’s Orchids at all: I think they’re a bunch of Gestapo out of control. Plain and simple. They can sit there, and they can work you from one end to the other. And whose money are they using to prosecute you? Your money! They busted our Ecuadorian friend for $3500, and their major informant was the guy who broke into our nursery!”
“He got away from me that night,” says Andy. “But I held him at bay for about 15 minutes while my brother was racing here and the cops were coming. Oh, yeah, I beat the hell out of him with a stick. He had 297 plants in flats, and I caught him in the process when he was lifting them over the fence.”
“The sick thing was, he set up our friend in Ecuador! This is what the government does all the time! They use informants for terrorists, the Mafia…”
“And the thing is, this is just…orchid people.”
I suppose that orchid people, for the most part, are really sensitive to the environment, want to protect orchids.
“Yeah,” says Harry. “Unfortunately, there are people who don’t care, who just go out and strip the jungles. But by and large, the majority — I mean way, way the majority, in excess of 90 percent, I’m sure — want to protect the environment because they want to have orchids around for future generations.”
“And the biggest threat is not orchid collecting. It’s habitat destruction.”
“The clear-cutting. I have nothing against CITES in particular. I think they have good intentions. But if you can’t go in and collect in front of a bulldozer that is knocking down the jungle, there’s something wrong with this picture!”
I nod in earnest agreement, and then I stand and announce my eagerness to see their orchids. Andy leads me out of the office and around the building. There are orchids everywhere, with narrow passageways leading toward a greenhouse. When we step inside the greenhouse, I’m speechless. I’ve never seen anything like it. Orchids are filling tables, crowding shelves, hanging from supports; orchids are on sticks, in pots, in baskets; orchids are everywhere except under our feet. It’s a jungle.
This is unbelievable! I’m beginning to sound like Harry. How many plants do you have in here?
“We have about 100,000 in a 60- by 60-foot greenhouse.”
There are so many it takes my eyes a while to adjust, to begin to notice the flowers. Then I see the most amazing shapes and colors. Some are huge, and some are so small I have to take Andy’s word for it that they would look like a flower if I saw them through a microscope.
A young woman comes racing down one of the aisles toward us. “I need a murder weapon!” she says.
I worry that I’ve overstayed my welcome, but Andy says, “Mice?”
“No, a rat!”
Andy and the young woman start running toward the woodpile, and Harry shows up to join the hunt, and within a few seconds we’re all crouched down and running through the aisles of the nursery, the young woman leading, with Andy and Harry and me following, and Harry is hollering back over his shoulder that orchids are like candy for rats! and the young woman yells, “There!” and Andy jumps up on a table and starts whacking a plastic-covered board.
“Shit!” he says.
“There he goes!” the young woman says, and we’re off again, running around a corner, down another aisle, and there’s more jumping and more whacking, and I think we must look like the Keystone Kops.
“Shit! Missed again!” Andy looks at the young woman and holds up his murder weapon. It’s shaped like a dog’s back leg. “Next time, try to find a straight stick.”
“Sorry,” she says.
“Don’t worry about it.” He turns and starts walking back down an aisle, mentioning the Latin names of everything he sees.
How can you remember every name?
“I have a photographic memory for orchids. Once I’ve seen an orchid, I remember it. Once I learn its name, I never forget it. I could show you the exact spot I collected an orchid in 1977. It’s engraved in my head forever. Why? I don’t know why. Whereas people’s names. To tell you the truth, I can’t remember your name. What was your name?”
A few seconds later, I have the feeling he has already forgotten it. “Don” is just too hard to remember, unlike Bulbophyllum echinolabium or Lycaste brevispatha or Lycaste skinneri. It’s as if there is a part of his brain — the part that notices and understands and remembers orchids — that has been touched, blessed with genius.
As I walk back to my car, it occurs to me that Andy and his flowers are like Noah and his animals, with Harry as first mate on the ark, and I imagine the Creator smiling and saying to a nearby angel, “At least we don’t have to worry about the orchids!”
Sunset Valley Orchids is in Vista, but on the other side of the planet from Andy’s Orchids. Whereas Andy’s passion is only for species, orchids that grow in nature, Fred Clarke’s is for hybrids, those created by his own intervention; whereas Andy’s greenhouses are as overgrown as a jungle, Fred’s are as orderly as an Iowa farm; whereas Andy and Harry have a messy enthusiasm, Fred has a measured devotion; whereas Andy and Harry remind me of kids carrying on in the hallway between classes, Fred reminds me of a teacher presenting a lecture.
“There are two classes of people,” Fred tells me. “There are species fanatics, who are purists. And then there’s the other people, like myself, who are interested in creating something new. And that’s why I hybridize. I want to create something new and unique for my customers. And then there’s people who like hybrids because they’re improvements over the species generally — they’re bigger flowers, they’re more colorful.”
Indeed, behind Fred is a sea of color. His flowers are dramatic, bold: pinks and lavenders and greens and reds; blushed and spotted and variegated. I say, They are beautiful! Gorgeous! I’ve been talking with him no more than three minutes and I’ve already lost my reporter’s objectivity. He accepts the compliment as truthful, something earned through a great deal of work.
“I started growing orchids when I was 19,” he says, “and that was 25 years ago. I was always the kid in school with the green thumb — growing the radishes and sprouting the carrot tops. My next-door neighbor, an older lady, had a number of Cattleya plants. And I would go over there and do yard work and help her out and stuff, and one day she gave me some plants, four or five. I told my dad that this was kind of cool. My dad was an educator and knew a gentleman named John Walters who worked with him, and John Walters was the proprietor of Rex Foster Orchids. So we went over there, and John’s very charismatic and has lots of energy, and he’s a teacher, a natural teacher. So he brought me into his world, and he started showing me about hybrids and explaining how orchids grow. Showed me how to do the lab work to support the breeding and making of the hybrids. And I did work around there in exchange for the plants. One thing led to another. And here I am today. I have 6000 square feet of greenhouse.
“I work for the Paul Ecke Ranch. I’ve been there 11 years. And for many years I was their poinsettia stock-plant grower in Encinitas, and then later, managing the growing of the poinsettia plants in Guatemala and Mexico. More recently, though, I work in the logistics side of the business, moving the freight from Guatemala to the United States. That ended up being a bigger challenge than growing the plants in Guatemala. Working at the Paul Ecke Ranch helped me develop my skills as a grower. They taught me about fertilization, about temperature, and about water habits, and the importance of these things. And so I took those and applied it to my orchid culture and modified it according to the needs of the individual orchid plants that I grow. I would say that I’m a really good grower.”
They say you’re maybe the best hybridizer in the state.
“Well, there’s a few old-timers out there that have quite a reputation. I would say I’m one of the most prominent up-and-coming hybridizers in the state. And for that matter, maybe the United States.”
So you work full-time for the Eckes, and then you come here…
“And work full-time.”
We are walking down an aisle of his greenhouse. I am gushing about how beautiful his flowers are, and he stops, picks up a plant, and says, “Here is a cross I made. It’s about six years from germination to this size. Most of the plants you see in flower are hybrids I’ve made.
“I have a genus named after me; actually, I have two named after me. This is a new combination. Mormodes crossed with a Catasetum and a Clowesia — the combination of these three species is the first time it’s been done and requested to be registered by the Royal Horticultural Society in England. All orchid registrations are sent there. This is called the Fred Clarke Aura, and the variety is After ‘Midnight.’ It’s a very dark flower. This line of breeding I’ve been working on, I always use the name Midnight.”
Do you begin by saying, “Here’s a red flower and a yellow flower, let’s see if I can make an orange flower”?
“That’s the magic of hybridizing! That ability to understand the dominant characteristics of either parent, and then combine the right parents to come up with what you’re looking for. Sometimes it’s pretty easy to determine the outcome, and you can match that very closely. Other times you have huge surprises, and unusual things are happening. It’s difficult to understand all the genetic things that are happening.”
Is that because when you look at a flower, what you see at first may not necessarily be the dominant gene?
“Yes, exactly. And so it’s important for a hybridizer to understand the dominant and recessive characteristics of each orchid plant, and that’s not easy to do because it takes five to six, even seven years, to raise a plant, to see it bloom, and then you have to make hybrids with it to find out what the dominant and recessive characteristics are. So it takes a number of years —10, 15, a lifetime — to really understand what those characteristics are. Unfortunately, there’s no good definitive work or record of the breeding characteristics and dominant characteristics. It’s just word of mouth spread amongst hybridizers. So each generation has to reinvent the process. I’ve been breeding orchids for maybe 15 or 16 years, and today I’m feeling I’m just beginning to understand some of those fundamentals. You’re always learning and always seeing new things. The greatest thing for me is to come out in the greenhouse and see a plant that I made a hybrid with, and there’s that first flower, and what will it be like? I know what its parents are, but what will its progeny be?”
So you begin with an idea. What do you do after that?
“Well, the pollen is removed from the column, and then that pollen is transported on a toothpick to the stigmatic surface, the sticky area directly behind where the pollen is housed. It sticks there, and that’s the completion of the pollination. Once that cross is made it takes five to eight months for the seed to develop inside the ovary, the fruit, so to speak. You harvest the seedpod, and you sow the seed in septic conditions in a laminar airflow chamber. It takes about four to five weeks, ten weeks maybe, for the seed to germinate. And then there’s the process where you spread out the germinated seed and you replant that as the plants get larger and larger. After they reach about one and a half inches in height and have a number of roots, you take those from the flasks and you pop them out into community trays. It takes about a year in the flask process, to a year and a half; it takes about a year in the community tray. After they come out of the community tray, they’re potted up into individual plants in pots. Then it usually takes one to three years for those plants to flower in individual pots.”
You must have a finely developed capacity for delayed gratification.
“If you had no patience when you started this hobby, and you were able to stick with it, you’ll be very patient at the end. Some of the Paphiopedilum you saw, some are very slow growing, and there’s a joke amongst the older growers that ‘I hope I live long enough to see this flower,’ because they take five to seven years to bloom.”
Who are your customers?
“A walk-in business of serious hobbyists. Most hobbyists don’t have greenhouses. So if you want to be in business, you have to have plants that will grow outdoors. I am very serious about producing a high-quality plant, a well-rooted plant, a plant that’s going to flower and reflower regularly. That’s very important to me.”
How many customers do you have?
“Oh, I don’t know. Regular customers, maybe 40 or 50. Most of my customers make regular trips. They realize that in order to have a good collection of orchids to sustain your interest, you need to have plants blooming throughout the year. One of the biggest mistakes I made, I went to an orchid show, I must have bought 20 plants, and six months later there’s nothing in flower, and ten months later, nothing in flower, and I thought, ‘What kind of hobby is this?’ I went to John Walters, who was my mentor, and he said, ‘What you need to do is buy a plant in flower every month, and after a couple years, you’ll have things in bloom year-around.’ That is precisely what I did.”
What is it about human beings that loves to work with flowers?
“I’m not sure. But there’s something within me that likes to create things. I worked as a carpenter for many years, and so I would take this flat piece of ground — was a job-site superintendent — and we’d raise things up from the ground and build the building, and I’ve always been very interested in growing orchids, as far as I can remember, make a hybrid, raise it, make something from nothing.”
You like the active part of creating a new flower?
“That’s the thing that really turns me on. I’ve always felt I would make an excellent teacher. The same thing — you take kids and you can show them something, teach them something, and they can grow with that. There’s just something within me. I like to create and develop things. Here, these greenhouses, I designed and built these all by myself. I nailed every nail, painted every board.”
How many hybrids do you create in a year?
“I probably make 50 or 60 hybrids a year in the Cattleya alliance, and with the others, well over a hundred a year.”
What percentage of those do you say, “A success!”?
“A really special hybrid, for me, is about one in ten. But it depends on how you determine what is a good hybrid. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I am an American Orchid Society judge — a student judge right now, soon to be probationary. I have a tendency to compare the quality of my plants against the AOS judging standard. I’ve done fairly well. I have over a hundred AOS awards in the three years I’ve been exhibiting plants, which is an accomplishment.”
When you enter these orchids in competition, what’s your driving motive? Does it help your business? Are you looking for affirmation that you’re going in the right direction?
“It’s all of those things. And a great form of advertising.”
What’s your biggest goal?
“The important thing in breeding orchids is to understand what you’re breeding for. If you don’t have a target, will you ever get there? So I’ve been trying to breed plants that are compact-growing (that you can flower in a three-and-a-half-inch pot, not exceeding a five-inch pot), but have a larger flower size. The ultimate thing I would like to do is to have enough recognition in the marketplace so that customers recognize what I’m doing. I’m able then to market plants to those people and have them be happy and be able to be successful with the growing of plants. Grow them bigger, grow them better. I can’t tell you how much satisfaction it is to be at an orchid show and have a customer come to you that you maybe sold one plant to last year, and they look you straight in the eye and they say to you, ‘Man, I bought that plant from you last year. I wasn’t sure I was going to do good with it, but you told me it was a good grower, and I grew it well and it’s flowered twice since then!’ And then they pick up two or three more plants and do it again.”
Looking ten years down the road, what do you see?
“I really like working at the Paul Ecke Ranch. So it’s a dilemma for me. One day, I’d like to take my land here, which is about five acres, and add about one acre of greenhouse space. But if I do that, I have to let go of my employment at Ecke. And I’m torn, too, because if I make the orchids too much full-time, how much fun will it be? I come home from work, and I can come in here and just relax. Look at every flower. Check the growth of every plant. There’s something very therapeutic about watering orchids. I know when any plant has been moved.”
What have orchids taught you about life?
“Orchids have taught me that patience is worthwhile. Good things will come. Don’t jump at the first opportunity. It’s taught me that most people are good people. I’ve been selling orchids for some time, and I haven’t had a bad experience — a bad check — ever. Orchid people are good people. It’s really great to create, grow something.”
Fred walks over to a table filled with plants and picks up a soft lavender Cattleya. He looks at it carefully, lovingly, the way a mother looks at her newborn child. He doesn’t say anything for about a minute. Then, with a sigh, he says, “Could anything be better than that? Really nice. Slow down and smell the roses.”
Or the orchids.
“Or the orchids.”