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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.

“National City?”

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.”

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