PlantXing

The Intersection of Plants and People

A Spa for Spent Orchids

Potted orchids stay cool in the dappled shade of Balboa Park's Botanical Building in San Diego, California. Photo: Benita Green Lee

Potted orchids stay cool in the dappled shade of Balboa Park’s Botanical Building in San Diego, California. Photo: Benita Green Lee

For serious orchid collectors, and for plant-lovers who cringe at tossing out their grocery-store Moth Orchids once they’ve shed their blooms, there’s an alternative. A combination of overnight camp and spa, it’s called “orchid boarding.”

“It’s basically here in a good growing environment,” says Taylor Gordon, part of the staff and family who run Fantasy Orchids in Louisville, Colorado.

“It has good light throughout the year, it has consistent watering with the rest of our crop, and it will also get the normal fertilizer that we use as well.”

At Fantasy Orchids, a plant owner can lease a minimum of 6 sq. ft. of  greenhouse bench, where somewhere between twelve and fifteen potted friends can reside long-term. The area is marked off with bright pink or orange tape to delineate different owners’ orchids, and the group of benches that are set aside for boarding are cordoned off to prevent retail customers from touching the personal collections. Vacationers can also board their plants, which stay in trays on the bench and are tagged with an invoice to keep track of when the owner will be back in town to pick them up.

In Colorado’s dry climate, humidity is hard to find, especially in an air-conditioned or heated home. For most orchids to come to bud, they need just the right amount of watering, air circulation, bright light and muggy conditions that a greenhouse can provide.

When an orchid is no more than a cluster of dense leaves with a naked stem, it can be dropped off at the greenhouse for boarding. As soon as the plant comes into bud again — which can take from a few months to up to a year depending on the orchid variety — the staff contacts the owner to come pick up their plant. When it’s bare of blooms once more, the customer can return it to the lush atmosphere of the greenhouse.

Yellow beauties seek attention in the Whole Foods flower department.  Photo: Benita Green Lee

Yellow beauties bring dazzling color to the Whole Foods flower department.  Photo: Benita Green Lee

Orchid boarding is a niche business available through a handful of orchid retailers in the United States. Besides Fantasy Orchids, there are retail businesses which offer the service throughout California, and a few further east, in places such as New Jersey and Virginia.

Crisler “Cris” Hamilton of Hamilton Orchids in Marin County, California, offers orchid boarding to his customers. Hamilton, an orchid aficionado himself, covers various areas of the business, including making orchid floral arrangements, doing interior plant design, and consulting on greenhouse construction.

For orchid boarders, Hamilton leases a minimum of seven-square-feet of greenhouse bench space at $5.50 per sq. ft., which costs $38.50 a month. Every square foot after that is $5.50 as well. Some of his customers have massive collections that cost up to an eye-popping $500 per month in boarding fees.

“Plants are something that people get a real passion for — especially orchids — and they’ll collect and collect and collect,” explains Hamilton.

What’s not blooming in a collector’s home will end up having about a year-long stay at Hamilton’s 17,000-square-foot greenhouse. There, a plant will be repotted if necessary, rid of any pests it may have picked up, fertilized, and otherwise pampered in a computerized, climate-controlled space.

After 29 years in the business, Hamilton has seen many unusual orchids, of which there are at least 20,000 different species. Beyond that number, there are approximately 100,000 hybrids that have been created in laboratories by breeders.

A Stanhopea orchid bloom dangles from its hanging basket at Hamilton Orchids in Marin County, California. Photo Courtesy of Crisler Hamilton.

A Stanhopea orchid bloom dangles from its hanging basket at Hamilton Orchids in Marin County, California. Photo Courtesy of Crisler Hamilton.

Some of the more rare orchids that Hamilton has seen boarded are those of the genus Stanhopea (stan-HOHP-ee-ah), which must be grown in hanging wooden baskets so that their pendulous flowers can dangle, tantalizing admirers with a distinct, spicy fragrance. Likewise, Gordon recounts seeing species types of Cattleya (KAT-lee-ah) orchids, wild flora that have been tamed to live in the domesticated confines of a pot.

During the long boarding process, some orchid lovers find it difficult to stay away from their babies. Gordon says that some of the more serious collectors stop by to visit as frequently as once a week.

“They’ll come in and they like to just look everything over, sometimes give a little bit of extra watering on certain things that they know like to have that, and they just keep a real close eye on everything,” Gordon says.

Fantasy Orchids has boarded collections of up to 300 plants at a time. While the owners who do long-term boarding tend to be Orchidaceae fanatics, they don’t have a greenhouse to house them all, nor the sunny, damp conditions many orchids require to grow and put forth blooms.

Though some varieties can be easy to grow and coax into bloom in a typical home, benign neglect just doesn’t cut it for the average orchid. Gordon has seen plants boarded that arrive in terrible condition. In a situation like this, a green thumb should not be mistaken for a fairy godmother.

Droopy leaves do not bode well. Instead of a dull, dark-green, orchid leaves should be shiny and Irish-green. Photo: Benita Green Lee

Droopy leaves do not bode well. Instead of a dull, dark-green, orchid leaves should be a shiny, vibrant Irish-green.
Photo: Benita Green Lee

“We’ve had a couple of situations where people have brought us plants that didn’t look great,” Gordon says. “We had them for a few months, got them growing really well and established again, so it was a very healthy plant. They took them back and within a month brought them back in again because they had just gone straight back downhill.”

To get a longer blooming time out of an orchid, Gordon recommends that customers put the plant in a dim, cool place, away from windows that let in bright light, which can give leaves sunburn and blanch out some of the intense colors of the flowers. This may seem counterintuitive, but orchids in bloom thrive in an environment opposite to what they required for forming buds. For his own collection, Gordon has found a way to prolong the blooming period.

“I keep them in my basement where it’s staying nice and cool all the time and they’re not getting any natural light,” he says.

A bathroom or a darker corner of the house that needs cheerful color can be the perfect spot for an orchid as it unfolds its seductive flowers. Orchids actually last much longer than other indoor, potted blooms. For Cattleya hybrids, which are showy and fragrant, blooms can last between one and four weeks. The more commonly found Phalaenopsis (pronounced fayl-eh-NOP-siss), also known as the Moth Orchid, can last an incredible one-to-four months, bringing visual delight throughout even the most dreary winter.

According to a Q&A page on the American Orchid Society’s website, most orchids can live for a very long time, and some species are “virtually immortal” if tended to properly. The site also notes that there are divisions — basically, genetically identical offspring — of orchids discovered in the 1800’s that are still thriving today.

A grouping of orchids vie for attention at Balboa Park's Botanical Building in San Diego, California.  Photo: Benita Green Lee

A grouping of orchids vie for attention at Balboa Park’s Botanical Building in San Diego, California.
Photo: Benita Green Lee

Many customers of Fantasy Orchids have been purchasing plants over the years, and when a plant comes in for boarding, it can be a reunion of sorts for the staff.

“Sometimes it’s things that we haven’t carried for maybe ten years, but we remember the plant, and so it’s nice to see those things still growing and coming back,” Gordon says.

Rather than recycling dead orchids as compost, or worse — putting them to the curb on garbage day — keeping these plants alive for years of enjoyment is a viable option. And for those whose orchids — but not blooms — are overwhelming their homes, boarding is a solution towards making the owner, and the plants, happier.

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