When other 6-year-olds were collecting toys, Norman Fang was collecting orchids and inadvertently launching his career.
Years later, he chose Cal Poly Pomona for his higher education because of its orchid collection and began setting all kinds of records in orchid propagation.
Now, at age 25, Fang has bred 170 orchid hybrids and has sold thousands of individual plants through a school program. He has sold enough plants to start his own nursery and was named the nation's outstanding student by the American Society for Horticultural Science in 1986.
One of the ironies of Fang's unusual career is that he has not yet seen the results of his labors, nor has anyone else. Orchids take six or seven years to mature into bloom, and Fang's serious work with them began only four years ago, when he entered Cal Poly.
Nurserymen and orchid fanciers buy the young plants before they bloom on the basis of their lineage "if the grower has a good reputation," a Cal Poly spokesman said.
"I'll never see the results of some of my seeding here," he said as he stood amid 3,500 plants that he tends in one of the school's greenhouses. They are part of a collection of 70,000 orchids that started with a gift of plants to the school from actor Raymond Burr in 1982.
Another irony is that despite the awards, honors, scholarships and income Fang accumulated as his interest grew, his parents had trouble accepting his chosen work as serious business.
"The Chinese culture presses for success in a particular profession, and it's been difficult for them to have me in horticulture," Fang said.
However, his successes eventually so impressed his parents that his father helped buy a three-acre site in Ontario where his son established Norman's Orchids. Here, Fang has built a greenhouse and produces thousands of plants that he sells to nurseries and orchid fanciers, who buy them even before they bloom because of their "pedigrees."
A native of Taiwan, Fang spoke little English when his family came to the United States 11 years ago. He spent one year as a chemistry major at Cal State Long Beach, then switched to Cal Poly when he learned of its orchid collection, which college spokesmen say is believed to be the largest in any university in the continental United States.
Fang threw himself into studies, forming student horticulture clubs, taking on special projects, spending every holiday and vacation nurturing plants at school, and sometimes spending all night on his projects.
"I don't think I've ever seen anyone like him," said Frank D. Gibbons, chairman of ornamental horticulture at Cal Poly. He called Fang "a role model for future horticulturists."
Fang's special interest is micropropagation, which is cloning plants. The process involves taking microscopic pieces of tissue from orchid plants and growing them in glass containers. Although this takes as long as propagating plants with seeds, Fang said much larger quantities of orchids can be produced through micropropagation.
"I want to develop orchids as a major floral-culture crop," he said. "Like poinsettias at Christmas, they can be cultivated for a special event--perhaps Easter or Mother's Day."
Not all orchids can be micropropagated, he said, and the work of sterilizing and growing the tissue is painstaking and slow. Nevertheless, he remains excited enough to commit almost all his time to orchids. He plans to get a master's degree after he graduates from Cal Poly in June.
Fang attributes much of his success to Cal Poly's Kellogg Enterprise Foundation Project, through which students contract with the ornamental horticulture department to grow crops of their choice. The department finances the projects and the students market their crops, keeping the proceeds after paying back the department's investment.
"Some students don't do any of these projects, and some do one or two each quarter. Nobody has done what Norman has," Gibbons said. "He has done at least 35, about five times as many as the average student, and has made thousands of dollars."
In 1985, Fang received a scholarship for a semester at the University of Hawaii. His work in propagating anthurium plants there brought praise from Michael J. Tanabe, an associate professor, who said Fang "quickly gained the respect of his peers as a student and an entrepreneur."
Trying to explain his interest, Fang said: "I know it's hard for some people to understand. I just find a lot of excitement in tissue culture.
"Plants are like pets--you take care of them, and they respond."