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Petal push

Orchids star in Santa Barbara, and nearly everywhere else.

March 18, 2004|Joan Tapper | Special to The Times

Orchids were once considered a rich man's hobby, but these days they seem to be everywhere: on office desks, on living room tables and in the aisles of Trader Joe's.

In fact, they've become the second most popular potted flowering plant in the U.S. after poinsettias, according to the Department of Agriculture. In recent years, they've also burst into pop culture with Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief" -- about a Florida orchid hunter and the elusive ghost orchid -- translated to the movie "Adaptation." Eric Hansen's book "Orchid Fever" was another lively expose of a shady world of collectors who flout international restrictions on gathering, selling and importing plants.

On a more positive note, there are the orchid shows "akin to the dog world," says Lauris Rose, co-owner of the Cal-Orchid nursery in Santa Barbara with her husband, James. "You have ego, competition, beauty and a lust for the pick of the litter."

The world's largest such show took place in Tokyo a few weeks ago, featuring about 100,000 plants, including rarities from Madagascar and one from Ecuador called 'Dracula' because of its resemblance to a vampire bat. This weekend is the 59th annual Santa Barbara Orchid Show, the longest running in California and the fourth largest in the United States. About 70 exhibitors and vendors will show off 22,000 plants Friday through Sunday.

Though the Santa Barbara show will have displays from as far away as South America and Southeast Asia, the central exhibit consists of hundreds of orchids from Ventura Farms, a 2,200-acre complex in Thousand Oaks owned by David H. Murdock, chief executive of Dole Food Co. In all, Ventura Farms has about 25,000 orchid plants, overseen by conservatory manager and staff horticulturalist Mike Owen. In the 2 1/2 years since he was hired, Owen has doubled the size of Murdock's collection.

"Most orchid people are fixated on a plant's value as an awarded species," says Owen, referring to plants that have been recognized by the American Orchid Society. "We're more interested in the decorative aspects."

Among those with smaller displays at the show will be Sandra Svoboda and her husband, Albert, a retired doctor and the president of the Cymbidium Society of America. They are so passionate about orchids that they have his and her greenhouses, each reflecting different personalities, at their Montecito home.

Albert Svoboda's 420-square-foot glasshouse is filled with thousands of mostly Paphiopedilums, or lady slipper orchids, blooming plants chockablock with trays of the hybrids he's been working on for 30 years. The lurid "paphs," as they are called, with their protruding pouches, are green and purple, yellow and red, striped and spotted.

Sandra Svoboda's greenhouse is more eclectic; Cattleyas hang near the roof ("they like the light and warmth"); an odd yellow flower with a purple heart (an Epidendrum, the so-called poor man's orchid) rests in a corner. There's also an example of Oncidium 'Sherry Baby.' ("It smells like chocolate.") She's become interested in Bulbophyllums too, showing off the little star-shaped flower of a Philippine orchid.

The difficult names -- there are 30,000 to 35,000 species of orchids in the world, and passionate orchid collectors seem to know them all -- simply roll off the Svobodas' tongues like the names of family members. And in some cases, they actually are the names of family members.

"When you make a successful cross, you're allowed to name it," Albert says. "We've named about 90 plants so far." 'Sandra Lee' honors his wife. There are also flowers named for the couple's mothers, children and grandchildren.

The ready availability of orchids today is the result of improvements in technology. Cloning hybrids using bits of plant roots has brought costs down significantly, as has the rise of large-scale offshore nurseries.

Andy Easton, former director of education for the American Orchid Society, remembers that when he started growing orchids 46 years ago, the average blooming Cymbidium cost $80. "That would have paid for a meal for four in a nice restaurant," he says. "Now it's like microwaves and calculators. The orchids have improved, and prices have come down."

A classic case in point: the orchids, starting at $6.99, at Trader Joe's. Most of the plants for its West Coast stores come from California nurseries. "People really like Phalaenopsis and Cymbidiums in season," says Lori Latta, the company's plant and flower buyer. "They're comfortable with them. They use them for decoration."

Although Santa Barbara has been eclipsed by nurseries abroad -- especially those in Thailand and Holland -- as a growing center, the county still produces more orchids than any other in the U.S. The history of orchid growing there goes back to the 1930s, when owners of large estates in Hope Ranch and Montecito began to buy and raise orchids, which flourished in the Mediterranean climate.

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