BOLINAS, Calif. — They're temperamental, but tough. Sensitive, yet strong. They bloom infrequently, but beautifully. And some say figuring out how to make orchids thrive at home can be as challenging as raising kids.
Well, maybe it's not quite as tough as that.
But like parents packing children off to camp, orchid lovers across the country are paying hundreds of dollars each month to professional boarders who take care of the plants when they're not in bloom.
"I have the sickness," said Jeff Doney, a San Francisco architect who estimates that his collection of 200 orchids is worth about $10,000. He spends $300 a month boarding his plants at California Orchids in Bolinas. "I might be driving a new Jaguar for the same price."
Doney is fighting his addiction. He recently reduced his monthly bill from $500 by weeding out less desirable plants. And he's trying to buy fewer new ones, although he's constantly tempted by an endless parade of new breeds and hybrids.
"It's time to stop," Doney said. "I'm satisfied with what I have."
Experts conservatively estimate that there are 25,000 varieties of orchids, excluding hybrids.
Vienna Anderson, who has 15 flowering plants in her Richmond, Va., home, switched from buying fresh flowers every week to orchids.
"I like the serenity of the plant," she said. "I like the beauty of the plant."
Anderson spends about $50 a month boarding her 45 plants at Chadwick & Son Orchids in Powhatan, Va.
"We find we're much like the guy in the wealthy neighborhood where someone's cutting the lawn, someone's trimming the bushes," owner Art Chadwick said. "We're taking care of the orchids."
Most orchids typically bloom once or twice a year, some for just a few weeks at a time. The rest of the time, they're fallow and not particularly attractive. Some are downright mangy with plain, wide leaves and exposed roots.
A former wholesaler, Chadwick began boarding orchids 17 years ago.
"Once they buy them, they send them back to us to baby-sit," he said, adding that he and his staff house about 11,000 plants for about 2,000 customers.
Mary Nisbet, who owns California Orchids, came to the state in the 1970s to learn about orchids. She boards about 12,000 plants in five temperature-controlled greenhouses for 200 customers.
She and five employees repot, fertilize and water the orchids in their care. Every Friday, they set aside the plants that are beginning to bloom, notify their owners and deliver them to their homes. When the blooms fade, the customer calls Nisbet, who sends a driver back to retrieve the plant.
"They grow slower when people take them home and they come back weaker," she said, surveying thousands of plants on pallets in the humid greenhouse.
The flowers are magnificent: reds and pinks, whites and yellows, speckled and striped. Some have softball-sized blossoms, others sport flowers so tiny they need to be tilted upward with a pinkie nail.
Orchids are big business. Worldwide, the retail economy in orchids adds up to about $9 billion; in the U.S., wholesalers ship nearly 8.5 million plants a year.
Improvements in breeding and production have resulted in plants that look flashier, last longer and cost less. In the early 1980s, the Phalaenopsis, the most popular type of orchid, sold for about $40. Now, one costs as little as $10 at Home Depot.
"The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession" by Susan Orlean, about the shady, sleazy world of orchid poaching, and Spike Jonze's film "Adaptation," based on the book, have only added to the orchidelirium, the name that Victorians gave orchid-collecting fever.
"Everyone's interested in them. They're a good conversation piece," Doney said, adding that his plants complement nearly every room of his 1,800-square-foot house. "They're all over the place. I have pretty good light. They bloom ... then they go back to boarding school."