DOWN the narrow drive, white narcissus bloom in profusion and birdsongs fill the air, but soon enough these diversions yield to the real business at hand. Here at the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate, exotic tropical blossoms are everywhere: atop tables and on fences, in pots and hanging baskets, mounted on cork slabs and clinging to tree trunks -- startlingly beautiful orchid flowers in virtually every color.
Just when you think you've seen them all, you see this: Dendrobium speciosum var. hillii 'Santa Barbara' -- an 8-foot-wide, 800-pound floral fantasy with no fewer than 200 spikes, each poised to unfurl quarter-size white flowers scented with sweet perfume. It's a $25,000 specimen that will be the star of the Santa Barbara International Orchid Show this weekend.
The event is one of the largest of its kind in the nation, with more than 50 exhibitors luring seasoned fanatics and curious beginners alike. For Southern Californians there is a bonus, which is Santa Barbara's orchid country itself.
Forty-three percent of all orchid plants and cut flowers in the U.S. hail from the Golden State, principally Santa Barbara County, and to gardeners' surprise, many of those nurseries are open to the public year-round for touring. During the run of the show Friday through Sunday, four growers -- two in Goleta and two in Carpinteria -- will introduce new varieties, hold special sales and offer advice on tending to the plants, not the least of which is how to get them to flower year after year.
The nurseries differ in size and specialty, and combined with the show, they're enough to keep any orchid lover entertained for an entire weekend. Perhaps the best place to start is the home of the must-see-it-to-believe-it Dendrobium speciosum, the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate.
Santa Barbara Orchid Estate
This nursery sits on 5 seaside acres at the crest of a bucolic road in Goleta, and at its heart the aura is more Costa Rica than coastal California.
The 50-year-old operation, which prides itself on the variety of its offerings, specializes in outdoor "temperature tolerant" orchids -- species and hybrids that can withstand lows in the 20s and 30s and highs up to 100 degrees.
The inventory includes more than 1,000 species. The range is stunning, which is perhaps why, when asked to name a favorite, founder Paul Gripp diplomatically says, "I like all orchids equally."
His daughter Alice Gripp, now co-owner with brother Parry, is partial to Laelia anceps, an easy-to-grow, cold-tolerant species native to Mexico with star-shaped flowers in white, lavender or blue.
She also likes oddballs such as frog orchids, pointing to one with pale flowers like "little hand puppets." Another favorite: Epidendrum propinquun, a compact grower with arching sprays of spidery half-inch-wide green and brown flowers.
"There's an orchid for every person, and a person for every orchid," she says, comparing the nursery to a dating service: It matches customer with plant based on their mutual preferences and needs.
Santa Barbara Orchid Estate, 1250 Orchid Drive, Goleta. Free. For regular hours and other information: (805) 967-1284, www.sborchid.com. Special show hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Across the road and down a short lane you'll find Cal-Orchid. Owners Lauris and James Rose met while working at the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate and have run their own nursery here for 20 years, growing a vast assortment of the common and the curious, including new hybrids potted in neat rows inside bright greenhouses.
Between customers and phone calls, Lauris Rose flits from one astonishing flower to the next, passing under basketed jewels hung from the rafters and dropping factoids for visitors along the way.
Dendrobium kingianum is compact, floriferous and as easy to grow as falling off a log, she says. Neofinetia falcata, a dwarf Japanese species with white coconut-scented flowers, thrives on a windowsill. Paphiopedilum, better known as lady's slipper orchids? They want low light and high humidity. Masdevallia veitchiana 'Highland' is tricky, Lauris Rose says, but men in particular love its kite-shaped blossoms that glow red.
Visitors can see rare specimens that never make it to the shelves of supermarkets. Oddities include little orchids that make no leaves and bloom on their greenish, worm-like roots. Then there's Bulbophyllum picturatum, which has parts that twitch just like the flies that pollinate them. (The twitching attracts the pollinators.) "Those are hard," Lauris Rose says.
For some of these orchids that are more difficult to grow, she suggests creating a habitat. An old fish tank works well. Add cork oak sticks and mount miniature orchids on them.
"The cork traps moisture, the terrarium traps heat," she says. "You can even add a tiny pond and pump."