Six years ago, Julie MacKenzie wandered into a greenhouse looking for a Christmas gift. She emerged lovestruck - for orchids.
"It was yucky wintertime and the orchids were so colorful, so beautiful and cheerful, I was captivated," MacKenzie recalls.
Since then, MacKenzie and her husband Geoff have studied up on this strange and storied plant and filled their Lower Makefield home with up to 100 of them - mostly crowd-pleasers such as Oncidium, Vanda, and Phalaenopsis.
"Orchids are really stunning," MacKenzie says.
And old. Exactly how old is a question that has fascinated evolutionary biologists since Darwin's time. Frustrated them, too, because orchids, which grow on every continent but Antarctica and are the largest plant family on Earth, seemed to have left no definitive fossil trace.
Then, two years ago, researchers in the Dominican Republic discovered a fossilized bee stuck in amber, still clutching a tiny ball of pollen, which they identified as having come from an orchid. Working backward on the modern orchid's sprawling family tree, they concluded that the oldest common ancestor probably dates to about 80 million years ago.
"That means orchids were present when dinosaurs walked the Earth," says Ron McHatton of the American Orchid Society, who has 2,500 orchids in his private collection.
It's all part of the allure of a plant that stoked a frenzy in England and the United States in the mid-1800s and early 1900s. Crazed Victorians dubbed the affliction "orchidelirium."
Even 15 or 20 years ago, orchids were considered "exotic," a rich man's curio known for dazzling flowers and arcane sexual habits.
"People ooh'd and ahh'd whenever they saw one," says Tom Purviance, co-owner of Parkside Orchid Nursery in Ottsville, which grows about 100,000 plants, mostly unusual tropical varieties, for hobbyists and collectors.
Today, more than $123 million worth of potted orchids are sold in this country annually, most between October and Mother's Day. Their popularity is second only to poinsettias and is way ahead of chrysanthemums, roses, and other favorites, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Orchids come in every shape and size - "minis" are the rage - and every color but black, including opportunistic orange for fall and red for winter. Some have a delectable vanilla or chocolate fragrance; others stink like rotten meat. And because of advances in tissue-culture propagation, super-cheap clones are everywhere.
"For an orchid in the marketplace, we now pay the same price we paid in 1975 - $10. It ought to be $175 today," McHatton says.
These mass-produced orchids come from so-called cloning houses run by Chinese and Thai business owners who, about 15 years ago, set their sights on the U.S. market. Purviance counts six such facilities within two hours of his nursery alone, all of them churning out millions of attractive plants that mature quickly, bloom for a long time, fit in a box, and tolerate shipping.
Orchids, then, have become a disposable commodity. When they stop blooming, a lot of folks just toss them, which troubles many true orchidists.
But wait. "Do you cringe when you throw away a poinsettia or Easter lily?" Purviance asks pointedly. "Orchids are moving into that kind of profile."
Some neophytes do try repotting, only to watch their prize rot and die. That's because most orchids, called epiphytes, don't grow in soil, like traditional house plants.
In the wild, their roots are attached to a tree, rock, or branch, way up in a tropical forest canopy, an environment that Purviance and his partner John Salventi mimic in their greenhouses. There, orchids grow on cork slabs or cedar shingles or in wooden-slat baskets filled with fir-bark chips. Light, food, temperature, and humidity are tailored to orchid type.
These are lessons Christine Jacoby, a member of the Pinelands Orchid Society, has been learning since she was given her first orchid 15 years ago. "Their roots are used to being rained on frequently, then they dry off fast. They're not sitting in a pot of soil," she says.
Jacoby's hobby grew so fast that at one point she had 300 orchids in her Moorestown home, some crowding her dining room table. Today, as she and her husband search for a smaller house, she has "only" 50. "Orchid people joke that there's always room for one more. You can really pack 'em in," she says.
They also joke that you're not a real orchid-grower till you've killed your weight in orchids. Which helps explain why the Orchidaceae family retains its fusspot reputation.
Purviance insists otherwise. "They're not hard to grow. They're not expensive. They're not exotic. They're different, not difficult," he says.
And there's this: "For $25, you can get a Phalaenopsis that will be gorgeous for three months, while $30 in cut flowers is done in a week."
A good beginner plant is the widely available Phalaenopsis, often called moth orchid because its round, oversize petals resemble a flying moth. It comes in many colors - white is famous - and in solids, stripes, and spots.
It grows low and compact, likes consistent watering and fertilizing, and prefers a temperate atmosphere. It adapts well to windowsills or fluorescent lights and blooms for several months, from autumn to spring. Some go year-round.
One of Julie MacKenzie's moth orchids has been in bloom for more than six months. "The flowers were burgundy-spotted at first, now pale pink. I buy things I like to look at," says MacKenzie, who belongs to the Bucks County Orchid Society and has more than 50 orchids.
In summer, they hang from trees or decorate the deck. In winter, they thrive on windowsills or under lights, creating a heavenly, tropical feel in an otherwise traditional suburban setting.
With winter looming, what could be better?
"Orchids make winter more bearable," she says.
Read garden writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/