A few weeks ago, I visited one of the largest Phalaenopsis growers in central Florida, DeLeon’s Bromeliads. The nursery has been there for decades and workers were frantically packing orders. It was peak season; colorful blooms seemed to go on for miles.

A large sign on the property read, “Closing soon. Everything must go.” I went into the sales office to get an explanation. Imagine my surprise when the manager informed me that DeLeon’s was getting out of the orchid business and going into marijuana.

That sentiment was echoed at other facilities that I toured. “We can make a hundred times what we make on orchids,” said one grower. Another remarked “We are just waiting for the permits.” In every case, it wasn’t a question of if, but when.

Commercial orchid farmers have a long history of changing crops to meet the needs of the public.

Around the 1900s, corsages were made out of relatively simple flowers — camellias and gardenias. However, ladies weren’t too excited about having their floral accoutrements looking like everyone else’s and they longed for blossoms with more pizzazz. Their wishes were granted when nurseries started growing cattleya species which had breathtaking orchid lips and an endless number of hues.

The roaring twenties brought cattleyas to the forefront of fashion and growers couldn’t cultivate seedlings fast enough. In order to speed up the process, tens of thousands of jungle-collected plants were imported from South America and were ready to produce flowers in as little as six months.

By the 1940s, hybrids started to replace the species. These man-made cattleyas offered twice as many flowers per plant and the delicate petals resisted bruising. The economics were clear — out with the old and in with the new.

The swinging sixties brought a new kind of orchid as cymbidiums were introduced as cut flowers and the economics of crops changed again. These plants offered five times as many blooms as cattleyas and in a wider range of colors. In addition, this genus could be raised outside or in minimally heated greenhouses which saved production costs.

By the 1980s, orchids were no longer worn at all and growers had to adapt. Fortunately, potted plants became in vogue as hobbyists began raising orchids in their homes. All genera were experimented with but Phalaenopsis took over the marketplace with their simple care and long-lasting blossoms.

Today, the Phalaenopsis revolution continues and it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have a plant or two on their windowsill. Grocery stores can’t keep them on the shelves and it’s solidly the No. 1 houseplant. Despite all this, nurseries around the country are abandoning orchids in favor of marijuana.

People ask me all the time, “So when are you going into marijuana?” This crop seems to be the cover story of every trade magazine we subscribe to and there are plenty of conferences that explain the finer points of production. Besides, Chadwick Cannabis has a ring to it…

But what marijuana and other plants lack is the history, glamour and passion associated with orchids. Brave explorers discovered the species in the 1800s and each had stories to tell. Early hybridizers created never-before-seen flowers around the turn of the century and European aristocrats threw fancy parties to celebrate. American women — including first ladies — wore luxurious corsages for decades and today’s homes are widely glamorized by orchids.

The nearly immortal plants date back to the light bulb and their lineage can be traced a dozen generations.

In other words, our orchids are here to stay.

Arthur Chadwick is president of Chadwick & Son Orchids Inc. Reach him at 1240 Dorset Road, Powhatan, VA 23139; (804) 598-7560; or by email at info@chadwickorchids.com, Previous columns are on his website, www.chadwickorchids.com.

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