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Bitten by the Orchid Bug

August 2004, Garden Center Merchandising and Management Magazine containing "Bitten by the Orchid Bug" article.

Bitten by the Orchid Bug

Orchids are no longer a specialty plant reserved for the wealthy with grand greenhouses. They have gone “mainstream” in a big way! According to the USDA they are now second in potted flowering plant sales, behind poinsettias, with $106 million in reported wholesale sales. And unlike poinsettias, which are declining in sales, orchid sales increased by 4% last year. This is clearly an up and coming new flowering pot plant category.

Why Are Orchids So Popular Now?

Orchids have long represented the ultimate in elegance and style. Just look at any upscale interior decorating magazine and notice what plant is adorning the living room. It’s usually an orchid, most frequently a gracefully arching phalaenopsis or moth orchid.

Two fallacies have put a damper on orchid sales in the past. One was the perception that they were difficult to grow and required a steaming greenhouse to survive; the other was that they were exorbitantly expensive. While this may have been true in the past, it is not today. Orchid breeders have made great progress in developing vigorous varieties and clones that are easy to grow and flower. Also, growers have dramatically shorted the time from start to finish of this crop and have learned to manipulate their flowering so that orchids are now available year around. As a result, availability of orchid plants is fairly constant and the wholesale cost has dropped.

Which Orchids Are The Best Ones to Offer?

The orchid family is huge—over 30,000 species and over twice as many hybrids! This can make the choice of which plants to offer seem daunting. It’s best to stick with those orchids that are easiest to grow. These are varieties that require low to medium light, will do well in home temperatures, don’t have extreme humidity requirements, and bloom for a long time.

Leading the list of orchids that fit this criteria are the phalaenopsis or moth orchids. A mature plant will be in bloom for months, will grow well in low light, similar to African violets, thrives at room temperatures and has humidity requirement no greater than any other houseplant. Their foliage is also attractive and can either be solid green or marbled. The color range on the newer varieties is amazing. Most everyone has seen the whites, pinks, and candy stripes, but now, thanks in great part to Taiwanese breeders, there are also fine red, yellow, magenta and spotted varieties available, and unbeknownst to many people, even very fragrant ones.

Cattleyas have long been considered the quintessential orchid. This was the corsage orchid of a generation ago. The cattleyas of today that are sold as pot plants still frequently have the sweet fragrance and dazzling colors, but their plant habit has been tamed. Most of the newer varieties are much more compact. In fact, one of the most popular groups of these plants is the “mini-catts”. These plants grow only 6-8” tall so are ideal for windowsill or light gardeners. Cattleyas do require more light than Phalaenopsis, but do have most of the same other growing requirements as the phalaenopsis. The flowers will not usually last quite a long as the phalaenopsis, but many of the newer hybrids bloom two or more times a year.

The Oncidium Alliance is a group of orchids that has really come on strong in the last several years. By crossing species of Oncidium with closely related genera like Miltonia and Odontoglossum the results have been an impressive array of rainbow colored flowers on large sprays. Included in this group is one of the most popular and best selling orchid, Oncidium Sharry Baby, also called the chocolate orchid because of its delicious fragrance. Again, they are easy to grow and flower.

The fourth candidate is the Paphiopedilum or lady’s slipper orchid. This orchid not only has exotic flowers that last 6 or 8 weeks, but the foliage on many of them is simply gorgeous, so even when they are not in bloom they are very attractive houseplants. These orchids have a low light requirement, about the same light as phalaenopsis, and come in single and multiple flowering types. Until more recently the larger, round modern hybrids were most popular, but now the species and primary hybrids, that sport both single and multiple blooms seem to command the most interest.

How Can You Make Your Orchid Offering Special and Different?

Independent garden centers are very aware that the box stores have gotten into orchids in a big way. They mostly offer white, pink, and striped phaleanopsis, Dendrobium phalaenopsis, some Oncidiums, and a few of the standard cattleyas. Price points are usually from about $14.95 to $29.95. So how can you compete against this?

Think niches. Try featuring fragrant orchids, offer phalaenopsis in different colors or offer dramatic specimen plants of them for gifts for special occasions. Focus on the dwarf or mini-catts rarely found in the box stores. Set ups displays showing how your orchids are ones especially selected to do well on a windowsill or under lights. Have orchid workshops. Start your own orchid club. Recently, I worked with a garden center to do this and now orchids are the biggest selling plant category in their store. Offer a complete line of orchid potting and growing supplies. Offer light carts suitable for growing orchids.

Presentation of orchids is another big opportunity. Check out some of the high-end magazine and plant companies to see how orchids are displayed. Put them in decorative pots, ties they up in creative ways, cover the potting media with moss. These are value added steps that the box store will never be able to compete with.

To get more information and for excellent printable cultural sheets check out the American Orchid Society’s website at Try offering this rapidly growing category of potted flowering plants to your customers. You may find that you will be bitten by the orchid bug. It’s a wonderful, but highly infectious affliction.