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Dive into SoCal's Budding Orchid Subculture

The state flower of California may be the poppy, and the city flower of Los Angeles may be the bird of paradise, but no other flower seems to incite such passion in the souls of Southern Californians quite like the orchid.

One of the two largest families of flowering plants, orchids even captured the fascination of Charles Darwin, who wrote about their patterns of pollination and how to hybridize them back in the 19th century.

Whether it’s the “moth orchids” or the “dancing ladies,” cultivating orchids is a challenge — especially if you don’t have your own greenhouse to protect them from direct sunlight and extreme heat.

But collecting orchids, on the other hand, is an adventure.

Although typically considered an “exotic” species — one that’s commonly found in Indonesia, the Philippines and Ecuador — there are places in California where orchids (31 native species, including the “lady’s slipper”) do grow in the wild. But you’re more likely to find them at Trader Joe’s or Pavilions than growing out of a tree root in Griffith Park.

If you’re casually curious about these colorful and fragrant flora, or you’re already a flower fancier on your way to becoming a full-blown orchid addict, here are five great ways to nurture your growing passion for SoCal’s most seductive cultivars.

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1. For The Frisky Admirer: Stroll Through A Botanic Garden

Although some orchids do actually grow in the wild in Southern California, you’re much more likely to see them in a controlled environment at a botanic garden, where these exotic, flowering plants can flourish. One of the best such gardens in Southern California is The Huntington, whose Conservatory features orchids in both its “Rain Forest” and “Cloud Forest” habitats — right alongside carnivorous plants and the infamously stinky “Corpse Flower.” And these are not your typical supermarket blooms. In fact, The Huntington is the only place you can find the award-winning specimen of Paphiopedilum micranthum, appropriately nicknamed “Huntington’s Perfection.” With approximately 900 orchid species and more than 2,000 unique hybrids represented here — many of which are rare or endangered — perhaps the best way to learn more about them is to go behind the scenes on a Tropical Nursery Tour led by The Huntington’s curator of tropical collections. Bone up on your orchid lingo by attending one of The Huntington’s orchid-focused, free garden talks, which don’t require admission and are usually followed by a plant sale. The International Orchid Show and Sale usually occurs at the Huntington in the fall, though the 2017 dates have not yet been announced. And when you’re ready to get even more advanced, The Huntington also houses a collection of rare botanical books in its archives — but since only some of its items are available to the public and others exclusively to scholars for research purposes, it’s best to inquire ahead of time. Elsewhere in Southern California, you can visit the Tropical Greenhouse at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden during regular operating hours, and you can attend this year’s Orchid Clinic at The San Diego Botanic Garden on October 7, 2017.

2. For The Curious Collector: Visit A Private Nursery

Going straight to the source of those who actually grow their own commercial orchids is a great way to figure out the right orchid species for you to start a relationship with — and how to take care of it so it lasts. Their expertise will go way beyond what you might find from a florist or floral arranger who specializes in orchids. Your best bet is to travel along the California Orchid Trail in the Central Coast region, where you’ll find a variety of growers you can visit. For example, the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate hosts an open house in both the summer and the fall (the next one is November 4 and 5) in addition to its regular hours when it’s open to the public. Cal-Orchid welcomes guest vendors to its annual summer open house (its “Summer Hummer,” which occurs in July), but you can visit and purchase from this working nursery during its regular hours Monday through Saturday (just call ahead to make sure they’re not on the road). And you can purchase orchids directly from the retail stores of Westerlay Orchids and Gallup & Stribling Orchids (which has devoted an entire area to the Cymbidium orchids), both in Carpinteria. You can also head south to Cal Pacific Orchid Farm and its “museum-like showroom” in Encinitas — but for more exclusive access to some of these private companies that have built a business out of blooms, make an appointment to visit Andy’s Orchids in Encinitas or Sunset Valley Orchids in Vista. And if you think of orchids as short-lived or even disposable houseplants, visit Gubler Orchids in Landers for a tour of their greenhouse, which contains some orchids that have lasted as long as 80 years. (Gubler also hosts its annual Morongo Basin Orchid Festival the first weekend in October.) 

Gubler Orchid 2
Sandi Hemmerlein
Gallup & Stribling
Sandi Hemmerlein

3. For The Committed Hobbyist: Join A Group

Once you’ve committed yourself to the orchid as your flower of choice, the next natural step is to find others like you. And while orchids may not be as mainstream in Southern California as other cultivated flowers like roses, there’s pretty much a group for every interest in Southern California. Of course, a good place to start is by going national with the American Orchid Society, since it provides a wealth of resources (including publishing its Orchids Magazine) to learn all about orchids and even warn you which species are illegal to grow or even possess in the U.S. For a more regional experience, The Orchid Society of Southern California has been sharing its love of orchids with novices and advanced collectors alike since 1940, making it Southern California’s oldest orchid society. It meets in Burbank on the second Monday of every month except August (non-member visitors welcome) and hosts its annual orchid auction in the late spring. But really, there’s probably a local orchid society near you, no matter where you are — be it Malibu, the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, the Inland Empire, Long Beach, South Bay, Orange County, San Diego or Santa Barbara. And many of them have been around for a half a century or more.

4. For The Budding Horticulturalist: Grow Your Own

It’s one thing to buy a potted, mature, blooming orchid and try to keep it alive for more than the guaranteed 30 days. It’s another to actually try to coax another round of blooms out of it, despite how barren it may appear. But there’s nothing like propagating your own. It actually is possible to grow orchids outside in Southern California — with the right supplies. Visit society-recommended suppliers like U.S. Orchid Supplies in Oxnard or Foothill Hydroponics in North Hollywood, both of which also sell products on their online stores. If you’re interested in growing orchids from seed, there’s an entire biotech industry devoted to helping you grow your own hybrids and even clones. Your local nursery may provide what’s called “flasking” services — which is essentially a laboratory service in which you send in your orchid seeds for processing and germination and, in return, receive “mother” and/or “daughter” flasks (a.k.a. “bottle babies”). You can create these in vitro progeny at home, of course, but be sure to consult an authority on how to de-flask them once their gestation period is over.

5. For The Unabashed Enthusiast: Hit The Competitive Circuit

Once you advance into more serious territory with orchids, you may want to up the stakes a bit more. After all, why just attend one of those orchid expos and peruse the flowers when you actually have a hand in awarding the best ones the top prizes? The crème de la crème of horticultural judging, of course, comes from the American Orchid Society — which is constantly looking for new recruits. More information can be found through the AOS Pacific South Judging Region, which has judging centers in the San Gabriel Valley, San Diego, Long Beach and Santa Barbara. And in the meantime, you can pore over The Handbook on Judging and Exhibition, which the AOS considers its “Bible” of orchid judging.

Top Image: Caitlyn Willows/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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