Seductive Beauty: The Lure and Lore of Orchids
PUBLICATION: The Beach Times, Costa Rica, print edition
Man killed by yellow fever. Panama. 1867.
Man eaten by tiger. Second one in expedition burned alive. Philippines. 1901.
Man beheaded by tribesmen. Papua New Guinea. 1974.
Explorers have long met gruesome fates in search of treasure, zealous in their thirst for power and glory. But it was another kind of obsession that killed the men listed above: flowers.
Fresh and dewy, aromatic, mist-covered flowers—orchids specifically—brought these soldiers down. And while their circumstances were unique, historians say it’s not unusual for people to risk all for this elusive bit of flora.
“When a man falls in love with orchids, he’ll do anything to possess the one he wants. It’s like chasing a green eyed woman or taking cocaine, it’s a sort of madness,” wrote Norm McDonald in The Orchid Hunter.
Which is not to say the flowers don’t also, at times, prove quite lucrative. At present, orchids drive a 10-billion-dollar-a-year industry and the world’s rarest blooms sell for up to $24,000 on black markets.
It may come as no surprise then, in a region as lush as Costa Rica, to find local entrepreneurs cashing in on the coveted crop.
“When you start looking at it as a business you see their beauty,” says tour guide Jesús Villalobos Granados.
The guide works for Orchimex, a 9-hectare (about 22 acres) orchid farm in Aranjuez outside Puntarenas, which exports about 45,000 plants and over two million cut flowers each year.
The farm differs from a typical botanical garden in that it produces and sells large quantities, mostly to clients in North and Central America.
“The country buyers are Canada, the US, and Mexico,” says tourism director Evelyn Zapata. “We sell to a commodities broker and his person sends it to a wholesaler. From there, they sell it to shops, supermarkets, flower artists, or other places.”
According to Zapata, although certain regions produce more orchids, Orchimex produces more than any individual farm in the Western Hemisphere.
Regionally speaking, Hawaii is the world’s largest producer, followed by Thailand, and Latin American competitors include Mexico, Panama and Colombia.
The business produces a combination of about fifty original species and hybrids in a five to seven year cloning process. This involves extensive back-and-forth exchange with Thailand.
“We send pictures of the flowers to the owners and they select which ones they would like grown,” says Granados. “The pods then go to Thailand and the small plants, once germinated, come back in small bottles.”
They choose Johnny Walker whiskey bottles because, says Granados, they are flat and square-shaped. The plants sit in a nutrient-rich gel for about three months and then are placed in coconut fibers to bloom.
Once ready for sales, shipping is a delicate process. To ensure freshness they cut the flowers the same day they are shipped beginning around 4am. They are then put in a refrigerated truck, driven to Alajuela and flown out from there.
The average species will live two weeks after being cut, though more fragile plants last only days. Zapata says in these cases they ship the entire plant, rather than individually cut flowers.
“On the plants not cut, it’s a different story,” she says. “You can get two to three months.”
The farm is set up to imitate conditions in the wild. Saran shade cloth covers the growing area, fixing 60 percent of the sunlight. Hanging hoses spray the plants below to create a rain-like mist.
“The company has been trying to create an artificial forest,” says Granados. “It works like a forest canopy.”
Dozens of species are bred on the farm and five genera exist including Dendrobium, Mokara, Oncidium, Vanda, and Cattleya. They offer tours, though he says most visitors are horticulturists or prospective orchid farmers, rather than vacationers.
Farm favorites include Thong Chaigold, a thin, lime-colored flower with a mauve center, and Madame Pompadour, a top-heavy bloom with curvy, purple petals. There are rows of Guaria Morada, Costa Rica’s national flower, and names like Red Lip, Sweet Sugar, Ding Dang Blue, and Dancing Lady.
The Cooper is a dark-tinted member of the Dendrobium genus and the farm’s closest example of a black orchid. A truly black orchid—though yet to be documented—is a legend that fascinates many hunters.
Zapata, however, says it is purely mythological.
“There are no black orchids,” says the director. “People say that because they have the illusion, but biologists say no, it’s not possible to have a black flower. They need brighter colors to attract pollinators.”
“Belize’s national flower is the Black Orchid, but it’s not really black,” adds Granados. “It’s a deep purple.”
Orchid history dates back to 1800 BC and the flower has appeared in everything from ancient Chinese texts to Shakespearean poetry to the more recent film Adaptation, based on Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief.
English horticulturist William Cattily, after whom the cattleya genus is named, popularized the flower during the 19th century. Prior to his notice nobody knew the plant produced flowers and used it as packing material.
“They’d never seen orchids before,” Granados says. “The English were looking for plants but they didn’t know what they would find.”
Orchids range from common to virtually extinct.
New Zealand’s Anzybas carsei, for example, grows in only one swamp in the world and only one person knows the path. It is dark in color, the size of a marble, and blooms just two weeks each year.
Though several people have made the waist-deep bog trek, it has only been photographed a few times.
Granados says the majority of orchids are not rare, growing everywhere except deserts and tundra.
“That’s a myth,” he says. “They are really strong. It’s like the bonsai. They’re not hard but you need to know how to grow them.”
The biggest problem, he says, is people try to put them in soil, when what they need is lots of air.
Orchids fall into one of three categories: epiphytes, which grow on trees, lithophytes, which grow on rocks, or terrestrials, which grow on the ground.
Rather than separate male and female parts, their reproductive organs are fused into one piece called a column, which releases pollen and also acts as a receptacle for fertilization.
This, paired with a Latin root meaning “testicle” and shapes that often take on suggestive forms, has led centuries of artisans and poets to associate the flower with love and sexuality.
Zapata, however, says the little bloomers are just trying to reproduce like anything. She admits, though, the attractive features don’t hurt.
“In the wild you show your best perfume, you show your best color, you show your best shape—and you wait for someone to pollinate you.”
This article was originally published in a print edition of The Beach Times newspaper, Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Photo with permission from Pixabay.