Grower trains blooms for 'orchid Olympics'

Alan Diaz/Associated Press Robert Fuchs, president of R.F. Orchids, is shown at one of his orchid greenhouses in Homestead, Fla. R.F. Orchids has received many awards from the American Orchid Society.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press Robert Fuchs, president of R.F. Orchids, is shown at one of his orchid greenhouses in Homestead, Fla. R.F. Orchids has received many awards from the American Orchid Society.

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - The berry-colored buds looked ready to burst. Bob Fuchs tried peeling open the petals, but the hybrid orchid tightly refused to be coaxed into bloom.

Fuchs had hung the speckled fuchsia flower, one of the crown jewels of his orchid collection, just inside the door of a 90-degree greenhouse. He hoped the added heat and humidity would force it to flower for this week's World Orchid Conference in Miami, an event something like the Olympics of orchids.

A third-generation South Florida grower, Fuchs (pronounced FYOOKS) has registered more than 700 hybrid orchids, but this vanda is the only one he's named after himself: Robert's Delight.

Fuchs remembered seeing the buds unfurl into palm-sized, bright red flowers for the first time.

"I was so intrigued by the quality that we named it 'Robert's Delight,' because it truly is my delight," he said.

The orchid went on to win the equivalent of "best in breed" at the 2002 World Orchid Conference, the event that established him as orchid royalty more than 20 years ago.

It was another hybrid with round, fuchsia flowers that won him the grand champion prize for the best orchid in the world at the 1984 conference. The win encouraged him to stop teaching junior high art classes and make the family passion for orchids a full-time business.

The virgin hammock forest his grandfather bought to nurture a collection of native Florida orchids is now the 40-acre Fuchs Hammock Preserve in Miami-Dade County. Fuchs' father led orchid hunting trips in the Fakahatchee swamp in southwest Florida, and in Central and South America.

Fuchs, 61, is now recognized as an expert in vandas and hybridization - crossing two compatible orchid species to produce a new flower.

In the heated greenhouse, staring at a plant that wouldn't flower for another week, Fuchs said this is most exciting time, waiting to see what will bloom after two species have been crossbred.

The process can take years, and new orchid species cannot be named until they flower.

The technique is becoming less common, orchid growers say, even as the flowers become more ubiquitous, thanks to the popularity of the book "The Orchid Thief" and the movie "Adaptation."

Orchids are a nearly $160 million industry in the U.S., second only to poinsettias in potted plant sales, said Ron McHatton, director of education and regional operations for the American Orchid Society. Inexpensive orchids are sold in discount retail stores and garden shops as a longer-lasting alternative to cut flowers.

McHatton compares orchids to fashion accessories, discreetly showcased in photo spreads and home decor advertising.

"Orchids were really chic and rare and the 'rich man's hobby.' That's changing," McHatton said. "Plants are accessible at reasonable prices so I can have this unusual and beautiful and rare (if you will) plant - and I can get it at Wal-Mart."

Fuchs' breeds remain on a different level: "You don't get what Bob sells out of the Wal-Marts."

His orchids bloom in 10 greenhouses extending from his grandfather's original home, which he renovated and expanded. Closest to his garden shop, orchids bloom in orderly rows of pots. Farther down the property's loose gravel paths, tiny green leaves poke through handfuls of soil. These are hybrid orchids crossed in laboratories in Asia, then shipped here to grow.

Hybrid orchids in nature are rare. Some regard only naturally growing species to be true orchids, but Fuchs doesn't agree. Hybrids aren't Frankenstein flowers, he says. Hybridization, in practice since the 19th century, has produced better-quality flowers, Fuchs said.

"We have these huge flowers on a relatively small plant," he said. "That has been one of our goals, to bring the size of the plant to a more manageable size and produce the big flowers."

Orchids are the largest group of flowering plants in nature, but many species are being lost to development and farming as their habitats are razed, and more countries are restricting their native plant exports. Hybridizing and cloning preserves these orchids for future generations, Fuchs said.

"Through hybridization, by crossing flowers together, you have something new and exciting happening," Fuchs said. "If you stop making hybrids, we won't have anything new."

One orchid grower's tips for keeping an orchid in bloom

Keeping an orchid healthy is relatively simple: Know what you have, and don't over-water.

"People think that they're thirsty, that 'I better get that orchid a little drink of water,"' said orchid grower Bob Fuchs. "They rot them."

Whether buying orchids in a grocery store, a big-box retailer or a specialty garden shop like Fuchs' nursery, it's important to identify the species. Two popular species - sun-loving vandas and elegant phalaenopsis orchids - have different watering regimes.

"If you have an orchid in your house, a phalaenopsis that's growing in a mossy mix, put a couple ice cubes a week on top of the moss," Fuchs said. "Let that melt in there and that's enough water for a week."

Vandas can tolerate heavier, daily waterings if they're allowed to drain and dry thoroughly.

The round flowers on vandas should be doused during waterings to ward off mold, Fuchs said. But the moth-like flowers on a phalaenopsis should not be watered.

It pays to search out the orchid species best suited for your region, Fuchs said. The orchids in the grocery store are probably cloned from species that might thrive in humid jungles, but not in drier climates.

"A lot of these places, they pump the orchid and make it grow very fast, so they don't always survive as well as the ones you buy from a local orchid nursery who nurtures the plant and grows it in your region," Fuchs said.

Other tips for orchid care:

• Orchids should not be placed in direct sunlight or be subjected to temperature extremes, such as near air conditioning vents, window sills or outside doors.

• Once a month, feed the orchid a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer.

• When all the blooms fall off, trim the stem close to where it grows from the plant. If cared for properly, the plant will bloom again.

On the Net

More orchid care and information is available on the American Orchid Society's Web site, www.aos.org.

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