Beyond corsages; Orchids have graduated from the senior prom to elegant living rooms, and you don't have to be a millionaire to grow your own collection; Focus on orchids

Here's something you probably didn't know about orchids: These days, lots of them are cloned. Just like those sheep in Scotland - only more of them. You could look at a million of the dancing lady orchid, Oncidium 'Gower Ramsey,' for instance, and they would all be genetically identical.

Here's something else you probably didn't know: They're not all that hard to grow. A little bright light, a little heat, a little humidity, a little water - that's all it takes. If you can manage African violets, you can grow orchids.

Not astonished yet? Here's the clincher.

Orchids are not all that outrageously expensive anymore.

Oh, sure, you can spend $500 or $1,000 for a rare breeding plant, or as much as $25,000 for an extremely rare specimen. But more common orchids, including the clones, can cost as little as $20. A baby plant, one that hasn't flowered yet, can cost just $4. If you attend an auction, like the one held recently in Clarksville by the Maryland Orchid Society, you may even find a bargain.

"We sold some boxed lots, 10 plants to a box, for $20," said Cyrus Swett, who is treasurer of the society and an avid collector.

And by the way, "common" is not entirely a misnomer: Orchids are the largest family of flowering plants on earth. They grow everywhere - except the North and South poles. There are orchids that are native to every state in the union. Maryland is the habitat of the yellow Cypripedium, or terrestrial lady's-slipper, which grows in Oregon Ridge, and the pink Cypripedium, which has been found near Severna Park.

Common as they are, however, orchids are still associated with some pretty exotic households. There are orchids named for Nancy Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor and Diana, Princess of Wales.

According to Vogue magazine, it was fashion designer Halston who, in the early '80s, irrevocably linked orchids and fashion when he placed masses of white Phalaenopsis on a coffee table. Before that, orchids were treated as rarities, and used sparingly. The magazine cites designers Donna Karan and Geoffrey Beene, writer Joan Didion and Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner as orchid collectors.

"They're not just for corsages any more," says Ory Webster, of Jeweler/Webster Creates, a floral design shop in the Belvedere. "That was a special thing. Now you're seeing orchids everywhere - even in the Safeway."

No one knows for sure how many species of orchids there are in the world - the American Orchid Society estimates more than 25,000. There are two types: epiphytes, which means tree-dwelling; and terrestrial, which grow in rotted bark or leaf mold on forest or jungle floors.

Most wild orchids are protected under the 1975 Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which outlaws trade in them. Cultivated orchids, however, are hot items, and have been since collecting orchids became a major craze in the 19th century. Orchids are notoriously hard to replicate. Their seeds are microscopic, and many species seem reluctant to produce seed pods.

The development of orchid cloning in the middle of this century has been a major boon to orchid fanciers, and has democratized the hobby.

"Everybody grows orchids," says Merritt Huntington, co-owner (with his son Thomas) of Kensington Orchids in Kensington, a major orchid supplier in the mid-Atlantic. "We had a plumber, we have multimillionaires."

Whoever is growing them, there's a "grace and character" about orchids that makes them unique, says Thomas McBride, partner in the Little Greenhouse in Carney. "The thing that draws people is their own love for unusual things."

Unusual is certainly the word. Orchids come in a mind-boggling array. There are orchids so small that it takes a magnifying glass to see the flowers, and orchids with masses of blooms as big as soccer balls. There are orchids that smell like candy bars, and orchids that smell like rotten meat. There are orchids that flower continuously, and orchids that flower for only a day. There are orchids that look like shredded wheat, and orchids that look like shoes.

Swett, who lives in Ellicott City, has about 300 plants, "in a little greenhouse on the side of the house." The society has members who grow orchids on an indoor windowsill and people who have huge greenhouses with 4,000 to 5,000 varieties.

Most people start with one of the easier-to-grow types, Swett says, such as Phalaenopsis, which tend to have larger, dogwood-shaped flowers, and may bloom continuously for as long as 6 months.

Other common varieties are:

* Paphiopedilum, a lady's-slipper type

* Oncidium, also called dancing lady orchids because their petals resemble a dancer's whirling skirts

* Dendrobium, which look a little like a columbine

* Cattleya, those corsage orchids

* Cymbidium, which are more leafy and have spikes of cup-shaped flowers

Southgate "Bud" Hammond, of Upperco, is an avid collector who has 600 plants of 50 different species in his 14-foot-by-30-foot greenhouse. It's hard to stop collecting, he says. "Every time you buy a different plant," he says, "you expect something wonderful and exotic."

After all, people are driven to collect all sorts of things, muses McBride, of the Little Greenhouse.

"Orchids," he says, "can be very addictive."

WHAT DO ORCHIDS REALLY WANT?

Despite their reputation for being fussy, orchids are not that hard to grow or care for. Here, according to growers and collectors, is what they like:

* Lots of bright light, but no direct sun. East and west exposures are best, if you're putting the plants on a windowsill, or they may tolerate filtered south light.

* Humidity. They prefer humidity levels to be 50 percent or higher (so do humans). Pebble trays filled with water can help, as does grouping plants so they can share a humid corner.

* The right growing mixture. Ardent orchid growers all have their favorite formulas, but orchids like such mediums as long-strand sphagnum moss, red or white fir bark, redwood fiber and chunky peat moss. A reputable orchid supplier will know what suits each variety.

* Enough water. Underwatering is a common mistake with orchids.

* Moderate temperatures. A daytime range of 68 to 72, and a nighttime range of 62 to 65 are ideal. However, some plants can tolerate highs of 80 degree and lows of 50 degrees.

SEVERAL PLACES TO FIND ORCHIDS

* The Little Greenhouse, 9845 Harford Road, Baltimore, Md., 410-661-4748.

* Kensington Orchids, 3301 Plyers Mill Road, Kensington, Md., 301-933-0036.

* Arbec Orchids, 11711 Laurel-Bowie Road, Laurel, Md., 301-490-4903.

For more information on orchids, call Cyrus Swett at the Maryland Orchid Society, 410-750-8821.

You can also go online to www.vg.com/vg/Gardens/AOS, or www.pha.jhu.edu/~mr/mos.html.

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