I used to think orchids were only grown by rich matrons in grand manors, fine ladies in white gloves who had greenhouses in which to cosset the fragile, stemmed beauties, and servant gardeners to tend them.
Then they started selling orchids in grocery stores and in hardware stores, and I decided orchids must not be such forbidding plants after all.
"The exotic quality of the orchid is what conjures in the mind of the consumers this high intrinsic value," said Jim Jordan, executive director of the American Orchid Society in Delray Beach, Fla. "And that makes people reluctant to try them."
The truth is, orchids are a bargain, and they thrive on benign neglect, so it takes effort to kill them, experts will tell you.
The blooms last from two to nine months, so if you are spending $10 a week for a handful of fresh flowers for your kitchen table, $30 for a quality orchid is a smart investment, even if you don't want to make the effort to coax it into reblooming.
Orchids aren't fussy, either. Just don't overwater them, give them some easterly sun, a cool spot and some humidity and they will reward you with the most fanciful flowers you have ever seen.
March is orchid month at Whole Foods, where rows and rows of Phalaenopsis - probably the most widely recognized variety - and cymbidiums are on sale for $15 to $25. Rose Squatrito, floral supervisor at the store in Annapolis' Harbour Center, said she might sell as many as 160 plants in a couple of weeks.
"Some people are scared to buy them because they think they are hard to grow," said Squatrito, who has eight orchids that she successfully reblooms every year. "But I explain how to do it. It's not as hard as people think."
Gary Krause, co-owner of The Little Greenhouse Orchids on Harford Road in Parkville, is somewhat disdainful of the sale of orchids from grocery stores and big-box stores.
"Orchid nurseries won't sell a plant unless it is well-established," said Krause. "Big-box stores get them in a shipment from Taiwan, jam them in a pot and they go to hell pretty quickly. People end up thinking they can't grow orchids."
But the fact is, these poor cousins serve a purpose: They are an inexpensive introduction to orchids and, from there, the passion can grow.
Tom McBride, Krause's greenhouse partner, can testify to that. He bought his first orchid 25 years ago at the shop and has been there ever since. "It can get to be an obsession," he said.
Likewise, many orchid owners consider the plants disposable. When they bloom out, they simply toss the plant and buy another.
"That is the backbone of the business," said McBride. The orchid industry took a hit when they ceased being the flower of choice for corsages.
Walter Off, owner of Waldor Orchids in Linwood, N.J., doesn't mind the big-box stores selling orchids. "When they get serious about orchids, they come to us," he said.
McBride and Krause have a greenhouse full of award-winning orchids, but only a handful sell for more than $20 to $50.
"The best advice I ever heard is, 'Buy the best orchid you can afford. It takes the same amount of work as a mutt,'" said McBride. And the results can be breathtaking.
McBride and Krause won a fistful of awards at the Maryland Orchid Society Show this month, and many of their best specimens will make the trip to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., this weekend for the International Orchid Show and Sale.
"There are something like 30,000 species in the wild," said Jordan of the American Orchid Society. "And another 250,000 to 300,000 hybrids, and each one has its own exotic attraction.
"Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica. They grow on tree trunks, and they survive hurricanes. I think you'd have to say that orchids are much more hardy than people give them credit for."