They used to be only for obsessed collectors and horticultural connoisseurs with greenhouses. For most people, if you had an orchid once in your life, it came in a corsage you wore to your senior prom.
But in the past few years, orchids have been easing into the mainstream. They are so common now you can pop a phalaenopsis into your supermarket basket beside the milk and cereal. They are now produced so inexpensively that this formerly high-end plant can be purchased for as little as $7.99 at Trader Joe's.
Consumers, nonetheless, are still put off by the care and feeding of these delicate and elegant plants. People toss out their orchids once they've dropped their flowers, convinced they could never get them to rebloom.
"A lot of people do toss them," said Susan Anderson, president of the Sonoma County Orchid Society, whose Petaluma home is filled with orchids. "I have friends that get orchids dropped off in their driveway. They know they're an orchid grower and it's going to a good home."
Ann Chambers is not an orchid grower or member of the Orchid Society. But as a master gardener, she likes a good horticultural challenge. So when she received her first orchid among the floral condolences after her husband's death six years ago and the plant died, she was determined to figure out why.
She set about researching the families of orchids commonly sold in markets and nurseries — oncidium, phalaenopsis and cymbidium. She discovered that it's not that hard to keep them alive and get them to rebloom. From now through June, she will be teaching a series of monthly classes through the Sonoma County Master Gardeners, sharing what she's learned about "Supermarket Orchid Survival."
"I'm having a lot of fun and no trouble working with my own orchids and getting them to rebloom, and I find that very satisfying as a gardener," said Chambers, who now has some 40 pots of "supermarket" orchids in her Sebastopol home.
Anderson said orchids have recently become more available because growers have figured out how to hybridize and cultivate them in perfect greenhouse environments, getting them to grow within a couple of years.
"Ten to 15 years ago, it would take five years to grow a plant of a decent size with a nice bloom on it," she said. "It's more costly for a grower to have to wait five years. Now they sell them in the hundreds of thousands instead of just the hundreds."
Many of them are grown right in California, in Salinas, Bakersfield and Fresno, she added, as well as China and even The Netherlands.
Phalaenopsis and oncidium are are the most ubiquitous market orchids and fairly easy to take care of. Phalaenopsis generally have a broad leaf and oncidium have slender leaves with long-lasting sprays of small, distinct flowers in unique color combinations.
Chambers said one of the main reasons so many of them don't make it is that they're sold in pots filled with moss, which is not a recipe for success.
"They're used to living on bark when they're in the wild," she said, explaining that in nature they grow on the bark of trees. "Being in moss all the time, the roots tend to rot. The grocery store orchids are basically set up to die in 30 days, especially with people who are not careful with watering them."