Agri Leader

Orchids: The sensual member of Florida's floriculture

There's nothing quite like an orchid. Each flower is like a sensual work of art.

I am by no means an expert on floriculture (a high-falutin' name for the commercial growth of flowers), but I imagine that few flowers have inspired the passion that orchid followers seem to have.

Orchids grow particularly well in Florida's tropical climate, so, predictably, they are a big business here. My journey to orchids over the past few weeks began by watching the movie "Adaptation" with Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep. The movie is loosely based (keyword being loosely) on the bestselling Susan Orlean novel "The Orchid Thief," set here in the Sunshine State - I'll fill you in on the book a few lines down. Watching the movie made me want to read the book. A book about flowers may not sound too exciting, but it's a fascinating examination of obsession, passion, nature and how those things play themselves out here in our state.

I then was able to attend this month's Sarasota Orchid Show, which featured a variety of prize-winning orchids on display and for sale. The orchid lovers were out in full force.

With that background, here are a few facts I can share with you about Florida's orchid business.

1. Florida is the second largest producer of floriculture crops in the United States, and orchids are a key part of that business, according to stats from the state's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Of Florida's potted flower plant sales in 2012, orchids represented the largest chunk of sales second only to the generic Other Flowering Plants category.

2. A love of orchids (or perhaps the income they can garner) has inspired people in Florida and around the world to seek them out. "The Orchid Thief" tells the story of renegade plant dealer John Laroche, who, along with Seminole Indians, was arrested for trekking through the swamps of the Fakahatchee Strand State Park south of Naples about 20 years ago to poach the elusive ghost orchid. He had plans to clone the ghost orchid and sell it at a high price. Author Susan Orlean read a blurb about Laroche, which prompted her to travel to Florida and write a New Yorker article on his story. That later led to her book. Although Orlean spent plenty of time with Laroche and waded the Fakahatchee swamps, she never actually saw a ghost orchid.

I learned at the Sarasota Orchid Show that Stig Dalstr?m, a botanist/author/artist who calls himself Wild Orchid Man, has traveled with documentary filmmaker Darryl Saffer back to the Fakahatchee to find the ghost orchids for his Wild Orchid Man DVD series. The two are completing their series to call attention to the importance of protecting orchids around the world.

3. Orchids can have funny names. At the Sarasota Orchid Show, names like Jungle Eyes, Golden Peacock, Angel Love, Irene Finney, Nice Holiday, Surf Song, Blue Sapphire, and Paradise Jewel appeared beside exotic-looking flowers. Apparently, these common names - as opposed to the flowers' scientific names-can describe an orchid's appearance or show the name of the person who cultivated the flower variety.

4. Although all states grow orchids, Florida is apparently home to about half of the orchid species in the United States. There are 30,000 species of orchids grown around the world, and their blossoms can be as small as a mosquito or the size of a dinner plate, according to the Coral Gables-based American Orchid Society. Costs can vary, too. I've seen some as low as $6, and then there are some rare species in the thousands of dollars. Some orchids have no smell, others are fragrant; there was a species at the Sarasota show promoted because it smelled like chocolate.