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Orchids' Popularity Blossoms As Competition Brings Price Cuts

ORCHIDS that once belonged only to the rich are becoming a hobby for Everyman.

Because of recent breeding advances, it is possible for commercial growers to mass produce orchids. This is making "orchids less expensive to the general public," says Mariko Kawaguchi, a researcher at DeRosa Orchids here. A blooming orchid plant that sold for $30 to $40 several years ago now costs $15 to $20.

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Thanks to the price drop, the demand for orchids has been very strong, says Victor DeRosa, the shop's owner. He sold 5,000 orchids last year, up from 500 plants in 1987.

"Orchids are the queen of all the flowers," says Mr. DeRosa, who started his business in 1941. At that time, he says "only a rich person could buy orchids." When a friend gave him an orchid plant shortly after World War II, he fell in love with it at first sight.

Orchids "are so long lasting and appealing," says Ruth Owades, president of Calyx & Corolla, a fresh flower catalog firm in San Francisco. Compared to other flowers that last for one or two weeks, orchids bloom for 4 to 6 weeks. Ms. Owades says orchid sales have grown about 25 percent in the past five years. Her company sold 350,000 stems of orchids on this year's Valentine's Day, up from 300,000 in 1992.

There are about 25,000 species of orchids, ranging from the thimble-sized Mystacidium caffrum to the 20-foot-tall Renanthera storiei. The most popular varieties are Cymbidiums, Dendrobiums, Phalaenopsis, Vandas, and Cattleyas. It usually takes four to six years for an orchid to grow to maturity.

There are at least 300 commercial orchid growers in the US - mainly in California, Florida, and Hawaii - according to the American Orchid Society in West Palm Beach, Fla.

American growers have recently been facing increased competition from countries like Thailand and the Philippines that have cheap labor and a warm climate. Thailand, the world's No. 1 producer of orchids, exports more than $55 million of these flowers each year.

In 1991, 5.65 million Cymbidium blooms and 24.2 millions stems of other orchids were imported to the US, compared with 3.29 million Cymbidiums and 14.51 million others in 1987, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

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"We just can't compete with cheap orchids from Thailand or Hawaii," says DeRosa, who spends $80,000 each year for heating his greenhouse. The cost for growing an orchid plant can be as low as $1 per year in Hawaii, compared to $8 dollar per plant on the mainland. In an effort to compete, DeRosa shipped 10,000 "baby" orchids from his greenhouse to Hawaii last year. Because of the heating bills, "commercial orchid growers in New England are having a difficult time," says Gary Kraus, a collector of 1,000 or chids in Boxford, Mass. Mr. Kraus notes that there are more than 90,000 orchid collectors nationwide.

Even though the price for popular orchids has come down, the cost for other rare species has gone up, according to Bruce Rogers, co-owner of Rogers/Fishman Orchid Boarding in San Francisco. Mr. Rogers sells expensive orchids that range from $50 to several thousand dollars for up-scale clients, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Gump's, and Hermes. He also provides boarding services for people who go on a vacation or want to leave their orchids in the greenhouse until they bloom.

Growers say orchids are not as difficult to grow as many people think. Filtered light, high humidity, and moderate temperatures are the key elements, they say. One of the most common mistakes is overwatering. Watering once a week is enough, DeRosa says. "Too much water will kill it." The other problem is sunburn. "People often burn orchids because they expose the flowers to too much light," says Tom Perlite, owner of Golden Gate Orchids in San Francisco.

DeRosa, who has rare orchids in his greenhouse that often cost $5,000, refused to say whether his business is profitable. But "I feel rich with these plants."

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