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The orchid king

How one bloom led an orchid hobbyist to grow a thousand plants.

Imagine fragrant six-inch orchid blooms resembling colorful birds in flight or space aliens with open jaws.

In the 1980s, orchid hobbyist Douglas Pulley became so captivated by the dramatic appearance of these exotic Stanhopea orchids that he began hybridizing them, a painstaking procedure. Because of his skill in choosing compatible parents for his hybrids, Dr. Pulley, an ophthalmologist, remains the world's most successful Stanhopea breeder and is also a hybridizer of scores of more than 200 other orchids.

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Pulley calls orchids the epitome of flowering plants. Scientists estimate there are nearly 30,000 orchid species found in natural habitats on every continent except Antarctica. Pulley's first orchid, Cattleya 'Los Gatos,' was a 1974 birthday gift from his wife, Kathy. Like serious orchid lovers all over the world, Pulley quickly discovered it was impossible to own just a few. An overwhelming urge to buy "just one more" won every time. Within four months, Pulley owned more than 100 orchids, many purchased at a grower's moving sale.

"Early on, when a friend would ask why I liked orchids, I would reply, 'They don't talk back,' " says Pulley. "Not to say that they never died, but it is a peaceful hobby with beautiful results. And an endless stream of admirers."

After he and his wife moved back to his hometown of Los Gatos, Calif., in 1976, Pulley became serious about his hobby. He joined the Santa Clara Valley Orchid Society, an affiliate of the American Orchid Society (AOS). With the guidance and encouragement of experts, he built a backyard greenhouse so he could increase his collection and begin hybridizing.

The greenhouse sits in a corner of his lushly landscaped backyard, which backs up to a steep, tree-covered hill in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Its peaceful setting complements the serenity he says he derives from caring for his orchids, to which he devotes about 20 hours a week. Pulley has about 1,000 orchids in his collection at any given time.

Quite a few of the orchids Pulley grows in the greenhouse can also be grown inside an average home. Orchids popular with amateur growers include Paphiopedilums (Lady Slippers), Phalaenopsis (moth orchids), and Cattleyas (prom orchids).

Aficionados understand that orchid-growing is not an exact science, even for a scientist like Pulley. Although he has won numerous AOS awards, Pulley admits his orchids sometimes die unexpectedly. "I still like the definition of an orchid expert," Pulley says. "It's somebody who has killed 1,000 orchids."

Through patience and persistence, Pulley has created more than 200 hybrids from various orchid species.

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"Doug makes intelligently planned hybrids," observes Andrew Easton, an international orchid consultant, hybridizer, and AOS judge.

After artificial fertilization, it takes a few years for an orchid seedling to graduate from a special glass flask into a pot of its own. The first bloom won't appear for another few years, and the highly anticipated hybrid flower can be a stunning success or monumental disappointment.

"I always tell novices that orchid siblings are just as different as you and your brother, and each family is different in that regard as well," says Pulley, who has 12 grandchildren. "We always hope the [plant] offspring will pick up the best characteristics of both parents, but you may have guessed that such luck is the exception."

His Stanhopea hybrids account for about half the Stanhopeas registered at London's prestigious Royal Horticultural Society. (An orchid hybrid must be registered at the RHS after its first bloom to be considered for any future award.)

Rudolf Jenny, a renowned Stanhopea expert and author of the monograph "The Genus Stanhopea," corresponds with Pulley from his home in Switzerland. If Pulley comes across a Stanhopea without a name tag, he sends a photo to Mr. Jenny for help in identifying it. Jenny says in an e-mail that he plans to include several photos of Pulley's Stanhopea hybrids in an upcoming article.

The orchid is named for the fourth Earl of Stanhope, a 19th-century English medical botanist.

In nature, Stanhopeas grow in rain forests from Mexico to Brazil, and in North America they can bloom outdoors in medium light from June to October, under the right conditions. They require special hanging baskets lined with moss since their long spikes grow down and out the bottom of the container. Each spike carries numerous flowers, a fortunate arrangement since each flower lasts only a few days. Their fragrances range from a mouth-watering chocolate mint to wintergreen.

Along with his numerous prized Cymbidiums, Pulley's Stanhopeas thrive in an open-sided shade structure at the back of his home. Both types of orchids also do well on east-facing porches in areas where temperatures don't regularly dip below 35 degrees F. When the occasional frost or freeze threatens, Pulley sets up electric heaters in the shade structure. People with small orchid collections can bring their plants into a cool room, garage, or basement and provide artificial light until the danger of frost has passed.

From a single Cattleya orchid 33 years ago, Pulley's "peaceful hobby" has taken him into the rarefied world of breeding and earned him awards and accolades. His fascination with unusual living things – spiders, snakes, and Stanhopeas – shows no sign of abating.