On the cover North Coast Journal

April 14, 2005


For the love of orchids [ photo of nursery staff standing behind orchids in greenhouse]

On the cover: Roy & Frae Wittwer surrounded by their "team from heaven" at Sequoia Orchids.
For the love of orchids


story & photos by ELLIN BELTZ

[close-up of cymbidium flower]AT SEQUOIA ORCHIDS, brilliant flowers and spiky green leaves vanish to infinity like a perspective assignment in art class. The greenhouses hum with activity. Blossoms are packed, living plants moved from small pots to large pots and the air is scented with the perfume of hundreds of thousands of orchid plants. [Left: orange cymbidium flowers at Sequoia Orchids]

"It all started with one plant my husband, Roy, bought me for Valentine's Day 33 years ago in 1972" said Frae Wittwer, 62. Her voice dropped, "When we got married we started from less than zero; we had no furniture, just plants. Then Roy came home with the first orchid and we built a greenhouse just for it." Within three years, they were selling orchids to Cottage Gardens and other customers along the Pacific Coast.

Sequoia Orchids is Humboldt County's largest and oldest orchid growing operation. Their earthquake proof Dutch greenhouses shelter nearly 1 million orchids in all sizes of growth, from babies to flowering plants. The business provides for six employees and the Wittwers, but as Frae says, "The amount of money we make has never been the primary goal for us. Being in a business we're passionate about is what's important. If you love what you do, it's a success."

[person using razor blade to reveal pollen sacs in an orchid flower]Everyone knows Humboldt County is famous for specialty horticulture, but commercial orchid growers? As I found out in a week of orchid hunting, our fertile countryside hosts a half a dozen operations, each specializing in a different group of orchids. Some grow first quality seedlings, others one-of-a-kind full-grown plants. Either way, most are shipped out of county.

Orchid fever

Roy Wittwer's sprightly walk and infectious enthusiasm mask his 75 years. He's passionate about orchids, and as a retired physician diagnoses himself with a lifetime case of "orchid fever." He says, "It's happiness. It's the wonder of nature. It's a passion. We can't wait to see the new seedlings and make more new crosses. Our goal is to share more beautiful orchids with the world."

Both he and Frae point out it's a passion they share with millions of people around the world. "We started as a cut-flower house," said Frae. "Some of our oldest customers still expect their cut flowers for Easter." Roy's fascination with orchids dates back to 1944 when he saw whole beds of Cymbidium orchids in lath houses at a nursery in West Los Angeles. "Those old green and yellow orchids, no one would look at them today," he said. "But hybridizing them produced all the big showy Cymbidiums we grow now." He now has 65,000 square feet under glass.

[person holding jar of baby orchids]While millions of orchids can and are raised from seeds today, the foolproof way to get copies of known, beautiful flowers is by cloning. Roy took an orchid and carefully cut into it to reveal a structure called a basal meristem from which he can culture 2,000 exact copies of the source orchid.

Roy and I peeked in the windows at the culturing and propagation lab and then his "maternity ward" with uniform racks of flasked babies disappearing from view as far as the eye could see. Then he led me through the potting area, where members of what he described as "my crew from heaven" potted up small and large plants. "Orchid roots are like a sponge," Roy said, "The best potting medium in the world is redwood wool."

[Above right: orchid pollen sacs revealed. At left: Flasks of baby orchids. Below right: Maternity ward for baby orchids at Sequoia Orchids]

I never saw a million orchids before. But counting all the babies, I probably saw a billion orchids at Sequoia. Roy's biggest problem, he said, is "getting rid of orchids! I could grow so many more if I could sell more." Roy's dream is to create orchids inexpensively enough that everyone can afford them. Humboldt's nearly perfect growing conditions are offset, he remarked, by the distance to any sizable market of orchid consumers. Sequoia sells mostly wholesale, through its Web site and by phone. Most of its customers live beyond Humboldt although some local businesses buy from them and sell Sequoia Orchids at retail.

[hundreds of jars of baby orchids on tall shelves, lit by flourescent lamps]Roy is a wealth of knowledge and passionate about his obsession. He said that the fascination with orchids is to a large extent due to orchid collectors' love of detail: the differences among families of orchids, individual plants and even bloom-by-bloom comparisons on the same plant. He said that Orchidaceae is the largest family of flowering plants, with nearly 500 genera and 20,000 species worldwide. There are about 20 species of local native orchids, including several in the local dunes, hardly the place you'd expect to find plants more commonly associated with the tropics.

Orchids have been known since ancient times. Their name, "Orchis," comes from the Greek word for "testicle," and refers to the shape of their bulbs. The family itself is far more ancient than human history, dating back to approximately 120 million years ago when dinosaurs wandered the earth and most of the continents were joined. As the continents split, orchids went along for the ride. Now they are found everywhere on Earth except Antarctica, where they may have been before crushing ice sheets destroyed its ecosystem.

Patience required

People used to believe that orchids were hard to care for, that they couldn't be raised from seeds, that they were best left for the rich to toy with, Ray said.

But beginning in the 1930s, when orchid seeds were first cultivated in captivity, scientific knowledge about them grew quickly.

By the 1950s orchid hybridizers had created 20,000 named varieties by taking the pollen from one plant and putting it into the ovary of another. Now the number of varieties is over 200,000 and growing every year.

Still, orchid cultivation is not for impatient people.

[John Brugaletta holding orchid plant in greenhouse]"Raising orchids from seeds is a crap-shoot," said John Brugaletta, 29, recent Humboldt State University student and proprietor of Freshwater Orchids. [photo at left] He said that growing orchids from seeds is tedious, time-consuming and precise. Even so, he hopes to culture his own seed some day, because that's where the excitement is: the thrill of creating a brand new plant. [below right: orchid seed pod]

Right now, of our local growers, only Sequoia Orchids does its own seed laboratory work; the rest send the seed pods out of county. The labs return baby plants in flasks two to three years later. After that, it can take up to five years for the plants to flower.

Brugaletta specializes in South American Pleurothallid orchids, including lovely members of the genera Dracula and Masdevallia. He pointed out that they don't have the lovely fragrance usually associated with orchids. Instead he said, "They smell rather like new office furniture."

[orchid seed pod]Pleurothallids make up for it with their flowers. They have particularly showy sepals, two of their petals have become small and look like snail eyestalks. The third "lip" petal has become a pouch. With the two "eyes" the lip makes a face, hence the name "little dragon." Contrary to H.G. Wells' famous story, "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid" (originally published in Pearson's Magazine, April 1905), their flowers do not really suck blood.

Brugaletta is a wealth of information about orchids. He caught the orchid bug the traditional way. He saw a beautiful orchid, bought it, took it home and killed it. He pointed out a new one of the same kind and said, "Look at these tails. Look at the orange color. This was like nothing I had ever seen." Soon orchids had taken over his living room, he added. "It was the last thing my mom expected, me in plants." He says his girlfriend humors him, but she's begun to pick out lovely iridescent orchids for him to grow. Brugaletta grew wistful as he fingered a lovely Dracula's flowers. He said, "I wish I could go to Peru and see these in the wild," and added, "Maybe someday." Until then he's in the long, slow business of growing orchids in nearly perfect natural conditions.

Having taken plant taxonomy and other specialized classes at HSU, Brugaletta showed me how the anatomy of the flower, stem and root distinguishes different families of orchids. The flower comes from the stem. Three sepals originally cover the flower bud. As the bud opens the sepals' bright colors are revealed as are three flower petals. Two of the petals are usually mirror images of each other, the other has become modified into the "labellum" or "lip" which adjoins the reproductive organs. The lip provides the entry to the flower's inner sanctum. Pollinators are forced past sticky yellow pollen packets and onto the plant's ovary. Once fertilized, the top end of the stem enlarges sometimes to several inches long and up to three or four million seeds form inside. [Above left: Masdevalia flowers at Freshwater Orchids. Below right: John Brugaletta holds a Dracula orchid flower]

[person holding orchid flower]Walking around Brugaletta's Freshwater greenhouse, he explained that orchids exploit various lifestyles. They live in trees as epiphytes, on bare rock and pebbles as lithophytes and even terrestrially on humus-rich forest floors. Among the 23 native species of orchids in Humboldt County are Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa), Transverse Rein Orchid (Piperia transversa), Elegant Rein Orchid (Piperia elegans), Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana), and Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), all of which grow on local dunes.

What's the secret?

So why the mystique, the drama, the charisma? What has an orchid got that most flowers have not got?

[door opening into room full of orchids and windows]When they do bloom, the flowers are brightly colored, long-lasting, usually deeply scented, and associated with mystery, romance and intrigue. Turn-of-the-century Eureka was not immune to orchid fever. John C. Cottrell, a top millwright built his ornate home on C Street in 1900. Sometimes described as "mini-Carson Mansion," the Cottrell house has been lovingly maintained in nearly its original condition by a series of owners, most recently Katharine and Michael Eagan, who proudly showed me the only known intentionally built orchid room in town. Just to the side of the main door, there's a view window into it from the grand stairs, so Cottrell could see his flowers on the way up and down the stairs. [At left: The Cottrell House orchid room in Eureka]

The room has nearly perfect conditions for orchid growing, north and east facing light under shady overhangs, no heat and lots of windows to provide the gentle drafts these exotic flowers crave. Not surprisingly, Katharine, a master gardener, is herself in love with orchids. There are a dozen in the room and a few hardy outside growing Cymbidium orchids in pots around a fountain. Her husband even built her a greenhouse for her orchids, but she found they preferred the old room so they moved right back in to the Cottrell House.

Elsewhere, orchid growing was an upper class hobby from the 1700s until the 1970s when cloning brought orchid prices down from unreasonable to affordable. Many people in Humboldt culture these new and less expensive varieties. Some belong to local fancier groups, the Eel River Orchid Alliance and the Humboldt Orchid Society. The Eel River group meets the first Saturday of each month at 1 p.m. at Sequoia Springs Residential Care in Fortuna. Members get orchids from each other and from the monthly raffle. The Humboldt Orchid Society meets at the Adorni Center in Eureka on the fourth Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m. Both groups participate in an annual orchid show in Arcata in October.

`Odont heaven'

[Patricia Hill in orchid greenhouse with hundreds of flowering plants]Strawberry Creek Orchids is a mainstay at local exhibitions. Nestled right along the coast near the McKinleyville airport, visitors are greeted by Anna, a large white dog, and Patricia Hill, her owner, who specializes in classical Odontoglossum orchids and sells one-of-a-kind seed raised orchids to collectors all over the United States through her Web site. Hill, who appears to be in her late 50s, also shows at Humboldt County farmers' markets, although she says they mostly sell carnivorous plants at the markets, not orchids. "People are into instant gratification," Hill said, "They don't want to wait to see a flower; they want it now." Her devoted customers, on the other hand, regularly buy plants that have not yet flowered for the thrill of seeing the first bloom. It may be a show orchid or a dud. You never know with seed-raised orchids. [Above right: Patricia Hill in greenhouse at Strawberry Creek Orchids. Below left: Odontoglossum like this one mimic insects that are their pollinators in the wild.]

[close-up of odontoglossum flower center]Years ago, the Wittwers visited her when she worked at the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate. They told her of the wonderful growing conditions in Humboldt. She and her late husband relocated here 20 years ago and started the business.

Hill said, "Odonts aren't easy, but we're in Odont heaven here with the high coastal humidity and cool summers." Strawberry Creek has registered 35 hybrids and has another 35 Hill is considering for registration.

Just about then, a large Pacific tree frog started calling lustily from a bromeliad. The frogs are tolerated. The abundant ferns peeking out of every pot are not. "We are in the midst of weeding right now," she said as her assistant wheeled out 65 gallons of fern debris. "I hate ferns," she hissed vehemently, then smiled immediately as an orchid caught her eye. "I got an Award of Merit from the American Orchid Society for this one," Hill said as she touched yet another brilliant flower. "Some of the judges want all the flowers to look exactly the same, spot for spot," she said, "You have to know your judges -- and your flowers." She showed me an orchid in seed. Its long pod hung down from what once was a flower stalk. It takes from nine to 12 months to mature, then it will be harvested and sent to the lab for processing. Two or three years later, the babies will come back for planting. Another three years, and they'll be ready to flower. Hill will be waiting for them. "Orchid growing is not for people who want to get rich fast," she said, "In my experience, it's not for people who want to get rich at all."

[Blaine Maynor holding orchid flower]Just down the road I met with Blaine Maynor, 35, the energetic co-owner of Orchids for the People who had just returned from an orchid show and was busily directing his crew shipping a few orchids. Maynor grew up with orchids, graduated from HSU and began collecting weird and rare species. Eventually he ran out of space in his house, moved to a greenhouse in Arcata in 1995 and moved again to his current McKinleyville site in 2000. He grows Odontoglossum, Dracula, Masdevallia, Zygopetalum and Dendrobium plants. The latter are native to Australia. [Right: Blaine Maynor shows off a Masdevallia in his McKinleyville greenhouses.]

Maynor said he sells through eBay, his own Web site and an orchid clearinghouse www.orchidmall.com. He shows at local farmers' markets, out-of-area judging shows, the local October orchid show and the Orchid Society meetings, as well as being open to the public four days a week. Perhaps his most interesting local idea is plant leasing. He explained, "I'll bring the orchids, place them, maintain them and put out new ones, all for a monthly fee." He also provides masses of orchids for weddings and builds greenhouses for other orchid fanciers, including Humboldt's newest growers, Paphways Orchids in Fieldbrook.

Joel Bollinger, 44 [photo at left], began growing orchids in 1987 when he lived in the Bay Area. He said, "When I saw my first Pahphiopedilum, it just grabbed me. That's why I specialize in only Paphiopedilum orchids." The first pot he bought contained two species. "They were $50 each," he said. "It was the most I'd ever spent on a plant. But what I really love is that many of my orchids were named for famous orchid growers whom I've actually known."

Bollinger grows Paphiopedilum, also called the lady's-slipper orchid. Bollinger first fell in love with the flowers in San Francisco back yards where old Cymbidiums grew in pots. True to form, the first orchids he bought died -- probably because of overwatering -- and he was hooked. "I got orchid fever," he said. "They're so easy, so beautiful. Water them once a week and fertilize regularly, that's all." [Below right: a classic lady's-slipper orchid at Bollinger's Paphways Orchids in Fieldbrook]

[lady's slipper orchid]Standing in his greenhouse, he pointed toward a shade house also full of orchids. "I'm just figuring out how to sell orchids in Humboldt County," he said. "Most people up here are more into flowering plants, but once they catch orchid fever, that will change." His voice trailed off as he considered it. As we went though his greenhouses, he gently touched various plants, old friends all. His kitchen has specially made flask racks, one contains a seed cross he made five years ago. "They'd grow faster if I put them out" in the greenhouse, he said. "But they're so cute when they're little."

Bollinger's only been growing in Humboldt since 2002. Moving up here and starting his business is his life's dream. "I always wanted to live in the country and grow orchids. So here I am." He left the Long Beach rat race for Humboldt's perfect orchid conditions and hopes to grow enough orchids at Paphways for "everyone to have one."

Catching the fever

Regardless of the kind of orchids they grow, all the growers did their best to get me hooked. They all repeated what the books said, "Beginners need full grown plants, not babies." So several full-grown orchids followed me home this week, sitting beautifully around the computer while I type. I wonder, which will be the first to die? Maybe I'll get lucky and they will all live, letting me enjoy their flowers and perfume without the death-guilt from which springs so many cases of orchid fever.
[At left: Zygopetalum orchid throwing its unusual flower spikes upwards at Sequoia Orchids]

I know more orchids are killed by overwatering than underwatering but I still can't get over flowers that can last up to six months that grow on plants that will die in a couple of days if you put them in a bucket of water. Orchids are contrary like that. Yellowish leaves are healthy and brownish little pseudobulbs sticking out of pots are not dead, merely waiting for conditions to be right. Then up goes the flower stalk, in search of a pollinator -- or a collector -- to appreciate their beauty, perhaps to spread them farther than they ever could go alone.

Frae Wittwer warned me. As her husband put a pot of orchids in my truck, she said, "Just wait. First it's a plant or two in some corner, then watch out!"


Ellin Beltz writes theater columns and occasional cover stories for the Journal. She is a paleontologist and author of the upcoming book Frogs: Their Inner Life Revealed, due from Firefly Books in October 2005.

[frog in center of bromiliad plant]
Pacific treefrog calls from the watery pocket inside a bromeliad in the Strawberry Creek Orchids greenhouse.

Orchid growers of Humboldt

Orchids for the People
1975 Blake Road, McKinleyville
Blaine Maynor

Sequoia Orchids LLC
Roy and Frae Wittwer

Paphways Orchids
3631 Fieldbrook Road, Fieldbrook
Joel Bollinger

Strawberry Creek Orchids
4373 Central Ave., McKinleyville
Patricia Hill

Freshwater Orchids
774 Ole Hansen Road, Freshwater
John Brugaletta




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