Even within Richmond, Virginia’s redbrick historic neighbourhood known as the Museum District, Art Chadwick’s flower shop seems like a quaint throwback to an earlier time. A bell chimes as you open the door, and fans swirl below a pressed-tin ceiling. Cymbidiums, cattleyas and other flowering orchids are presented in decorative pots on round tables. Along one wall, a green pleated sofa invites patrons to linger and chat.

I am here on a mild Friday afternoon in winter, and a small but steady stream of customers arrive, chatting in relaxed fashion with the proprietor. Chadwick, 56, is dressed casually in a brown cable-knit sweater, and he seems to be a guy comfortable in his own skin, smooth and urbane – in sum, exactly what you might expect in the genteel and luxuriant world of orchids.

For all the delight of this little flower shop, I can’t help thinking that it should belong to a time before mass merchandisers (nevermind the internet) came along and did away with mom-and-pop haberdashers, milliners, greengrocers and the like. But Chadwick and Son Orchids is thriving and preparing to expand. To understand why, you have to perch yourself on that green sofa and observe carefully. You will come to see that the customers aren’t just leaving with orchids, they are arriving with orchids.

Art Chadwick is meeting a need that is both absurdly obvious and, in the world of horticulture, spectacularly unmet. He babysits the orchids that you bought and bloomed and are now watching decline in a stupor of regret, shame and despair. Give Chadwick that flowered-out, wrinkled old moth orchid you got a couple of months ago and he will nurse it back to blooming health. Nine or 10 months after you drop it off, Chadwick’s colleague, Janis Ranck, will ask you to come back, and when you pick it up, it will be like a poodle fresh from the groomer: clean, fluffy and raring to go. He charges $2 (£1.50) a month to mind the plant – at pickup time the accumulated bill is about the price of a new one – but you will be getting back a larger, more robust and more floriferous orchid. More to the point, you will have your orchid back. “It has sentimental value,” he says. “The plant gets bigger with age. They want to see it again.”

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I am wary of services that take any gardening work out of your hands; we live in a nation of homogenised, leaf-blown lawns and hyper-mulched shrubberies precisely because we have ceded control of our yards to landscape crews. I recently came across an enterprise that keeps honeybees for you, which is sort of like paying someone to ride your bicycle. But Chadwick’s orchid boarding is one undertaking whose value seems so needed, even to a horticultural purist like me.

It still seems improbable for reasons I’ll get to, but first a little orchid history. Orchid-mania gripped wealthy Europeans and, later, Americans during the period of western colonial and mercantile expansion in the 19th century. Orchids are found around the world, but the most amazing types of these flowering perennials grow in the tropical Americas and Asia. The ornate, gigantic cattleyas grow on trees in the jungles of the New World. Moth orchids, or phalaenopsis, are indigenous to countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia. Some of the most gothic-looking slipper orchids are found in steamy Sumatra. In the 19th century, when these exotic beauties became known, nurseries and other patrons funded expeditions to bring them into the trade, where breeders got to work creating new varieties.

Orchid fanciers had to be wealthy – to buy the orchids, to house them in hothouses and to have the leisure time to cultivate them. In the past century, the rise of the corsage generated a cut-flower industry for cattleyas, though Chadwick wonders how such delicate beauties could have endured a cotillion. “One slow dance and they would have been crushed,” he says from his shop, looking at a potted cattleya whose blooms have been given protective pillows of cotton balls.

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The world changes, consumerism marches on, and things once considered luxuries for the well-heeled are now taken for granted by us all – homes with two and a half bathrooms, air travel, cars with power windows.

How the orchid and specifically the phalaenopsis crossed over from hothouse diva to America’s favourite houseplant – more than 36 million were sold in 2015 – has its origins in new propagation techniques after the Second World War. One of the pioneers was a French plant scientist named Georges Morel, who figured out how to produce asexually thousands of identical orchids from one plant through cloning instead of breeding from seeds. 

Today, sophisticated and highly automated production greenhouses around the world feed a rapacious consumer market. The quantity of orchids sold in the United States pales next to the 140 million raised for the mass market in Europe. One major grower in the Netherlands alone produces nearly 4 million phalaenopsis annually.

This translates into a $15 or $20 potted orchid at the grocery store and makes Chadwick and Son seem like a dinosaur, with its phalaenopsis costing $35 to $50, even if its plants are more luxurious in size, colour and general vigour.

Chadwick opened his business in 1989 with the help of his father, who is now in his late eighties and still raises 800 cattleyas in his Wilmington, Delaware, home. Art Sr helped his son build his first greenhouse and provided thousands of his own plants to create an early inventory but has not been involved in the day-to-day running of the business.

His son opened the Museum District shop 15 years ago, about the same time affordable orchids were flooding the market and on their way to edging out the poinsettia as America’s most popular houseplant. Was he perturbed? “I was a little worried until I saw how dreadful they looked in the stores,” he says. “The first few days they are there they’re OK, but soon afterward they start to go down.”

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Another reason for his viability is the sale of other more speciality orchids. In addition to the cattleyas, customers find such beauties as vandas, similar in size and form to phalaenopsis but bluer and patterned, and oncidiums, with their profuse sprays of bright, delicate blooms.

But to see Chadwick’s biggest bulwark against the cheap-orchid tidal wave, you have to take a little trip. We climb into his plush if ageing Lexus SUV and make our way west out of the city to Powhatan County. After 25 minutes we are in a place whose rural character is being eroded by the lapping waters of suburban development, but when we turn into a short driveway, we find a property that is its own 20-acre enclave. On the left sits a dark brown log cabin where Chadwick lives; on the right is a range of greenhouses. 

The entrance is fashioned into a retail area, a shop with a counter and shelving, but this world under glass (more precisely, panes of polycarbonate) is essentially a composite of several greenhouses that grew over the years. The atmosphere is humid and full of faintly sweet scent. 

In one small redwood glasshouse, approximately 2,000 phalaenopsis are crammed onto growing benches. The January light is bright but diffuse, the temperature reads 66 degrees and the air is moist and agreeably clammy. The orchids are full of new-flower spikes with buds in several stages of growth. A few have begun to flower and will soon go back to their owners.

Orchids that arrived in perilous shape receive red tags, but even these, for the most part, have been nursed back to flowering health in the intervening months. Chadwick likes to grow phalaenopsis in clay pots with a sphagnum moss medium, discarding the common plastic pot and the bark mix, both of which are used by growers to save on shipping weights and costs, he says. (Repotting is an additional $3.) Each has a label bearing the owner’s surname and a bar code.

Phalaenopsis is America’s most popular houseplant (Getty/iStock)

The orchids spend the summer outdoors under shade cloth – they like Virginia’s hot, humid growing season – and are brought inside in the autumn, but only after getting at least three weeks of 10C night temperatures. This is required to initiate a new flower spike and is probably the reason your indoor phalaenopsis grows lushly without re-blooming.

Inside greenhouse number two, the orchids are hand-watered every few days with water that has been warmed to about 65 degrees. “It took us a few years to realise that this is really the secret to growing orchids,” Chadwick says. The popular advice of adding a couple of ice cubes to the pot “is the worst advice you could give,” he explains. 

When he leads me into the main greenhouse, actually six houses joined, the scale of the operation becomes apparent. Slipper orchids are densely stacked on the benches, and vandas and cattleyas hang from above. 

At the far end of the house, Daleen Crews can be seen watering pots of oncidiums. She works in the greenhouse three days a week. The thermometer reads 82 degrees. “Some people say, ‘I’m dropping off my babies at orchid day care,’” she says. “So I do feel a responsibility; you’re taking care of something that’s important to other people.” 

Chadwick’s orchid boarding service began as a sideline but has grown into three-quarters of his business. He has about 2,000 customers boarding 13,000 orchids – an average of six and a half per person. “Some people have one, some have 500,” he says. 

The production and distribution systems for mass-produced orchids tell you one thing: these flowering exotics are meant to be bought, enjoyed and then thrown away. When the flowers curl in on themselves and drop – like a movie baddie plunging from the ramparts after taking a bullet – it’s time to chuck them. People feel real angst at doing this, I think because it reinforces innermost fears about not having a green thumb and, by extension, a connection to the entire plant kingdom.

Suddenly, in these replete greenhouses, this is no longer an issue. Chadwick seems to have fulfilled every entrepreneur’s dream – to find a need and meet it. (He won’t keep other houseplants, saying he doesn’t have the room.)

He is planning to open other shops in Richmond, in the Charlottesville, Virginia, area and, possibly, in northern Virginia and Raleigh, North Carolina. The Powhatan greenhouse range would be expanded correspondingly to accommodate more plants.

But if this is such an obvious service, why doesn’t every city have an orchid boarder? One reason is that greenhouse growers don’t want Joe Public’s orchid anywhere near their choice stock; the chance of introducing disease or pests is too high. (Chadwick quarantines, monitors and sprays new arrivals before placing them on the growing benches.) 

The bigger reason, however, is an economic one, Chadwick says. The greenhouses take capital to build, and the operating costs are high. He has a dozen employees and burns 20,000 gallons of propane per heating season. “It’s too high a hurdle for this to go widespread,” he says.

At home, I can keep a phalaenopsis going year-round, but I gave up a few years ago on slipper orchids, which I love, and have never considered cattleyas, which I have come to like, because I don’t have a greenhouse. It is that aspect of orchid boarding that appeals to me the most, and it obviously appeals, too, to Chadwick’s regulars. “People start with the phalaenopsis they get in the grocery store on a whim, and then it leads them into a whole other world,” he says. 

Back in the Museum District, I chat with some of his customers. Jennifer Friend, who used to live in the nearby Fan District but is now in Henrico County, says “everybody knows” Chadwick and his orchid service. She has been boarding her 10 orchids here for a decade. “If I kept them,” she says, “they’d die.”

“I think there are a lot of people like me who would not have become a collector were it not for Chadwick’s,” says Sarah Ann Scott, who lives in Chesterfield County. She is dropping off two bloomed-out dendrobiums and a cattleya and picking up a perky slipper orchid.

Susan Jamieson, an interior designer in the city’s Ginter Park neighbourhood, has 50 orchids with Chadwick’s. “Every time they call and say you have got an orchid to pick up, I wonder which one will it be,” she says. As many as 10 find their way to her home at one time, and she puts them around the house: over the mantel, on a coffee table, in a bathroom, on a bedside table. “They’re all over,” she says.

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Most of his customers are within an hour’s drive of the Richmond shop. Chadwick does accept shipped orchids and can ship them back when they’re ready. “It’s not particularly cost-effective for clients, but if they are trying to build their collection from afar, they’re pleased with it,” he says.

Chadwick started his career as an electrical engineer but found the corporate environment too stultifying, and he got out early with his dad’s help. Growing other people’s orchids “is a crazy niche”, he says. “I never thought I would be doing this.”

© Washington Post



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