In June, Susan Kimsey attended her first meeting. All new members stood up, introduced themselves and explained how they ended up in a room full of addicts. Kimsey was the last to stand up and she publicly confirmed, “My name is Susan Kimsey and I’m an orchidaholic.” The room broke out in laughter. Everyone knew exactly what she was talking about.
“I qualify an addiction as something that you think about more than five or six times a day. And yes, it’s significantly more than that; the shape of a pillow will remind you of a labellum (the lower petal of an orchid). It’s a healthy addiction because it’s a passionate hobby. You can never have enough,” Kimsey declares.
“It’s an addiction and it’s hard to get off, much like nicotine and heroin. It’s horrible, a little less harmful, but it’s still harmful,” explained 11-year-old Luke Burgstahler. He’s not talking about the latest drug fad, but rather, about orchid fever, an affliction where certain individuals become consumed with acquiring and growing the world’s most prodigious flowering plant.
“You find a lot of excuses to get more and more. I’ve never seen a person who gets into it that only has a few,” said Jo Shragge who has been buying and growing orchids for more than two decades.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of addiction is “to devote or surrender oneself to something habitually or obsessively.” Devoted and surrendered are exactly how orchid enthusiasts are with their plants. The people stung with the bug never can explain exactly why or how. But there is a consistency with this obsession: Once you start, you don’t quit.
From medical doctors to bankers to Mary Kay sales directors, the orchid-obsessed come from all walks of life. They can’t explain why it started, but they do know they have absolutely no desire of quitting.
“It starts with that first plant, taking it home and then liking how that plant looks and thinking that you just need to have more,” said Christine Burgstahler, the Utah Orchid Society’s current president.
Burgstahler, a former nurse and now a Mary Kay cosmetic sales director, bought her first orchid 16 years ago while living in San Antonio, Texas. She wanted to learn more, so she volunteered at a greenhouse, cleaning, shoveling dirt and repotting orchids. In return, she learned how to grow, water and fertilize the finicky plants from an expert grower.
“I’ve always enjoyed flowers, but once you get into orchids, why bother with anything else? They’re fascinating. They come from so many different places. You can’t ever get bored and you can’t ever get enough. There are so many and you have to have one of everything,” she said.
There are over 35,000 different orchid species and another 125,000 hybrids. They grow on every continent except Antarctica. You can find orchids in tropical rain forests, soggy swamps or cool, high-altitude mountains. Utah is home to 13 orchid species. They can live in almost every environment but dry deserts and glacier-covered areas.
Orchid flowers look like everything from butterflies, garden pansies and spiky insects to billowing clouds. Thumbing through orchid encyclopedias, it’s hard to comprehend how these ever-varying plants are all related. Some smell as sweet as tropical honey and some as horrible as rotting flesh. The flowers’ color, shape and smell have all changed and adapted to attract the insects in their environment for pollination.
Some plants live in trees, the exposed roots wrapping around the trunks and branches. The aerial roots get their nutrients from the wind and humidity around them. Orchid lovers are always quick to point out that orchids are not parasites. Parasitic plants depend on the host organism for nutrients—orchids simply live in the trees and receive their nutrients from the moisture and air.
The ever-expanding variety is probably the only concrete reason orchidophiles have an insatiable desire for more. The orchid-obsessed living in Utah are relatively moderate with their collections because of the state’s harsh winters and dry, hot summers. The fortunate ones build greenhouses that must be heated in the winter and cooled in the summer. With just over 250 plants, Burgstahler has a relatively restrained collection compared to many. Her husband built her a greenhouse five years ago and she’s already looking forward to expanding. It may soon be a necessity with her youngest child developing a healthy obsession for the plants.
“He’s probably more of a maniac than I am, which I didn’t think was possible,” said Burgstahler of her son Luke, a typical preteen in every way except when it comes to orchids.
His bedroom shelves are filled with baseball team photos, ice hockey trophies and paintball paraphernalia. If you look closely, his desk is stacked with orchid culture books and growing manuals.
With scientific precision, Luke explains his collection: “My favorite type is the (genus) Phragmipedium, also known as the lady slipper. I like them because of all the different colors and because of the reds basically.” His voice trails off. “I can’t really explain it. It’s just one of those things you feel in your stomach.”
After two years, Luke has acquired 70 plants; paying for many of them with money he makes washing cars and house chores. His biggest purchase was $80 for one plant, a rare species of orchid called a philippinensis.
“They get to $200 to $300 dollars. A seedling is about $5,000. So I got it at a great price. I’m pretty lucky and grateful to have that one,” said Luke. Christmas and birthdays are just another way he can add to his collection.
“He just handed me a list of orchid plants he wanted for Christmas,” recalls his mother, “You know, not the usual movies or games. No, he just wants orchids.”
He is currently the youngest member of the Orchid Society’s Utah Chapter and he attends meetings and brings plants to show and tell to exhibit his latest botanical achievements and even upstage his mother a bit.
“He likes to tell everybody how I break the flowers and what a klutz I am with the orchids,” laughs Burgstahler.
The younger Burgstahler spends about 25 hours a week watering and tending to his orchids. He spends more hours reading books and surfing the Internet on the subject. He is now working on the most painstaking part of the hobby: breeding the plants from seed. He started seeds in a sterile flask a few months ago and will probably be a high school graduate when he sees one of the seedlings bloom. If orchid growers are anything, they are patient. Some hybriders have to wait two decades to see if a plant cross works. Many times the flowers are deformed or genetically poor and the years of work were for naught. The time investment doesn’t faze the sixth grader.
“I don’t really pay much attention to it. I’m still going to grow other orchids, I just want to learn how to do it, so I can do it a lot more often,” he said, believing this isn’t a hobby he’ll eventually grow out of. “I think I’m going to do it for life. They last as long as you. If you take care of them, they’ll live until you die.”
Evolution of a passion
A basic Internet search on orchids will pull up well over a million sites. Orchid auctions, plant sales, growers sharing tips and competition schedules are just the start of the cybersites. Orchid-hunting has gone from the jungles and rain forests to the chair in front of a personal computer, but this species has been around longer than personal computers and before most living organisms we now have on earth.
Scientists believe they were one of the first flowering plants on the planet. Dinosaurs roamed the continents when orchids made their debut around 120 million years ago. As the planet went through major climate changes, most plants and animals faded from existence. But with their incredible adaptability, orchids survived and managed to populate six of the seven continents.
Orchids appear in history about 3,000 years ago. Chinese emperor Sheng Nung wrote about the medicinal applications of the Dendrobium, a genus of Asian orchid whose flowers are primarily used in the Hawaiian lei. Confucius waxed poetic about the flowers’ scent 500 years before Christ. Aristotle’s student, Theophrastus, mentioned them in a study called Inquiry into Plants around 300 B.C. The Greek scholar known as the “Father of Botany” wrote of the terrestrial plant that grows in intermediate zones in Europe and called them “orchis,” the Greek word for testicles. These observations gave way to the name of the plant family, Orchidaceae.
In the Americas, the Mayans used the seedpod of an orchid vine to flavor cocoa drinks; we now know it as vanilla bean. Spanish conquerors brought vanilla planifolia back to Europe in the early 1500s and it has since become a flavoring staple in baking.
Later in the 1800s, the British aristocrats became obsessed with acquiring the species. They paid explorers to venture to the rain forests of the Americas and the jungles of Asia to hunt down exotic varieties.
It seems since the beginning of time, orchids have sparked more imagination and myth than any other organic life form. The fantasies are endless: Orchids are a powerful aphrodisiac or too sexually arousing for women to be around. Some even believe that a meteorite from Mars brought the orchid culture to Earth.
The obsessive fascination did not pass by Barry Cole, a professor at the University of Utah Medical Center who specializes in autoimmune disease research. He is a dignified British man with a fascination of all things biological. But his curiosity evolves to passion when it comes to botany, especially to Orchidaceae, the orchid family.
It was over a quarter of a century ago that Cole attended an orchid display and joined the Orchid Society. Soon afterwards, he traveled to Ecuador in a run-down school bus with some friends. Back then, visitors were allowed to collect plants and bring them back to the United States. The plants died not long after they returned to Utah because Cole did not have a greenhouse.
Eventually, he knew he needed a greenhouse if he wanted to continue with the hobby. He couldn’t build just one because that would limit the types of species he could house. He built three to accommodate plants that thrive in cool, intermediate and warm climates. His collection has at least 1,000 different species. He doesn’t know how many plants he has because it would be too difficult to count, but it is somewhere well over 1,500. His space has quickly filled. His new plants must be hung to make way for new acquisitions.
Cole, an award-winning grower, often gives advice and council to novice growers. The growing challenge keeps Cole’s compulsion alive. “When a person is building a greenhouse, I always say, think of a greenhouse that will be sufficient for your needs and double it because you can never have a large enough greenhouse.”
“Orchids are becoming pot plants. You buy an orchid in flower and then when it’s finished flowering, you throw it away. It’s a lot more fun to try to keep and get it to grow. That’s a part of the challenge and that’s part of the real interest that an orchid enthusiast would have. It’s the challenge of growing something new,” said Cole who believes orchids are the most evolved plant species.
“They have evolved in ways to ensure that they get pollinated by insects and so much of the structure of the individual orchid species will be determined by how it needs to get pollinated by its insects,” he explained. “Some are pollinated because of the color and some flowers have evolved to design special devices to entrap the insect so it gets caught in the flower and it can’t get out except by one route. And when it gets out by that one route, then it picks up the pollen and then when it goes to another flower, it has to go in and it brushes off the pollen and then the other plant will get pollinated.”
Charles Darwin shared Cole’s fascination with orchid evolution. After Darwin theorized natural selection and evolution in On the Origin of Species in 1859, he turned to orchids to continue his theory. A few years later, he published The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects in which he examined how the plants had evolved to attract the species in their environment. Because orchids do not self-pollinate, the gene pool becomes more diverse. He theorized that cross-pollinating plants would always outlast those that do not. Knowing now that orchids have been around for hundreds of millions of years, it’s not hard to see that he wasn’t far from the truth.
In Cole’s case, the orchids have changed his behavior to ensure their survival. He and his wife cannot leave town together when the temperatures are extreme in the winter and summer seasons.
“We tend to take our big trips together in the spring and the fall or when the temperatures are moderate, when if there is a power failure, it’s not going to be a problem because each of the greenhouses has its own heater, air conditioner and humidifying system and if there is a power failure, then they will all go off,” Barry said.
Another local orchid fanatic, Joe Schragge, has also learned adapting skills to keep his collection growing in numbers.
“You start out with some that you like and pretty soon that gets out of sight. Then you’re lying to your spouse to make sure they don’t know what you’re bringing home. She doesn’t know I have 450,” said Schragge who was reluctant to go on the record about his 20-plus-year-old hobby. The former banker started breeding the Stanhopea orchid 10 years ago and will have to wait another three years before he sees a bloom. He is breeding this species because there are only 15 hybrids so far and he dreams of making a dent in orchid history with his new hybrids.
“I would go after the guy in California. He’s a dentist, he has a lot of resources and I’d just like to go after his,” Schragge said of his main Stanhopea breeding competition. He believes orchid-growing is no longer a rich man’s hobby because anyone can buy a plant, but no amount of money can buy the skill to keep it alive.
Zen of Orchids
Susan Kimsey has orchid just-about-everything. “It’s an all-consuming hobby. I have orchid perfume; my son wears orchid cologne. I have orchid rings, carvings, sculptures, a page from an orchid book that is over 200 years old, myriads of books, hand-painted orchid pots, orchid oil candles and orchids dipped in gold,” she said, describing her vast collection.
She was in Hawaii with her husband when she bought her first orchid and almost two decades later, that white plant of the genus Phalaenopsis still thrives in her care. Either you’re an orchid person or you’re not; and while her husband enjoys the blooms, he certainly was not struck with the fever.
“He was very supportive in the beginning, but he’s since lost patience with the amount of space they take up and the amount of time I spend trying to get someone to water them when I’m gone. He’s indulgent because he has passions and hobbies of his own, but his complaint is, why do all of mine have so much dirt involved?” she laughed.
So far she has not convinced her husband she needs a greenhouse, so she has to make do with grow lights, specialized potting mixes and a green thumb.
“They’re very particular. You have to learn how to read them. People who raise orchids constantly read about them. It’s one of those rambling things that’s difficult to describe, but it takes you over,” Kimsey said, who traces the intoxicating hobby back in history.
“From the very first time people saw them, they’ve been fascinated by them. Indiana Jones was not a treasure collector; he was an orchid-finder. That character is based on some of the greatest explorers ever known and they were botanical collectors for individuals who had the money and the orchid fever in the 1700s and 1800s,” Kimsey said.
But for this mother of two, orchid-growing goes far beyond a simple hobby. Nine years ago, Kimsey was in a life-threatening car accident. She ended up with the spinal injury actor Christopher Reeve has. She was lucky and maintained her ability to walk, but not without her share of surgery and rehabilitation. During the darkest times, she turned to her orchids for solace and relief. Her husband would reward her with new plants to motivate her recovery. Some days, the prospect of a new bloom or growth was the only thing that could get her out of bed.
“I was in a lot of pain for a lot of years and it was such a relief to be with the orchids and go outside of myself and have everything be about them. All your senses have to be heightened to give them what they need. You are the barometer; it takes you outside yourself,” she said as she described the symbiotic relationship she has with her plant lives.
It was also during this time that she met a medical doctor who shared her orchid passion. She started loaning him plants in bloom for his medical office. He agreed to pay half the costs of the plants and care products, if she agreed to take care of them when not in bloom. Together, they have amassed 150 plants and have anywhere from 15-40 in bloom at only one time. She jokes that he is the orthopedic doctor and she is the orchidpedic doctor.
Because the growers care for their plants like children, it is difficult to find people to watch over them during vacations. Kimsey trained a neighbor boy for two years before she felt comfortable leaving him solo with them. Relatives and friends shun the responsibility because they fear hurting or killing the plants. A few years ago, Kimsey lost 22 plants to a black-rot fungus while she was away.
“It was as horrifying as losing puppies to see these plants that I’d nurtured for 12-15 years just die,” Kimsey said.
Most growers realize their collections will outlive them and they will not always be around to give the plants the care they require. Kimsey is training her son to take the collection. Christine Burgstahler doesn’t have to look to far to know who will take hers. Schragge knows his kids don’t want the collection, so he has chosen to be cremated with his. For what would the afterlife be without orchids?