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The Attainable Orchid

Orchids have a reputation for being the prototypical hothouse flower. Beautiful and often heavily scented, they also are widely believed to thrive only in the most tightly controlled environments. Only the wealthy, it is often thought, can afford to make such a fleeting indulgence a part of their everyday lives.

Not so. Lovely examples in full bloom can be found in the most unlikely outlets - your local supermarket or home-improvement store - for under $10.

"Over the last five to 10 years, there's been really rapid growth in technology - it's really cut the growing time," says Ned Nash, director of education and conservation at the American Orchid Society. As a result, he says, prices have fallen dramatically, encouraging consumers that they, too, can enjoy a bit of the tropics in the dead of winter.

"Once people began seeing them in friendly places, they really began to see what a good value orchid plants are," Nash says. "The same money spent on cut flowers would have gone down the drain in just a couple of weeks."

Orchids grow in the wild in enormous variety; experts estimate there are 25,000 to 30,000 species. Over the decades, though, horticulturists have developed several major varieties that can thrive in home conditions, including phalaenopsis, cattleya and dendrobium orchids. Each of these offers tens, if not hundreds, of hybrid options, providing a wide range of choice for home growers.

Maintaining orchids isn't nearly as hard as you might think. Though orchids native to specific outdoor locations are notoriously difficult, the hybrid varieties available to general enthusiasts require little more attention than one would give a common African violet.

Even the longest-flowering orchid will someday lose its blooms. It is possible to coax blossoms to return, experts say, though it might be another year before new flowering occurs. One strategy Nash suggests for phalaenopsis is to pinch the branch holding a fading flower back to a point between the bloom and the next highest node. This may force a new branch to sprout from the node, which may, in turn, sport its own long-lasting flower.

The Attainable Orchid