Orchid growers share their passion and obsession for the finicky flowers
Diverse blooms • Orchid growers share their passion and obsession for the finicky flowers.
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In 1995, renowned author Susan Orlean wrote "Orchid Fever," delving into one man's obsession with the exotic and endlessly diverse perennial plant family.

"Generally speaking, orchids seem to drive people crazy. The people who love orchids love them madly, but the passion for orchids is not necessarily a passion for beauty," Orlean wrote in her Jan. 23, 1995, New Yorker story that later grew into a full-fledged book titled Orchid Thief.

People working the recent fall Orchid Show at Red Butte Garden acknowledged the astounding allure of the temperamental blooms.

James and Lois Huffman own Jolah Orchids in Ontario, Ore. As American Orchid Society judges, they haul a broad array of their greenhouse gems to seven or eight shows in the western United States every year.

On the first weekend in November, the couple and their leafy entourage occupied one end of Red Butte Garden's Orangerie for Salt Lake City's semi-annual Orchid Show.

"There are over 25,000 species of orchids," Huffman said. "I keep telling my wife that I don't want all the orchids — I just want one of each and I'll be happy."

That vast diversity means frequent surprise in his line of work, although he questions whether orchid-growing qualifies as a real job.

"You can't say it's a livelihood," Huffman said. "It's an addiction … an enjoyment."Each species has

a little different growing habit and its own distinctive characteristics, he added. And green thumb or not, maybe they'll thrive — and maybe they won't.

"I've been growing over 30 years," Huffman said, "and I don't know if I consider myself an expert yet. About the time you think you've got it figured out, you kill a couple and start over."Perhaps that lack of predictability is what keeps him interested.

"There are a lot of men in this hobby because of the challenge," Huffman said.

While many types of orchids need to stay indoors, Carolyn Pedone, a member of the Utah Orchid Society, said that orchids sprout on every continent of the world except for Antarctica. Some native Utah species are thriving in her front yard."They die back to the roots during the winter and then in the spring, just when you're starting to panic, you'll start seeing little green shoots," Pedone said, "and you'll have realized 'They survived!' "

For outdoor growing in Utah, Pedone recommends Epipactis gigantea, a wildflower native to North America. Sunny indoor spots make good homes for Paphiopedilum, called "lady slippers" because of their shape, or Phalaenopsis, also known as "moth orchids."

Clint Lewis has owned Orchid Dynasty since 2001, and for the past three years his shop has been at 959 E. 900 South in Salt Lake City. He appears to fit the profile of the serial orchid grower.

"I fell in love with the diversity of orchids and the challenge in growing them," Lewis said.

Varieties that come from high-elevation cloud forests have been the most difficult to grow here, he said, but that didn't keep him from trying.

"They require very mild conditions — mild days, cool nights," Lewis said. "And they tend to be very finicky about extremely good water quality."The end product in orchid growing apparently is well worth the effort.

"They add a sense of excitement and a dramatic presence," Lewis said. "They also can have a calming effect and definitely a sense of something exotic."

Salt Lake City resident Barbara Bowen had been out for a morning walk when she dropped in to check out the Red Butte Garden show. She exclaimed over a bloom that looked surprisingly like a praying mantis.

In "Orchid Fever," Orlean noted that "some orchids are shaped exactly like the insect that pollinates them; the insect is drawn inside thinking it has found its mate."

"There's such a variety of colors and sizes," Bowen said. "I had absolutely no idea."

Cottonwood Heights residents Phil and Mary Helsley enjoyed their stroll around the fascinating flowers on display. "I just sit and worship them," Mary Helsley said of the Phalaenopsis the couple nurture in their east-facing kitchen window at home.

"We transport them to Idaho in the summer," she said. "If we can get them to live for three years, we feel successful."

Perhaps that's how the fever starts.

cmckitrick@sltrib.com

Twitter: @catmck