On Gardening: Joe Francis's orchid-filled oasis

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, February 25, 2010; PG04

The trek to the glazed world of Joe Francis and his orchids takes you along the sloping paths at the back of his house in Herndon to a place where the snow, pushed back along the paths, is in full retreat from the greenhouse itself.

This was before the thaw, and it was as if the snow were being nudged back by a force of nature. The potency reveals itself as one enters Francis's imposing greenhouse, first with the wall of moist air, then the smell of earth and nectar and finally, when the mist clears from the glasses, the sprays of exotic blooms themselves. What blizzard or two can darken the aura of Prism Palette? It is an orchid spectacle: Corsage meets Lady Gaga, with plump buds revealing white petals suffused with a faint pink. The throat is a rich golden hue, and the descending petals turn abruptly from a bone white to a deep, thick purple that lightens at the frilly edge. One stem is bearing six of these blossoms, each about seven inches across. By the time you read this, they will be fully open and imparting a sweet, almost sickly fragrance.

Some folks grow orchids successfully on the windowsill, but for Francis the windowsill is a commercial-grade greenhouse with three peaked bays and sloping translucent walls forming a cocoon 45 feet long and 30 feet wide.

Since Francis and his wife, Aggie, moved to their 1906 house in 1970, the modern world has overtaken their once quiet and self-contained home town. But in the back of their three-acre property, the orchid house forms a place apart from bustling suburbia and unremitting snow. The radio plays opera, the jungle flowers ignore the realities of a northern winter, and Francis, 73, counts his blessings.

He has 1,500 orchids, and he knows each one, its bloom cycle, its light needs, its quirks. A former army officer and retired corporate officer, he raises orchids solely for pleasure, and he lectures on their care in orchid society circles. He's apt to focus on one coming into flower, and then speak of its lineage, cultural needs and value as a show flower. Beneath the pragmatism, a quiet passion bubbles up, gently but often.

My eyes alight like a butterfly on a variety of orchid named Cinnamon Stick; as with Prism Palette, its blowzy form signals links to the cattleya orchid. When you stop to consider that the planet has some 17,500 orchid species (the rich daffodil family, by contrast, has a mere 1,400) and that orchids cross with seeming abandon at the hands of breeders, it is easy to get bogged down in the reeds of nomenclature and bloodlines. It is better perhaps to just soak up their strange and hypnotic beauty.

Cinnamon Stick is smaller than Prism Palette but still a showoff by any floral standard. The petals are an orange-buff color behind a descending petal of deep magenta. Along the way is a patterning of colored veins that orchids do so well. This orchid is usually an August bloomer but was jarred when it was repotted, so the bloom is oddly out of season and yet welcome for that. Upsetting the bloom cycle is something the orchid grower learns as intuitively as seeing the way the sun ebbs and flows in the sky on the other side of the glass. The midday sun is markedly higher now than in December, and thus it's time for the orchid keeper to hang shade cloth on one side of the house.

The flower stalks of the cymbidium orchid can appear months before they bloom, so the flowers are long awaited, showy and borne on spikes that are, variously, upright or arching. A variety named Orange Nymph has begun to unfurl. The blooms, in spite of their abundance, are somewhat restrained at just three inches across. The outer petals are flatter, less cupped than in other cymbidiums and are a streaky orange with a red splash on the lower petal. Francis plans to enter it in at least one of the series of orchid shows held in the mid-Atlantic between now and mid-May. Orange Nymph, he predicts, will elicit "a lot of swoons."

Nearby, one of six tiered and sliding benches that occupy most of the floor space holds other cymbidiums, including Strawberry Milk. This variety has dozens of large blooms on three arching spikes, each a soft lavender with lips darkly speckled.

I am stopped in my tracks by another, smaller variety with two pendant sprays, each clustered with two dozen or more flowers of dark maroon set off by white petal edges. It is called Forgotten Fruit, possibly for its musty fragrance.

Hybrid orchids tend to have two peaks of bloom, one in mid-autumn, the other from now until early spring. The current show is all the more poignant, coming toward the end of the bleakest season. This year, the snow made the contrast even starker. Beyond the milky glass, Francis says, you can make out the snow falling and feel the greenhouse buffeted by icy blasts.

Within, an orchid named Joyce Hendren has erupted in buttery yellow blossoms with a maroon splash. Look closely, and you can see the interior petals speckled with the faintest dark red markings. Where the flowers join the stalk, tiny clear beads of nectar have oozed. The sugary tears are hailing a moth or bee that will never come. The orchid will have to make do with Joe Francis instead. Seems like an honest trade.

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