I've had mixed feelings about orchids. They are beautiful, exotic flowers that I can't help but admire. But I've always felt intimidated by them, and full of guilt when the petals of these expensive beauties eventually fall off and I do nothing to help them come back.

Then I see a little flat of potted yellow orchids by the cash register at Safeway for $9.99 each. Or for $6.49 at Home Depot or Costco or Wal-Mart. How did such "expensive" and "hard-to-handle" plants become a mass-market staple?

In fact, the orchid world (and it is its own world) has been quite roiled by the growing, marketing and distribution changes that have put these elegant plants in your local superstore. To be sure, these aren't the rare collectors'-item orchids that followers will search through jungles to find. But the mass market is increasingly offering beautiful and high-quality specimens at prices almost anyone can afford.

Not all traditional orchid connoisseurs are happy about the widespread distribution, but consumers apparently love it.

"Orchids are going through a transformation from specialty crop to common decor," said Marvin Miller, market research manager for Ball Horticultural Group of Chicago.

If you'll pardon the pun, the orchid is the fastest-growing potted plant in the country. Between 2000 and 2003, sales of potted orchids grew 36 percent, while the competition was down or flat: Florist azaleas fell 33 percent, mums were off 7 percent and poinsettias grew just 4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In terms of dollar volume, with sales of $121 million last year, orchids are now the second-highest-selling potted flowers, right behind the holiday-favorite poinsettias, which still outsell orchids by 2 to 1. The next-closest competitors are chrysanthemums, at $76 million. This increase in sales has been accompanied by falling prices -- the average wholesale price for a pot of orchids was down 8 percent in 2003, to $7.75.

Many of the orchids sold at wholesale last year -- 15.6 million -- were shipped to the mass market for resale. An appreciative audience is gradually understanding that orchids don't have to inspire anxiety. In fact, the varieties for sale in the supermarket are remarkably easy to care for, needing only occasional watering and typical indoor temperature and light conditions. Green thumbs? Not required.

"There's a really good value in orchids -- the flowers last a really long time," said Kerry Herndon, owner of Kerry's Bromeliad Nursery, a massive orchid wholesaler in Florida. "If you put a Phalaenopsis in your house and it lasts two to three months, and it was $20, compared to mums that were $10 and lasted two to three weeks, what's the better deal for you?"

And at that price, if consumers don't want to bother with trying to encourage more blooms, they don't have to. In fact, KB's orchid tags give reblooming instructions on one side (prune back to just below the lowest bloom), while the other side suggests throwing the whole thing away when the flowers are gone and buying another.

"It's okay -- we'll grow more," Herndon said. "We want to take the guilt away."

For some aficionados, this is heresy. In the old world of orchid cultivation, part of the thrill of these magnificent flowers is carefully tending them so they'll rebloom. Not in Herndon's world. For most people, he said, it's just not worth the time and effort.

"I've had some negative reactions to that, people saying, 'That's like saying when kittens become cats, throw them away because we'll grow more,' " he said. "Honestly, it's a potted plant. It's broccoli. It's not a sensate creature. You should enjoy their special beauty and enjoy new fresh ones."

Of course, the more Herndon can encourage this approach, the better it is for business. And orchids are a great business. Though expensive to grow, Herndon has created a mechanized system for watering and tending the flowers at his nursery, where he has more than 5 million plants on site at any one time. Because orchids command relatively high wholesale prices -- Herndon sells them for between $3.50 and $35 apiece -- they're also more profitable flowers than, say, African violets.

And while competition is increasing, especially among importers, it's been hard for some domestic growers to jump onto the orchid wave because the plants require a year-long growing cycle. Many nurseries rely on several crops -- bedding plants in the spring and fall and poinsettias in the summer -- so there's no room or time for orchids.

Orchids are great for retailers, too, because the flowers still have enough cachet that they can be marked up significantly. Herndon says he has seen the same plant from his nursery get marked up 12 percent at one retailer and 200 percent or more at another. Because the plants won't die over the weekend if they aren't watered, they're also less risky for a store to carry. And they offer shoppers a product that is still considered special.

"Orchids are hot," said Greg Ten Eyck, a spokesman for Safeway stores. "The floral department is a fashion department, and orchids are really a fashion statement."

Orchid experts say some connoisseurs think the prevalence of the plants devalues a magical flower. Orchids have been around since before the dinosaurs, and there are some 25,000 species.

But more enlightened orchid lovers understand that wider distribution means some people will get passionate about the plants and graduate to the more exotic and expensive species, thereby strengthening the orchid culture. After all, cheap chardonnay has done nothing to hurt oenophiles.

Rob Griesbach, president of the American Orchid Society and a research geneticist at the USDA for herbaceous ornamental plants, is a perfect example of the enlightened connoisseur.

"One of the highest-quality orchids in my collection I bought at a mass market, on sale for $6.95," Griesbach said. "It has a unique color, the shape was right, it had all these award-winning qualities."

Griesbach, who has about 5,000 orchids in a greenhouse at home, is the type of enthusiast who has traipsed through jungles looking for unusual species. He'll use his lovely $6.95 orchid for breeding.

"That's why a lot of the orchid connoisseurs are really happy with the mass market -- we can find good stuff," he said.

And now, so can the rest of us.

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