Business Monday

The orchid connections: Aspects of a floral business

Robert Fuchs estimates his Homestead nursery holds some 5,000 different varieties of orchids.
Robert Fuchs estimates his Homestead nursery holds some 5,000 different varieties of orchids. .

The lure of orchids is legendary. These exotic flowers often found in hard-to-reach places developed cult status dating back to the Ming Dynasty. The Chinese believed orchids could cure anything from venereal diseases and diarrhea to boils and neuralgia — and even ailing elephants. In South America, the common cigar orchid once served as a lubricant for violin strings. Today, ice cream made from orchids is a special treat in Iran.

Obtaining orchids no longer requires long and arduous expeditions: A simple trek to the nearest Home Depot or Winn-Dixie will suffice. Some orchids are more accessible and less expensive, some unique flowers still command top dollar. As recent as 2005, the Shenzhen Nongke Group of China spend eight years developing one such orchid in a lab and sold it at auction for 1.68 million yuan (roughly $202,000), reportedly the most expensive flower ever bought.

In Florida, where orchids once grew abundantly in the wild, they remain a serious business. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Florida has the largest number of commercial orchid growers of all states producing $100,000 or more in annual sales of potted orchids. In 2014, there were 47 such companies, up from 44 the year before. While these Florida orchid growers can be found on both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and numerous towns in between, concentrations can be found in the Miami/Homestead and Apopka/Orlando areas.

USDA figures indicate the number of commercial orchid growers in Florida increased by 7 percent in 2014, resulting in an increase in potted orchid sales by nearly 12 percent. Florida farmers sold nearly a million more potted orchids, 8.86 million, up from 7.95 million in 2013. The sales increased by nearly $8 million, with $70 million in sales, up from $62.6 million the year before. Nationwide sales of potted orchids increased from 31.7 million to 32.7 million and revenues from $251.6 million to $266.4 million during that same period.

Cut orchids are not faring as well. According to the Association of Floral Importers of Florida, 2012 showed a high of 56.1 million stems imported. In 2014, that figure had dropped by more than a quarter to 41.1 million stems, or a loss of 15 million. Christine Boldt, the association’s executive vice president, attributes the decline to reduced consumer interest and increased importation costs.

To best illustrate the market, we take a look at four companies that focus on aspects of the orchid market in South Florida, including those that specialize in arrangements, provide potted plants or cut flowers, or sell on the retail or wholesale market.

It should also be noted that South Florida, which featured prominently in Susan Orlean’s bestseller, The Orchid Thief, still contends with individuals who go to extremes to own orchids. When local Customs officials stop orchid smugglers at the airport or seaport, they try to save the plants. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service steps in to find a good home for the plants. Zoo Miami is a designated Plant Rescue Center. Since 1988, the zoo has accepted 18,664 rescued orchids, says Zoo Registrar and Records Coordinator Rachél Watkins Rogers. A plaque at the zoo credits the Eastern Airlines Orchid Club with helping to maintain the orchids.

Fortunately, the smuggling only takes place intermittently, says Michael Hitchcock, the zoo’s horticultural manager. The last time he was called regarding orchids was in October 2014. Someone was caught with three Cattleya orchids, he says.

“We haven’t had any in a while,” Hitchcock says. “Most of the time it’s from the seaport. They try to hide them in the containers. Every once in a while they get them in people’s suitcases. A lot of times I won’t even take them because they are so beat up. Sometimes by the time they find them they are too late. But, if they are worth taking, we will take them.”

1. THE ARRANGER

The Flower Shoppe & Things

Adriana Vargas Hernandez’s life has been a series of extraordinary adventures. Just as flowers helped elevate fictional character Eliza Doolittle, so too do they play in the evolution of Vargas Hernandez, who five years ago started The Flower Shoppe & Things in a corner of a Coral Gables gas station and now caters to heads of state, fashion icons and movie stars, as well as everyday people.

Vargas Hernandez was born in Puerto Rico and came to Miami after completing high school at age 16. She became a florist at the height of the economic downturn. Her day job was selling preconstruction condos during the midst of a real estate glut. She currently is vice president of broker relations for Fortune International Realty, where she sells preconstruction units at Brickell City Centre.

One of the first things Vargas Hernandez did when she arrived in Miami was to improve her English at Miami Dade College — and land a spot as a contestant on a TV variety show, Sábado Gigante. She wowed the judges with her rendition of En Mi Viejo San Juan and won the grand prize — a brand new Toyota Camry. Rather than drive home in the car, she parlayed it into $9,800 cash, which she used to buy business clothes, rent an apartment in Miami Beach and pay for a used car.

That led to a job as a receptionist at a prominent law firm, where she worked with John Schmitz, an attorney who specializes in real estate. He’s also the man who introduced former Florida Gov. and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush to his wife and later became his brother-in-law. Vargas Hernandez made such an impression on Schmitz that she was welcomed into the Bush fold.

“The Bush family — I’ve been to dinners at their house,” she says, adding, “I’ve been to a dinner at the White House.”

Along the way, Vargas Hernandez figured she could make more money selling real estate than working as a receptionist. When the recession hit in 2008, she decided to diversify. By 2009, she began working on a plan to open the flower shop. There was a lull in the condo market, where she didn’t resume selling preconstruction units until 2011.

“So, for two years there was really nothing happening but selling the remaining inventory that we had,” she says. “And that is when I said I do not want to ever put all my eggs into one basket.”

Without any formal training as a florist, Vargas Hernandez began with a small operation inside a gas station on Coral Way. Within months she opened a shop at 50 Biscayne, a condo complex that she managed for Related Cervera Realty Services. Business was so brisk the first year that she did not go home for three nights around Valentine’s Day. “I remember the first Valentine’s Day,” she says. “We had to close the store several times so people wouldn’t come into the store because we couldn’t fit any more people.”

Today she better understands her market — who her customers are and where to get her flowers. She buys her orchids exclusively from Florida nurseries and sometimes personally makes the arrangements and hand delivers them. Her shop caters to individual tastes with made-to-order arrangements.

“We are a personalized floral boutique,” she says. “We deliver smiles to the city.”

2. THE RETAILER

Ideal Orchids

Nicholas Myrie specializes in high-end flowers for high-end clients in Palm Beach. In his line of work, Myrie says he often deals with billionaires and the occasional millionaire, as well as everyday people. Their flower of choice is almost exclusively white orchids. The Broward-based businessman currently operates out of a mall kiosk in Pompano Beach but aspires to move his operation to Boca Raton.

“Most orchids are for centerpieces within a house,” he says. “It’s mostly for the entrance for the home. Most times it’s white. I guess it’s because white symbolizes luxury and elegance.”

Before founding Ideal Orchids in 2012, Myrie developed his expertise as a florist for a special event company and arranging flowers for another florist in Palm Beach. For a decade he worked the posh parties of the wealthy and connected. His clients include tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, as well as Republican frontrunner and real estate mogul Donald Trump.

“He’s a wild man,” Myrie says, laughing at Trump’s brash public persona, adding that the man is much more subdued in a business setting. “Working with him is not really working with him. You just see him. He comes and checks things out. … He wasn’t hands-on. He observed. It was more like the finishing touch.”

Myrie worked in venues such as Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion by the sea and The Breakers Palm Beach. He says he even worked the million-dollar-wedding-that-wasn’t, which was slated to take place at The Breakers in 2008. The wedding between heiress Alexandra Fisher and Wall Street banker Joshua Bailer got called off following a dispute over a proposed prenuptial shortly before the bride was set to walk down the aisle. They still got billed for the flowers, though.

Today, the Jamaican-born Myrie still freelances at major events, but he also operates his own floral business. For now, he rents a kiosk in the Festival Flea Market Mall in Pompano Beach, near the intersection of Dixieland and Party Lanes. A savvy 30-year-old with aspirations of cornering the niche orchid market of Broward and Palm Beach counties, Myrie recognizes that the mall, with its casual clientele and Fleetwood Mac songs played at elevator music speed, may not convey the image he seeks to create. He is looking farther north to Boca Raton’s Town Center mall. The mall has more visibility and foot traffic, but it also comes with higher rent ($5,000 a month versus $1,500 in Pompano Beach).

He also has to consider whether increased visibility will increase sales in a phone-based business. His clients range from New York and Boston to California and the Carolinas.

“With florists, 90 percent of the business comes from over the phone,” he says. “Ten percent is walk-in. You would die if someone parked their car and actually walked into your shop. Most people just want to order flowers for delivery. So, we’re a delivery space.”

But that could all change in a year or two, as his business and reputation grow. While most florists sell orchids, Myrie wants customers to know that’s all he sells.

“We have orchids; that’s what we do,” he says. “There are stores that sell shoes, hats and coats. You know what? We just want to sell hats. So come to us for your hats. Come to us for your orchids.”

3. THE WHOLESALER

N&N Orchids

Their names are boldly exotic: King Dragon, Madame Pompadour, Red Bull, Ruby of Siam, Liberty White, Winky White and Annie Cool.

N&N Orchids of Doral imports them all, and many more. “We have the biggest number of flowers in stock,” says N&N President Verapong Halelamien, who is a native of Bangkok. He only sells cut flowers and estimates the company imports more than 10,000 cut orchids a week through Miami International Airport. “We’re the biggest importer of cut orchids in the United States,” he says.

Some 80 percent of his flowers come from Thailand, with the remainder from Taiwan, Holland, New Zealand and Colombia. The flowers arrive in cellophane packages of 10 stems, each inserted into a small plastic water tube that keeps them hydrated while in transit, which can take more than a day from the Orient. N&N Orchids distributes them to flower wholesalers, who in turn sell them to retail florists.

When Halelamien came to this country in 1980, he worked in a restaurant. When he returned to Thailand two years later, an uncle who owned an orchid farm persuaded him to import cut orchids. So he returned to the United States in 1982 and teamed up with a Vietnamese partner, whom he only identified as Tran. They formed a company using the initials of their first names: V&T Orchids. Although the partnership did not last, Halelamien remained in business and says he eventually changed the name to N&N Orchids “for better feng shui — to sell better.”

Today, Halelamien imports his flowers roughly five times a week. Packed in cardboard boxes, the orchids usually arrive via Swiss Air. Halelamien then transports the orchids in refrigerated trucks to Doral, where his warehouse is outfitted with a 3,500-square-foot cooler set at 55 degrees.

“The main thing I care about is quality control,” he says, explaining that heat and humidity are the two most important elements to control. He carefully coordinates with the airlines to ensure the flowers are loaded in the cool of the morning to avoid wilting. Humidity is kept at a minimum to avoid fungus. This attention to detail helps ensure a regular supply of healthy orchids. When shipped properly, the orchids can last up to two weeks, he says.

But any business dealing with perishable plants can be precarious. It can take 24 to 38 hours to ship orchids from Thailand under the best of circumstances, he says. The situation arising after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990 proved to be the worst-case scenario.

“During the Gulf War, I suffered a lot,” he says. His business became collateral damage. Due to wartime security measures instituted by the United States, the flowers were left in their boxes on the tarmac while Thai authorities searched the planes for bombs. He wanted to keep refrigerator trucks on standby at the airport, but wasn’t allowed. “There was nothing I could do.”

Not only did he help defray the inspection cost through a special war surcharge tacked onto his shipping bill, but also a quarter of his flowers died during the inspection delay and he had to eat the loss.

4. THE NURSERYMAN

R.F. Orchids

Robert Fuchs is one of the last great orchid hunters.

“I was born and bred into it,” Fuchs says, looking around his namesake nursery, R.F. Orchids, the 10-acre spread in Homestead that in many ways is a Valhalla of Vandas.

“We are the No. 1 hybridizer of Vandaceous orchids in the U.S.,” he says.

They are also prize-winning flowers. “In 1984, one of our Vandas won the grand champion of the world,” he says. “We have won more awards from the American Orchid Society than anyone in the history of the organization, which started in 1921.”

The nursery also grows and sells other types of orchids. Fuchs estimates his garden holds some 5,000 different varieties of orchids, which visitors can see during tours of the property. There are greenhouses to protect the plants and seedlings. There’s also a resident alligator named Wally, who hangs out by the pond formed by a solution hole. It’s a meditative place with meandering fish and the sound of water flowing over rocks and a little foot bridge.

But the main attraction is the sheer variety of colorful orchids. They range the rainbow spectrum from white to violet and all colors in between — save for black, which apparently does not exist. Many have tongue-twister Latin names and nicknames that read like a roster of mob aliases: Firecracker, Flamethrower, Golf Green Hair Pig, Gold Digger Fuchs Mandarin and Lavender Lady.

Up until about five years ago, Fuchs had a ghost orchid, the seldom-seen flower famously portrayed in The Orchid Thief. Fuchs managed to grow the ghost from a seedling, a rare feat because most only survive in an unforgiving territory known as the Fakahatchee Strand. His managed to grow in the crook of a buttonwood tree. “Unfortunately, one of our Rottweilers knocked the limb off and it wound up in the swimming pool,” he says, and sighs, “Terrible!”

Many of his orchids carry an intoxicating scent.

Although Fuchs carries the vanilla orchid, it doesn’t smell like vanilla unless you harvest the seed. For those who prefer chocolate over vanilla, there’s an Oncidium orchid that some call “Sharry Baby” and others “Cherry Baby.” Either way, it is as alluring as a visit to Chocopologie, the Connecticut establishment that reportedly sells the most expensive chocolate in the world. And if you happen to be lucky enough to be at the nursery after dark, that’s when the Lady of the Night makes her presence known.

“It only smells at night, and it fills your garden with the aroma of gardenias,” Fuchs says. “The reason it smells in the evening is because it is pollinated by a moth, and that moth only comes out in the evening.”

In one form or another the nursery has been in existence for more than 70 years.

“My grandfather on the property started his nursery, Orchids Buy Fuchs, in 1942,” he says. “The property where our nursery is today has been in the family since 1920. My grandfather in the 20s and 30s rescued orchids. As they were clearing the land in South Florida, he would put the word out, ‘If you find these strange little things growing in your trees, give me a call and I’ll come get them.’”

Fuchs’ father carried on the tradition of collecting orchids, only he went far afield. “My father had a company called Orchid Collectors Inc. in the ’60s and we would take people down to Central and South America to collect orchids,” he says. “They were actually salvaging the orchids. We’d go to areas where they were cutting trees and clearing the land for farming or roads.”

They were on one such expedition in 1973 when Fuchs made his big discovery — a natural hybrid. He was orchid hunting in Nicaragua when a large clump of fuchsia flowers caught his eye. He took clippings and after successfully bringing it to flower back in Homestead, Fuchs registered the hybrid with the Royal Horticultural Society of England, the world’s official orchid registration center.

Like an explorer who stakes his flag on virgin territory, Fuchs laid claim to the orchid that now bears his name. Originally called Schombolaelia fuchsii, his discovery was later renamed Myrmecolaelia × fuchsii.

“I was the first one to discover it,” he says. And he has been a good steward. Due to development, the plant died in the wild, but it continues to thrive under Fuchs’ watch. “I have a couple of plants still here at the nursery.”

The writer can be reached at morrisseyfineart@hushmail.com

By the numbers

The Flower Shoppe & Things

(Brickell Flower & Orchid)

Founded: 2010.

Owner: Adriana Vargas Hernandez, 43.

Employees: Six.

Revenues: $100,000+ annually

Location: In a storefront inside the 50 Biscayne condominium tower, 50 Biscayne Blvd., Commercial Unit 6, Miami. (Projections include adding a 3,000-square-foot facility in Doral by the end of the year.)

Features: Known for its made-to-order arrangements for special events and upscale lobbies, The Flower Shoppe has one retail store and plans to expand to an additional site in downtown Miami. Vargas Hernandez personally has made floral arrangements for celebrities ranging from Naomi Campbell and Katie Holmes to Queen Latifah and the Queen of Spain.

Contact: 305-416-5181, www.theflowershoppeandthings.com.

===

Ideal Orchids

Founded: 2012.

Owner: Nicholas Myrie, 30

Employees: Four.

Revenues: $150,000+ annually.

Location: In a kiosk near the corner of Dixieland and Party lanes inside the Festival Flea Market Mall, 2900 W. Sample Rd., Pompano Beach (with plans to open a second location in Boca Raton).

Features: Whether outfitting a yacht, mansion or grounds with orchid arrangements, Ideal Orchids caters to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and those with aspirations. In addition to catering to mall foot traffic, Ideal Orchids provides online and phone orders with a personalized delivery service, with clientele that includes wedding parties, corporate functions and private homes decorated with anything from elaborate arrangements to individual potted plants.

Contact: 954-839-5626, www.idealorchids.com, www.idealorchidsflorist.com.

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N&N Orchids

Founded: 1982 (renamed from V&T Orchids, incorporated as N&N Orchids in 2010).

Owner: Verapong Halelamien, 58.

Employees: 14

Revenues: $4.5 million annually.

Location: 2200 NW 102nd Ave., Suite #1, Doral.

Features: An importer exclusively of cut orchids from Thailand, Taiwan, Holland, New Zealand, Colombia and Costa Rica, N&N Orchid distributes flowers to wholesalers throughout the Southeast, who in turn supply florist shops. Supplies Aranda, Aranthera Cymbidium, Dendropium, Oncidium and Phalaenopsis orchids.

Contact: 800-966-7243, 305-406-3766, www.nnorchid.com.

===

R.F. Orchids

Founded: 1970.

Owners: Robert Fuchs, 68, and Michael Coronado, 51.

Employees: 15.

Revenues: $1 million+ annually.

Location: 28100 SW 182nd Ave., Homestead (nursery); R.F. Orchids & Flowers, Fishing Village, Ocean Reef Club, Key Largo (flower shop).

Features: Not only does Fuchs grow and sell his own award-winning orchids, he also offers tours of the residential garden. The 10-acre nursery has several greenhouses as well as tropical birds and a resident alligator named Wally. Fuchs also leads guided tours of Asia, Africa and the Americas for enthusiasts to attend orchid shows and observe the flowers in their native habitats.

Contact: 305-245-4570, www.rforchids.com.

Orchid lore

Cultivating orchids became the preserve of the rich and refined. William Spencer Cavendish, the sixth duke of Devonshire known as the Bachelor Duke, epitomized the extravagance associated with orchids. The British take their orchids seriously, as evinced by the knighthood bestowed upon the duke’s gardener, Joseph Paxton. Of course, Paxton helped the duke assemble the largest orchid collection in England and designed the biggest greenhouse in the world on his estate — a behemoth that at 300 by 100 feet could enclose nearly an entire football field and was such an architectural wonder that it had its own name: the Great Stove. When Queen Victoria visited in 1843, more than 12,000 lights illuminated the way as her carriage passed through the great glass structure.

A century later, the mystique of orchids even played out in comic strips. Beginning in 1940, intrepid reporter Brenda Starr was romantically linked to a man known for raising black orchids — a fictional plant if ever there was one — for a serum said to keep his undisclosed illness in check.

SIOBHAN MORRISSEY

Orchid sales in the top three states

This chart shows the figures for operations with $100,000 or more in sales for orchids for indoor or patio use that are sold in pots for 2013 and 2014.

State

Producers

Quantity sold

Less than 5 inches

5 inches or larger

Total, all sizes

2013

2014

2013

2014

2013

2014

2013

2014

(number)

(number)

(1,000 pots)

(1,000 pots)

(1,000 pots)

(1,000 pots)

(1,000 pots)

(1,000 pots)

California

38

33

13,345

12,245

1,149

2,384

14,494

14,629

Florida

44

47

2,568

2,652

5,378

6,205

7,946

8,857

Hawaii

36

33

1,475

1,388

94

130

1,569

1,518

State

Percentage of quantity sold at wholesale

Wholesale price

Value of all sales at wholesale

Less than 5 inches

5 inches or larger

2013

2014

2013

2014

2013

2014

2013

2014

(percent)

(percent)

(dollars per pot)

(dollars per pot)

(dollars per pot)

(dollars per pot)

(1,000 dollars)

(1,000 dollars)

California

98

98

7.66

7.80

12.31

11.63

116,367

123,237

Florida

91

98

6.90

7.01

8.34

8.29

62,572

70,030

Hawaii

90

90

6.77

7.12

9.91

10.27

10,917

11,218

Source: Floriculture Crops 2014 Summary (June 2015): USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service

Orchids in Florida

According to Carl Lewis, botanist and director of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, South Florida was an orchid wonderland until the late 1800s, when the populations of orchids began to decline. There are now efforts to restore some the plants’ former abundance.

“There were Florida butterfly orchids all over the place, and also cigar orchids, dollar orchids and cockleshell orchids in certain habitats along the coast and in swampy areas. All those orchids live in trees. The pinepink orchid, which lives on the ground, not in trees, was also common,” Lewis said in an email.

But as the Florida East Coast Railroad made its way south, people who wanted to sell the orchids ripped them from the trees on which they grew and packed them into boxcars to ship them north, where they were sold as houseplants.

Agricultural and urban development erased much of the rest of the orchid habitat. “Most of our native orchids live in trees. When many trees were cut down to create farmland and residential neighborhoods, the tree-dwelling orchids no longer had a place to live. Pine rockland and hardwood hammock habitats were the hardest hit,” Lewis said.

“It is very hard to find any native orchids now,” Lewis said. “The Florida butterfly orchid still exists on old oak trees in some places, but it is rare. All the others are almost impossible to find in the neighborhoods of South Florida. The people who know about wild orchid populations in South Florida tend to keep the locations secret, to avoid poaching. The good news for us is that we still have native orchids on some of our old oak trees at Fairchild.”

Now, through the Million Orchid Project that was begun last year, Fairchild is trying to reintroduce one million orchids into South Florida’s urban landscapes within five years. They are being propagated in a lab at Fairchild and in schools equipped with a mini botany lab, a set of shelves and lights for growing plants in the classroom.

Trained “citizen scientist” volunteers — including hundreds of students in 124 Miami-Dade middle and high schools, as well as some schools in Broward — are working hard to bring orchids back: Students do everything from sterilizing the glass bottles in which the orchid seeds start to grow to transplanting the flowers and putting them in the mini-greenhouses.

Among the program’s other points of progress:

▪ Fairchild has partnered with Miami-Dade County Public Schools to create a magnet high school called BioTECH at Richmond. All 350 students in that school are participating in the Million Orchid Project.

▪ The University of Miami College of Architecture is transforming a school bus (donated to the Million Orchid Project by Miami-Dade County Public Schools) into the world’s first mobile orchid propagation laboratory. Once it’s finished, the lab will visit schools, making it possible for middle and high school students to get hands-on experience with the more technical aspects of orchid propagation.

▪ Fairchild has partnerships with the city of Coral Gables and the village of Palmetto Bay, and is working to recruit other municipalities. Municipalities provide funds for propagating orchids at Fairchild, help with planting and provide outreach opportunities with their residents.

MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Orchid events

Here are a few of the orchid-oriented events that will be held in South Florida in the coming months:

▪ Oct. 30-Nov. 1: Delray Beach Orchid Society Show. http://www.delraybeachorchidsociety.com/show.html

▪ Jan. 23-24: Tamiami International Orchid Festival at Dade County Fairgrounds Expo Center. tamiamiorchidfestival.com

▪ March: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. An annual event. http://www.fairchildgarden.org/events-community-outreach/orchid-festival

▪ May 13-15: Redland International Orchid Festival. www.redlandorchidfestival.org.

Source: The American Orchid Society: TheAOS@aos.org

Orchid species

▪ Native to Florida: Florida butterfly orchid, cigar orchid and pinepink are among the most commonly found.

▪ Common imports: Imported orchids are very popular, because they are available in large quantities and have become much less expensive than in the past. Phalaenopsis, Dendrobium, Cattleya, Oncidium and Vanda are the main types of non-native orchids available.

SOURCE: Carl Lewis, botanist and director of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

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