Peter Kouchalakos went to law school, but he found a passion and a career in orchids and other exotic plants instead.
“There are plenty of lawyers in Miami-Dade and not enough plant people,” he said.
His wife Clara’s love of flowers and plants rubbed off on him. Their yard has no grass. Instead, it’s covered in sprays of yellow flowers, orchids, bromeliads and palm trees. He started growing his own orchids and bromeliads and helped service other growers’ collections.
“I call it a profession, but it’s really a passion. It was a hobby that got out of control,” he said. “Next thing you know, you’ve got a tent and you’re selling stuff.”
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The Kouchalakoses started a business, PCK Orchids and Exotic Plants, that has been going strong for about 15 years. They sell plants at shows, festivals and farmer’s markets and tend to others’ gardens. Peter Kouchalakos calls himself the Johnny Appleseed of orchids.
“I just want to spread the joy,” he said. “I’m lucky to get to do what I love and get paid for it.”
Kouchalakos will be selling his orchids at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden’s 13th annual International Orchid Festival, which takes place next weekend. Thousands of orchids and plants grown by local and international vendors will be displayed. Guest speakers providing gardening workshops and lectures will teach visitors how to grow and maintain their orchids.
Exotic plant lovers and gardening beginners are welcome. And no, growing orchids is not just for empty nesters and retirees.
In fact, hundreds of students in 30 Miami-Dade County high schools are playing a part in the orchid festival. Fairchild outfitted schools all over the county with micro labs and mini-greenhouses so students can propagate thousands of orchids that will eventually be reintroduced in public spaces throughout the county.
According to Carl Lewis, botanist and director of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, South Florida was an orchid wonderland in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“At the time it seemed like an unlimited resource, there were so many orchid plants in the region,” Lewis said.
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. The orchids were harvested before they flowered and sold as houseplants.
“They were sent to places in the country where orchids can’t grow naturally,” Lewis said.
Agricultural and urban development erased the rest of the orchid habitat.
“It’s hard to find these orchids now. They’re such a distinctive part of our environment,” Lewis said. “We’ve lost something important.”
South Florida’s almost-tropical climate makes certain species of orchids feel at home. Now, Fairchild is trying to reintroduce one million orchids into South Florida’s urban landscapes within five years. Trained volunteers — and the hundreds of students from Miami-Dade schools — are working hard to bring them back.
“They’re citizen scientists,” said Amy Padolf, director of education at Fairchild. “We wanted to give kids the opportunity to do science and research projects.”
Then there’s BioTech at Richmond Heights 9-12 High School. BioTech partnered with Zoo Miami and Fairchild for the school’s zoology and botany magnet programs. Students at the school have their own lab, which is bigger than Fairchild’s orchid propagation lab, to take care of hundreds of orchid seedlings.
These 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.
During the orchid festival, BioTech students will explain to visitors the process of propagating orchids and the importance of conserving the flowering plants. They will lead small groups of visitors through the orchid lab at Fairchild and show them how to take the orchids from the glass bottles and put them in the greenhouses.
“We want to train students of all ages not only in doing science but in communicating the science,” Padolf said. “Their science is only as good as how they can communicate it.”
Padolf said the students participating in this project are excited to be doing scientific work.
“These kids are interested in the plants, they asked thoughtful, higher-level questions, they were meticulous about taking care of orchids,” she said. “It was the most amazing unintended outcome I could’ve asked for.”
If you go
▪ What: 13th annual International Orchid Festival
▪ When: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., March 13-15
▪ Where: Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, 10901 Old Cutler Rd., Coral Gables
▪ Cost: $25 for adults, $18 for seniors 65 and up, and $12 for children 6-17; free for Fairchild members and children 5 and under