Offering specialty varieties can help small orchid growers stay profitable.
Photo courtesy of Chadwick and Sons

While sales of orchids are not exactly booming, the demand for the beautiful flowering phalaenopsis, lady slippers and other tropical orchids continues to be strong. Growers, retailers and associations across the country have weighed in on how they perceive the orchids market and where they see it going.

“In our experience, the domestic U.S. market is stable. We don’t see any noticeable slowing, but we aren’t seeing any demand surge either,” says Teresa Matsui, owner of Matsui Nursery in Salinas, Calif. Matsui Nursery is one of the largest orchid growers in the world and sells more than 4 million orchids a year to various outlets throughout North America, including major retailers, floral designers and garden centers.

Art Chadwick, owner of Chadwick and Sons Orchids, Inc., a niche grower of orchids in the Richmond, Va. area, has a similar assessment of the industry. They grow orchids out of 11 greenhouses in a country setting in Powhatan and sell them to customers out of their retail store in the city.

Sales have been “consistent” for Atlantic Avenue Orchid and Garden in Raleigh, N.C. Marketing Director Emily Woodward attributes this to a number of things, but mostly to the way they present their orchids in nice containers and in custom arrangements.

“We’re the leader in orchid sales and selection in our area,” says Woodward. “Most others don’t have as big an orchid presence as we do.” She says phalaenopsis is their biggest seller, but people are also willing to venture into some of the lady slippers and other specialty orchids they offer at different times throughout the year.

Bob Fuchs, owner and president of RF Orchids in Homestead, Fla. says sales have been “excellent” in his market, which is specialty orchids ranging from around $15 to more than $100. He says he didn’t see a big downturn in sales during the recession of 2008, mostly because they cater to collectors who are looking for quality orchids.

“The market has been stable to strong,” says Fuchs, who is also a member and judge with the American Orchid Society. He says 2016 has been their best year for sales since they opened in 1970.

Industry challenges

Like most green industry businesses these days, the orchid industry is facing challenges due to a number of things, including an ever-changing market that is somewhat influenced by what goes on overseas.

“There is certainly overproduction in certain growing areas around the world,” says Matsui. “Yet some producers in areas such as Latin America are slowing down because of the precariousness of their domestic economies.” The market has definitely been flooded with inexpensive phalaenopsis, which most likely affects the orchid industry as a whole.

Another challenge for the orchid industry is the ability to maintain healthy memberships in orchid societies. Orchid societies play a key role in promoting the orchid industry, according to Dr. Kristen Uthus, owner of New World Orchids, in Manchester, Mich. Uthus says orchid societies host orchid shows where growers can sell their wares. She’s seen some decline in membership in these societies in her area, due to the fact that people can get information on how to grow orchids over the internet. She says growers need orchid societies to stay profitable.

“If we can’t maintain the societies, we can’t have the shows and it will make it hard to have nice orchid collections,” says Uthus. “So I think orchid societies are really an important part of maintaining the industry.”

Fuchs is optimistic that the orchid societies will continue to draw in new members, even Millennials, largely due to the fellowship they offer.

“You can get information online, but the fellowship and friendship is what [the societies] are all about,” says Fuchs. “I think they’re catching on again. It’s important that we share our ideas, that’s what societies are for.”

Educating consumers

One aspect that appears to be a constant in this industry is a perception by consumers that orchids are difficult to grow.

“I think the biggest hurdle is convincing people they can grow orchids,” says Uthus. “It’s been in people’s minds for so long that orchids are tropical, delicate flowers that are very hard to grow and require special conditions, and none of these things are true.”

To encourage more consumers to try growing orchids a company in Oberlin, Ohio, began selling the “Just Add Ice” orchid. Consumers are told you can simply add 2 to 3 cubes of ice to keep them going. Uthus think it’s a positive for the industry. She says a lot of first time orchid growers who have success with the “Just Add Ice” orchids are drawn into the market and will try growing other orchids.

It’s been in people’s minds for so long that orchids are tropical, delicate flowers that are very hard to grow and require special conditions, and none of these things are true.” - Kristen Uthus, owner of New World Orchids

“Once people try growing orchids and are successful, they’re hooked,” she says.

It’s also important that consumers become educated. Matsui says some of this education should come at the retail level.

“Our customers must commit to training their employees to properly care for and merchandise our plants,” says Matsui.

Uthus markets her orchids both online and at trade shows to raise awareness for her specialty varieties.
Photo courtesy of New World Orchids

The need to specialize

Like the small craft beer brewers who are in the shadows of the big beer makers, small orchid growers need to specialize and diversify their businesses to stay profitable.

This is what Uthus, a former professor at the University of Michigan, has done with the business she acquired in 2014.

Rather than trying to compete with the large growers touting the phalaenopsis, Uthus sells petite, Japanese orchids, including the “neos” (Neofinetia falcata), which are easy to grow and are a part of the collection of many dedicated orchid aficionados. She says unlike the “phals,” which don’t look like much after they flower, her Japanese and other miniature varieties of orchids have attractive foliage in addition to flowers.

Still, it’s a small, albeit enthusiastic, market for her Japanese orchids, according to Uthus. So on the advice of other growers, she has diversified her offering beyond the Japanese orchids.

“I’ve been expanding,” she says, “but it had to be something I could grow and had to make sense, and since all the Japanese stuff is small, I’ve expanded into other miniatures. I found that works really well because a lot of people in the Midwest are indoor growers, so small works really well.” Her stock of miniature orchids includes Dendrobiums, Cattleyas and Vandas.

Uthus markets her orchids via social media, but also at shows where attendees can get a look at her stock and spread the word. She says her sales are pretty much split 50/50 between shows and the internet.

Chadwick, who took over the business from his father, has found his niche not only by specializing in different types of orchids not commonly found in supermarkets, but in diversifying his business. They now offer an orchid “babysitting” service to some 13,000 customers in Richmond. They charge city dwellers $2 a month to board their plants and provide the cooling period and prepping they need to re-bloom over the winter months.

“It’s a multi-tiered thing,” adds Chadwick of their business model. “We don’t sell wholesale anymore, we sell directly to the public. The boarding thing on top of it pairs nicely to get customers engaged.”

The bottom line for all these growers appears to be selling a quality of orchid.

“With phals (phalaenopsis) in grocery stores for $10 it changes the game a lot,” says Chadwick. “We can’t just sell the same orchid the grocery store sells, we have to sell a much higher quality one.”

“It’s the quality of the orchids. We sell orchids that are still in the bud stage so customers know they’ll have more longevity,” adds Zach Wood, assistant greenhouse manager at Atlantic Avenue Orchid and Garden. “We carry a variety of containers in different styles and shapes. It’s how they’re arranged by our floral designers.”

What’s next?

As far as what the future holds for the orchid industry, it depends on who you ask. Orchid businesses are as diverse as the orchids themselves, and they achieve different degrees of success in different markets; the industry is even influenced by the weather.

“To a large extent, our production is affected by the vagaries of Mother Nature,” says Matsui.

Wood likes what he sees from the younger people who are attending the classes at their garden center.

“[Millennials are] real interested in orchids and learning how to grow them,” Wood says. “A lot of younger people want the more modern type with cleaner lines, less underplanting as far as arrangements go.”

Fuchs thinks success in the orchid industry has a lot to do with the enthusiasm of the business owners.

“Like any business in life, if a person is enthusiastic they’ll do fine,” says Fuchs. “It has a lot to do with the personality of the individual.”

Neil is a horticulturist and freelance copywriter for the green industry, assisting businesses with advertising copy, blog posts, articles, and other digital content. greenindustrywriter.com