The Report

For one fashionable flower, buds mean big business

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Coffee? Oil? Diamonds? For one man in Florida, the natural but perishable orchid holds the opportunity for profit.

The Gold of Kinabalu sells for nearly $5,000 and a whole Shenzen Nongke can sell for over $200,000. These aren't diamonds or jewels. They're orchids. "There are stories about how some unique plants found in the wild were traded for cars for example," says Francisco Miranda, owner and breeder at Miranda Orchids in Florida. "And these are true stories."

The 26,000 species of orchids in the world come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny micro orchids only a few millimeters wide to broad white and purple varieties. Some are valuable as foods, like vanilla orchids. Others are used as traditional medicines. Most commonly, orchids are used for decoration -- from hotels to homes to weddings. Some of those decorative orchids are your store-bought variety, selling for $9.99 at places like Home Depot. But others are rarer, and far more expensive.

There are a lot of reasons why orchids are so valuable. First, they're slow growing. The Gold of Kinabalu orchid takes eight to 10 years to grow to its adult stage and flower. Others take several years, and most only flower briefly and then retreat into their green sheaths to return again next year.

Orchids also really hard to breed. Hard enough that anyone who is breeding them commercially has to do so in a sterilized lab. "Orchids have to be propagated in a lab if one wants any type of commercial production, by expensive and well-trained personnel and have to be grown in greenhouses so the plants can achieve optimum yields in a controlled and pest and disease-free environment," says Miranda.

And there's really no alternative to breeding. Many wild orchid species are endangered or threatened, live in conservation areas, and are protected from harvesting. Orchid smugglers have brought some species, like the slipper orchid, to the brink of extinction. So law abiding orchid lovers have to rely on skilled breeders to feed their flower habit.

That flower habit might be around for a few reasons, says Miranda. First, there's the obvious reason that orchids are beautiful and strange. But Miranda says that's not the only reason. That slow growing nature that makes orchids expensive also tends to grow on people too. "Things you do to them usually don't show up instantly and so it is really a time-consuming hobby or challenge that seems to attract people" he says. "Many orchids flower only once a year and growers eagerly follow their cycle through the year waiting for the flowers."

What that love for these strange and difficult plants means is that orchid breeders find plenty of demand for their pricey petals. Thailand, for example, exports nearly $80 million worth of orchids each year. That's over 24 metric tons of flowers and 30,000 units of live plants leaving the country. Nearly 9,000 acres of land in Thailand is used just for growing orchids. In Taiwan, one orchid genus accounts for half the entire island's flower exports, making $50 million each year. Just one orchid grower in Taiwan has over 15 acres of orchid greenhouses.

But while stories of orchids traded for cars, or purchased for thousands of dollars are pretty common, the majority of those sales aren't coming from people who spring for The Gold of Kinabalu. Being able to export orchids to the United States, to big stores like Lowe's and Home Depot, makes a big difference. Miranda gave up selling exclusive plants a while back. His customers are also mostly in the States, he says, and they buy a couple of plants at a time. But from the ten dollar plant to the big ticket items, "orchids still have a glamour and exclusive look to them," he says, which will keep them around for a long time.

Image: Barbara Willi / Flickr

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Rose Eveleth

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Rose Eveleth is a freelance writer, producer and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, OnEarth, Discover, New York Times, Story Collider and Radiolab. She holds degrees from the University of California, San Diego and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure