Addicted To Orchids

<B>Lesley Stahl</B> Talks To Orchaholics

Once upon a time, orchids were known as the world's most exotic flowers.

Hard to find, harder to care for, and impossibly expensive - the only affordable orchids were the big floppy ones you bought in a corsage for the high school prom.

But recently, orchids seem to be everywhere; in every hotel lobby, every garden store, even at the supermarket.

Why have these beautiful, but sometimes bizarre, blossoms become so ubiquitous?

As 60 Minutes discovered a few years ago, it may be because people simply get addicted to orchids. Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports on this story that first aired April 9, 2000.

"It's an obsession. Once you start with them, once you hold this thing of exquisite beauty in your hand, and you touch it, you're hooked," says Carol Noble.

Noble is hooked on orchids: the most complicated, highly-evolved plants on earth.

More than 30,000 different species of them flower in the wild, on every continent but Antarctica. They range from the achingly beautiful to the truly weird-looking, and orchid addicts want them all.

As one grower put it: "You can get off alcohol, drugs, women, food and cars. But once you're hooked on orchids, you're finished."

Orchid hunters smuggle rare ones out of the jungle. People deplete their savings to buy orchids, even create foundations to care for them after they die. In San Francisco, people stand in line in the rain just to get into an orchid show to "ooh" and "aah."

In Tokyo, half a million people swarm into Japan's biggest baseball stadium to view and video, sniff and snap the world's best orchids. All over the world, people start with one orchid, and before they know it, they're addicts.

Twenty five years ago, Bob Weltz was a wealthy Wall Street investment banker who'd never even thought about an orchid until someone gave him a few. But that's all it took.

"I started with a lot of plants in my bathroom, and then finally built a room - I changed my living room into an indoor greenhouse," says Weltz. "This was on the 12th floor of an apartment on 71st Street in Manhattan with about 4,500 plants that I had growing in my apartment."

When even 4,500 orchids proved too few, Weltz moved west, to an estate in Santa Barbara. No way could he ever run out of room here. Fourteen years later, his greenhouse is bursting at the seams, even overflowing into his elegant dining room.

"They call many of us 'orchaholics,'" says Weltz.

You could say that orchids are designed to be irresistible. Every shape, color, fragrance and pattern serves the same purpose: to attract a particular bug or fly or wasp to visit, enter, and get covered with pollen to carry to another orchid.

Some orchids even trick insects into thinking they're visiting other insects.

It's all about spreading pollen, a flower's version of sex. In the documentary, "The Private Life of Plants," David Attenborough's description of one orchid that mimics a female wasp sounds almost pornographic.

"The orchid's mimicry is so convincing, and enticing that sometimes a flower will attract a whole scrum of sex-crazed suitors," says Attenborough.

What bugs do in the wild, orchaholics do in the greenhouse. Since long before anyone ever heard the expression "genetic engineering," people have been cross-pollinating orchids, trying to make them bigger, better, brighter.

Kerry Herndon is a breeder and grower in Florida. He claims they make 6,000 hybrids a year. How he does that is not particularly high tech. Orchid breeders use a toothpick to take pollen from one orchid, call it the Dad, and transfer it to the Mom.

"If you went to the jungle you could maybe find this plant right here. You hybridize that with something with a little bit bigger flowers and you can get this result. And then you would want to maybe cross that with something that had much larger flowers because you want bigger flowers, and you might end up with something like this. It's still branching a little bit but it has much larger flowers," says Herndon.

That process took almost a decade. And breeders can't be sure what they're going to get. They might expect solids and get stripes.

But after more than a century of surprises, hundreds of thousands of new orchid hybrids have been created and meticulously catalogued by name.

"Phalenopsis-shari-nelson-cruel-smith-ex-duradonopsis," says Herndon, jokingly.

With certain types of orchids, growers like Herndon can now do more than just breed. Lately, they've been cloning them.

"You can grow a million plants from one plant," says Herndon.

More precisely, you can clone a million plants from one piece of tissue no bigger than a pea. First, it grows in a test-tube, then in a laboratory flask, then in a bunch of flasks, then a bunch of pots. In two or three years, a greenhouse-full of identical orchids.

And we thought Dolly the Sheep was the breakthrough.

"The first clones done on anything were orchid clones, because orchids were so valuable that they wanted to take prizewinning orchids, and replicate them identically," says Herndon. "So they created the cloning technology to duplicate orchids."

Cloning and precise breeding have allowed Herndon and other big growers to produce orchids by the millions, and make them affordable. His biggest customer is Home Depot, which sells plants for $20 that not long ago would have cost twenty times that.

If Herndon represents the Home Depot end of the orchid market, California breeder Terry Root is the Tiffanys of the business.

"I produce art here. I'm not a wallpaper manufacturer," says Root, who specializes in breeding exotic papheo-pedilum orchids, which so far can't be cloned. In fact, they still have to be created one painstaking step at a time. And they can cost up to $2,000.

That expensive orchid is called a "stud plant." Just as a single champion racehorse put out to stud can make a horse breeder wealthy, a champion stud orchid - producing up to a 100,000 seeds from one pollenization - can keep a nursery in the green for years.

So many exotic orchids have been taken out of the world's jungles to be used as breeding studs that all orchids in the wild are now considered endangered - and they are protected by the same law that covers rare rhinos and elephants.

Customs officers routinely catch people trying to smuggle wild orchids, as author Eric Hansen discovered while researching his book "Orchid Fever." Investigators, he says, even stage "orchid raids."

There is something called the Orchid Police. And there are even orchid safaris. In fact, Hansen says he has led an orchaholic on a three-week expedition into the jungles of Borneo just to snap a picture of the rarest orchid on earth.

"The look on his face. It was as if he had discovered, you know, the Holy Grail or something," says Hansen. "I mean, tears in his eyes. And I looked at him and I thought, 'These plants have power of people.'"

People will also go to extraordinary lengths to be able to boast, "I have the rarest, the showiest, the best orchid."

Orchid judges are the ones who decide which are the best. And at almost every orchid show, judges give awards - or decide not to give them.

They can make or break an orchid, and its owner.

At the San Francisco Orchid Show, with judges using reference books and slides and magnifiers and rulers, five out of 52 orchids were deemed worthy of an award.

The best of the best could end up at the Tokyo Dome show, the orchid Superbowl. There's $150,000 in total prize money, and the top orchid's owner gets treated like the MVP. The awards ceremony is a cross between the Nobel Peace Prize and "The Price Is Right." Where else can you see very dignified men wearing corsages the size of cabbages?

This year, one of the winners was a papheopadelum that someone bought from Terry Root. So next year, even more orchaholics will visit his greenhouse and pay him $10,000-$20,000 for one orchid.

"One of my employees said, 'You know, these papheopaedelum people are lunatics,'" says Root. "And I said, 'You know, that's a really nice name for a cross.' So I named one 'Lunacy,' and it's been one of my most popular crosses."