Orchids have fascinated people for centuries. There are thousands of different species of orchids, and their blooms come in nearly every color, shape, size, and smell imaginable.
Polk County is a wonderful place for orchid enthusiasts, and many of its residents have fallen under the spell of the exotic plants. Three enthusiasts in particular have fantastic collections of orchids from all over the globe, and they’re passionate about cultivating rare species and preserving some of the world’s most endangered plants.
Lakeland orchid grower Glen Gross’s hobby started out of necessity when his mother grew ill and passed away. She left behind her collection of 400 to 500 plants and Gross, still in school at the time, got a crash course in cultivating orchids. His hobby has grown ever since.
Today, Gross houses an astonishing collection of plants in several small greenhouses at his home, including some of the orchids from his mother’s collection. His greenhouses are full of exotic species from all over the world, and it seems nearly every plant has a story behind it. Gross tells stories about tiny, fragrant orchids carried into war by samurai in feudal Japan, about hybrids and crosses named after family members, and about plants that originated in the deep forests of Belize.
Now retired, Gross spends his time tending his plants and helping other orchid enthusiasts learn about the hobby. When his collection threatens to overcrowd his greenhouses, he sells off the extra plants to local growers at orchid shows and farmers’ markets. He’s passionate about helping people choose the perfect plant regardless of their experience level. Gross speaks simply enough to be understood by beginners but can also rattle off the Latin names of the various orchids at a rate that would leave many hardcore collectors dizzy.
“The idea was to try to cater to all levels of orchid growers, from someone who wants an orchid but never had one to someone who has lots of orchids,” Gross says.
Troy Bourn, also a Lakeland resident, collects orchid species that grow all over his yard and in a greenhouse tucked into the corner of his property. Like Gross, Bourn was thrown into orchid growing when a friend left him some of her plants when she moved up North. When she came back and retrieved her plants, Bourn realized he was hooked.
“It killed me, it just killed me that I didn’t have anything to take care of,” Bourn says.
He’d caught what he affectionately calls “the orchid bug.” He started learning about orchids from his uncle, who was also an enthusiast, and was blown away by the beauty and complexity of the orchid family.
Since then Bourn’s collection has since grown to include species from around the world and from Florida alike. They grow exuberantly all over his greenhouse, which is both a showcase for his plants and a peaceful retreat.
“My cardiologist told me I need a happy place,” Bourn laughed. “So this is what I do. I just enjoy myself and surround myself with the things that I love.”
His plants, which hang from the beams and crowd the greenhouse shelves, are proof of what Bourn says is “some weird tie that’s innate, that’s unspoken,” that turned him from a novice orchid grower into a collector.
Malcolm Manners, the head of the horticulture department at Florida Southern College, shares a similar love for orchids. Although he spends much of his spare time and energy growing roses, Manners has a collection of plants at the Florida Southern greenhouse that is both lovely and is part of an important conservation effort.
He grows the orchid Peristeria elata, also known as the Holy Ghost orchid. The Holy Ghost orchid is the national flower of Panama and is an endangered species. Manners’ plants are descendants of a specimen that was brought to Florida Southern College by John Griffis, a former member of the horticulture department, about 15 years ago. The specimen came from the Smithsonian Institution, which cultivated the orchids as an effort to decrease the demand for illegally poached plants. Florida Southern horticulturists have been growing them ever since.
Any orchid enthusiast will admit to facing setbacks with their collection. Manners and the Holy Ghost orchid are no exception. He recalls a particularly devastating instance several years ago when tens of thousands of Holy Ghost orchid seedlings were growing in the school’s tissue lab.
“I don’t know if it’s true, but we claimed to have had more than half the world population in that one little room. As you would expect — you know, Murphy’s Law — the power went off and the air conditioning went off. They all cooked to death in one day. We lost the entire crop of seedlings,” Manners says.
The school started over, and today they have about 30 mature Holy Ghost orchids in their greenhouse. That’s no small feat. Manners says that, as far as he knows, the Holy Ghost orchids are virtually extinct in the wild.
All three men have realized that Polk County is an excellent location for orchid growers. The hot summers, mild winters, and high humidity offer ideal conditions for raising a broad variety of species. Beginners and seasoned collectors alike can figure out the best kind of orchid to cultivate by evaluating the types of conditions like light, temperature, and water they can provide. Manners recommends one particular kind of orchid.
“If (growers) can provide the right conditions, Phalaenopsis are probably easier for more people than anything else I know of. If there’s a true beginner’s orchid, that would be it,” he says.
Polk County is home to several native species, as well. Encyclia Tampensis, commonly called the Tampa orchid, has long, narrow leaves and small blossoms that smell like honey during the day. They grow well in Florida and can be found growing in clumps on tree branches all over central Florida. Epidendrum magnoliae, the Green Fly orchid, grows in swampy areas and puts out fragrant green blooms. Polk County is also home to several species that grow in soil instead of on tree branches, and they’re usually found growing in damp soil throughout the state.
Orchid enthusiasts should be aware, however, that collecting orchids from the wild is a federal offense. If any native species is particularly appealing to a collector, specimens can be legally purchased from orchid growers and greenhouses all over the country.
Orchids are everywhere in Polk County. They’re in tiny greenhouses tucked out of sight, they’re sold at stands at farmers’ markets, and they’re growing in trees and swampland all over Central Florida. Keep an eye out for the many beautiful specimens – plants with intriguing histories, unusual colors and exotic patterns. And good luck avoiding the “orchid bug.”