RAVENNA, Ohio – The artistic curve of the stem, with its end bending under the weight of stark white blooms, attracted Beth Straubhaar to her first orchid 15 years ago.
She gently picked up the pot, walked her fingers up the bare vine, cupped the blossoms in her palm and turned to her husband, Kevin, who saw that look in her eye.
“Do you know how to care for this?” he asked her.
“No, but I’ll learn.”
* * *
It was like bringing a baby to her home in Ravenna, Ohio. Beth wasn’t quite sure what to do with this elegant, foreign creature. She sat it on a bedroom windowsill and gazed at it, taking in its beauty. And like other new mothers, she read every word she could find, searching for instruction and insight.
Five years passed before Beth coaxed that orchid to bloom again in all its glory.
During those years, however, she collected more orchids. Intrigued, she studied their tropical lines and features.
A Michigan grower supplied her escalating hobby, and the first time she walked into his greenhouse and stood before thousands of orchids in bloom, she forgot to breathe.
During one trip, he asked if she wanted to wholesale.
“If there was any money in it, someone would already be doing it,” she said.
She relented: “I’ll bet you a cup of coffee no florists in Ohio will be interested.”
She went home, laid the phone book across her lap, flipped to the Yellow Pages, closed her eyes, pointed her finger and called the first florist. After 10 calls, all but two had said “absolutely.”
* * *
Early on, more than 60 white cattleyas filled Beth and Kevin’s bedroom, which may sound a bit like staying in a Hawaiian paradise. But cattleyas release their fragrance at nightfall and sleeping in a room that smelled like a bottle of pungent perfume had spilled in the center of the bed, quickly lost its appeal.
So, Kevin built his wife an orchid room, where she could do anything she wanted with her flowers in the daytime and sleep in peace at night. As he worked, his own fondness for orchids began to take hold.
* * *
When Beth decided to switch to retailing orchids, the couple and their families spent an entire weekend building a backyard greenhouse. The finishing touch was a sign in the front yard proclaiming Cat Orchids was in business.
Beth’s orchids now grow longer into the year, and Kevin has a getaway for his own breeding experiments.
After putting in a full day at Detroit Diesel in Canton, Ohio, he relaxes by puttering with the orchids. This “puttering” has paid off. His specialty is breeding brassia and he’s even won awards at shows, Beth said.
* * *
These orchid shows are now their life.
Most weekends between February and June, they’re off on an eight-hour trip in one direction or another. They’re setting up award-winning displays, selling their unique orchids, and presenting lectures and seminars.
It’s sort of like a dog show, Beth explained.
Just like those judges look for the best golden retriever or Australian shepherd, American Orchid Society judges look for the best orchid “breeds.” They look at the flowers, the shape, the conformity, the color, the way it stands.
Ribbon after ribbon hang in the greenhouse, each recognizing a superior orchid, each pushed up against the next to make room for them all.
* * *
Although Beth acted much like a new parent when she brought that first white phalaenopsis home, the motherhood metaphor doesn’t end there.
In fact, Beth compares growing orchids to the world’s longest pregnancy.
It begins when she cuts a pod off a mature plant and sends it to a sterile lab where the seeds are put in sterile flasks or jars. They take root in the rich nutrients and are sent back to Beth. Lines of jars fill shelves that are hidden behind plastic so she can keep the temperature warm and womb-like. There they stay, growing slowly for up to two years, until their root growth is stable.
Next, she ships them to Hawaii where they thrive in the tropical climate and grow in half the time they would take to grow here.
Many more years, in some cases up to 20 years, go by before the orchids are four to six months away from bloom and ready to return “home” to Beth’s greenhouse.
Although Beth’s life is now shaped around this hobby and business, she still hasn’t been involved long enough for one of her own orchids to return to Ohio.
That won’t happen for several more years, so for now her greenhouse is filled with orchids she’s accumulated over the years, buying them when they’re near bloom and then “finishing” them.
Orchids live long lives, if they’re in the right hands, and Beth anticipates all of hers will outlive her.
* * *
Between the shows, the classes they teach, and the seminars they host, Beth and Kevin are big on education.
When a customer comes to the greenhouse, Beth is particular. She asks them if they tend to water too much or not enough; she asks what direction their windowsill faces; she asks how they treat their other plants.
The biggest mistake people make is buying the wrong plant for the wrong spot, she said, so her goal is to help each person choose the right orchid.
Best of all, Beth offers “24-hour tech support.” People often call or e-mail her with questions, but she doesn’t mind; she wants her orchids to thrive and for others to enjoy them as she does.
Her greatest joy, in fact, is when customers call and excitedly tell her how well their orchid is blooming or how well it did in a show and thank her for her guidance.
Fifteen years ago when Beth cradled that first orchid to her chest and told her husband, “I’ll learn,” she should’ve said, “I’ll learn. You’ll learn. And together we’ll help everyone else learn, too.”
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
Contact Cat Orchids by phone at 330-296-5948
or online at www.catorchids.com.
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