Floral feng shui

Karen Lin talks about her parents' orchid business, South

Orchids are the ultimate horticulture tease. They lure like
sirens in the grocery store on your way to the dairy aisle
– those creamy-smooth petals, that ethereal fragrance, the
exotic anatomy of the blossom. So you cave in. You buy one. You
take it home. And then it dies. But not if you’re orchid-savvy like
Dan Tan and Karen Lin of South Pacific Orchids, Inc. off Highway
101 near San Martin.
Orchids are the ultimate horticulture tease. They lure like sirens in the grocery store on your way to the dairy aisle – those creamy-smooth petals, that ethereal fragrance, the exotic anatomy of the blossom.

So you cave in. You buy one. You take it home. And then it dies.

But not if you’re orchid-savvy like Dan Tan and Karen Lin of South Pacific Orchids, Inc. off Highway 101 near San Martin.

The green-thumbed duo approaches their profession with a slightly allegorical approach.

“They all have their own personality. They’re like humans,” said Lin, explaining her philosophy with intuitive perspective as she plucked a fuchsia-colored blossom and cupped it in her hand.

“Like when you drink too much, or eat too much” – Lin demonstratively rubbed her stomach – “they’ll show you on their leaf or flower. They’ll tell you when they’re sick. You can see a plant, and you can know what vitamins to give them.”

With more than a decade’s worth of experience, the 30-year-old Lin, who’s parents own the business, and manager Dan Tan, 58, have mastered the art of cultivating and caring for orchids – a poetic but specialized vocation locals are welcome to come relish in.

For Tan, skilled technique and insight have evolved into second nature, “or else we’d be out of business a long time ago,” he joked.

Given its conspicuous location along a major traffic corridor – a sign off the highway reads “101 Orchid Center” – Tan said a number of residents have no idea its there.

The Gilroy nursery at 9800 No Name Uno is primarily wholesale, but visitors may purchase individual plants at retail prices including orchids, bonsai, lucky bamboo, exotic plants, gardening supplies and pottery. The exquisite display includes a couple hundred specimens on any given day, with an additional nearby facility housing 1.5 million of the plants in various growth stages.

With trucks arriving on a weekly basis to pick up shipments, business is always buzzing and Tan is a hard guy to pin down. But he did say participating in Morgan Hill’s or Gilroy’s future farmers market was a possibility he was open to entertaining.

As the pair stood inside their showroom amidst a divine array of prismatic buds bedazzling what would otherwise be an ordinary pavilion tent, Tan interpreted their practice with an illustrated outlook just as Lin had.

“Say a Chinese guy marries a white woman and they come out with a brown boy,” he said, pointing to a Dalmatian-looking hybrid. Its magenta petals were inked with splashes of lemon, like a thin sheet of parchment paper bled on by colored pen.

He added a sister company in Taiwan – a notable forerunner in the orchid industry – handles tissue culture and initiates growth before carefully shipping the fledgling plants to Gilroy.

“It’s a technology,” he explained, indicating to the sea of flowers flaunting heterogeneous color statements from eggshell dotted with pink to canary-yellow splattered with specks of green.

“And this is how they make a baby,” interjected Lin, pulling two minuscule orange spheres from the innards of a bud and holding them in an open palm.

Lin, who’s parents purchased South Pacific Orchids, Inc. after moving to Gilroy in 2001, has been immersed in the trade since she was 4 years old.

She said the simplest ingredient to keeping an orchid alive is not watering it to death.

This is a discretionary factor one can gauge with diligent timing. Paying attention to visible elements – such as mushy, brown roots, which denote overwatering; or leathery, wrinkled leaves, which signal underwatering – helps too.

“That’s the big problem,” asserted Lin with the wag of a finger. “Ninety percent of orchids die through retail customers from overwatering.”

The plants should be hydrated every four to seven days depending on the season and dryness of one’s home, she said, and should never sit in stagnant water.

As for sun exposure, placing the orchid in morning’s light before 11 a.m., then again in afternoon light around 3 p.m. – or continuously at a slightly shaded window facing south – is optimum. Provided there’s a window or skylight, Lin said bathrooms are ideal environments since orchids can flourish in steam created by baths or showers.

Yet with their seemingly delicate physique and specific maintenance needs, the orchid is a surprisingly resilient specimen that can thrive for up to 150 years.

With a Greek etymology that relates to fertility and virility, this attractive plant is like botany’s Marilyn Monroe. European scholars revered the orchid as a powerful aphrodisiac, and some tales maintain early Greeks believed orchids could determine the sex of an unborn child – the notion being if the mother consumed the small tubers, or roots, the baby would be a girl; and if the father consumed the large tubers, the fetus would be a boy.

Lin and Tan did not recommend eating your orchid.

Thanks to South Valley’s variety of microclimates, several different variations can do well here such as cymbidiums and Australian dendrobiums. These two species enjoy hot, dry weather during the day and cooler weather at night, which is typical of the area.

The phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, is known as the “beginner’s” orchid since it’s less finicky and more forgiving of orchid rookies. It is perfect for inside the house, and can grow with lower levels of light and re-flower if placed near a shaded window, according to recommendations from South Pacific’s website.

“At the beginning I was so … you know young people,” smiled Lin. “I thought, ‘all this work?’ ”

She extended her arms and moved her hands through the air in a gliding motion. She said the profession teaches patience.

“Slow,” she said, elongating the word and lowering her voice. “I like the job.”

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