State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

With an amazing variety of sizes and designs, orchids are ‘dramatically different’ from other plants, and that keeps growers fascinated

by on April 01, 2020 2:23 PM

Wade Hollenbach has an addiction. 

An addiction to orchids he’s happy to tell you about. Hollenbach, president of the Central Pennsylvania Orchid Society, has been growing the flowers for more than 43 years and estimates his greenhouse holds about 1,000 plants.

“It’s a good addiction to have,” he says.  

Hollenbach was introduced to the plants through a neighbor who grew them, but it wasn’t until he came across one in a local nursery that he really got interested. 

“It was the oddest thing I’d seen in my life,” he says. “When it comes to plants for me, strange is better. I was hooked.”

Hollenbach doesn’t specialize or play favorites in what orchids he grows.

“It's everything but what you find in the grocery store,” he says. “I have a hard time controlling myself.” 

Orchids, found on every continent except Antarctica, were once status symbols, flowers available only to the very wealthy. 

“Back in the 1800s they were paying hundreds, if not thousands, for them,” says Leon Glicenstein, a local grower who helps with show judging. “They didn’t know how to grow them from seeds, so they had to be taken from the wild and shipped, and a lot of plants died.” 

Adding to the scarcity were the drastic steps some took to ensure the exclusivity of the precious cargo.

“You may start off with 500 of a species, but after collection they would burn out the forest so no other collectors could get them,” says Glicenstein. “It was a very cutthroat business.”

Today’s growers, like John Dunkelberger, who has been growing orchids since the 1960s, have the breeding and growing down to a science, which has helped bring the prices down to earth from the early stratospheric costs. Today it’s possible to get a decent-quality, mass-produced plant at the grocery store or places such as Lowe’s or Home Depot for about $10.

Still, many varieties can be expensive compared to most flowers found in nurseries. The plants have very unique, and very specific, growing needs.

“The seeds are started in a small bottle and they spend two years in it before they come out,” Dunkelberger says. “Then they can take up to 10 years to bloom; that’s why they’re so expensive. Very few bloom in two years, so you’re talking about the amount of time they take up in a greenhouse before you can sell them.”

Orchids are the largest family of flowering plants in the world, with approximately 30,000 species with more than 70,000 hybrids. They fall into three types: epiphytes, tropical orchids that live above ground on trees where they can get light; terrestrial, which live in humus-rich soil near streams, in clearings, or other ground where they get a mixture of shade and sunlight; and lithophytes, which grow on rocks or rocky terrain with very little humus. 

Orchids have two basic growth patterns: monopodial, the single stem growing mainly upward, and sympodial, whose stems grow horizontally across the growing medium. 

“They’re dramatically different from anything else,” Hollenbach says. “They just don’t behave in the ways normal plants do. One of the most unusual things is you can breed one genus with another that is moderately related to it – that’s kind of like breeding an apple and a pear.”

“Orchids come in an amazing variety of sizes and designs,” with some measuring no more than a half-inch, he says. “The design is so varied that unless you are very well-trained, you might not know it’s an orchid.”

“The flowers are just fascinating and sometimes bizarre,” says Glicenstein. “They’re just weird looking sometimes.”

Creating the crosses isn’t difficult, says Dunkelberger, because of the plant’s unique structure. 

Unlike other flowers, the orchid has a structure called the column, which contains fused male and female reproductive parts, also known as the stamen and pistil. Pollen is contained in a small “spring-loaded” cap-like structure that breeders and hobbyists can open to remove the pollen, which can then be placed in any other plant they choose.

“You just take the pollen and put it on another species,” Dunkelberger says. “It will make a seed pod, which you then put in a bottle.”

And while crossing plants for the first time may produce somewhat predictable results, for longtime growers like Dunkelberger, the longer a plant’s lineage, the harder it is to guess the result, which is part of the fun and challenge of the hobby.

“If you’ve made a lot of complicated crosses, you don’t know what you’ll get,” he says. 

“I really love that I’ll never stop learning,” says Hollenbach. “I know I will wake up every day of my life with more to learn.”


Interested in learning more? Meetings of the Central Pennsylvania Orchid Society are held the first Sunday of each month at the Friends Meetinghouse on Prospect Avenue in State College. Meetings are free and open to the public and feature a variety of programs and speakers.

For more information, contact Wade Hollenbach at (570)837-9157.

The society’s 55th annual show, which had been scheduled for April at Snider Ag Arena, has been cancelled because of coronavirus precautions.

Robin Crawford is a freelance writer in State College.



Disclaimer: Copyright © 2020 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.