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Cloverdale couple turn orchid hobby into life's work

Friday, June 13, 2008

(Photo)
Dick Wells, owner of Hilltop Orchids in Cloverdale, shows off "Dazzling," an orchid he hybridized that received a National Award of Merit from the American Orchid Society.
CLOVERDALE -- As beautiful and dainty as they appear, orchids, given the right kind of care, can hold their own.

"People kill them when they baby them too much," said Sandy Wells, who owns Hilltop Orchids in Cloverdale with her husband Dick. "They bloom when they perceive a threat to their environment."

What Hilltop is today is the culmination of a dream that grew -- literally.

The business was launched in 1991 -- back then, it was a 24-foot by 60-foot greenhouse that Dick, who graduated from the Citadel in 1960 and spent much of his adult life living in Indianapolis and working for an insurance company -- referred to as a "hobby farm."

"We really just wanted to come back here and raise our three boys," he said. "This has grown far beyond our wildest expectations."

Now, Hilltop Orchids boasts nearly an acre of growing space. Plants, seedlings, community pots and flasks and orchid growing supplies are sold to a variety of wholesale and retail customers.

That first tiny greenhouse has expanded, and is now 96-feet by 100-feet.

Many of Hilltop's products are one-of-a-kind hybrids developed in the greenhouse's laboratory.

Hilltop became a full-time business in 1997.

The greenhouse is a sprawling wonderland of color and aroma.

While many automatically think of orchids as white, pink or lavender flowers, they actually come in just about every color of the rainbow.

"We have a lot of really nice oranges and yellows," Dick said. "Right now we're working on making blues."

While some orchids have no scent, many have their own distinct smells. Yellow and orange flowers tend to have a fruity aroma, while other colors have various levels of floral or perfume scents -- the deeper the color of the flower, the deeper the scent.

Soft music flows throughout the greenhouse and the laboratory. Dick said music really is conducive to plant growth.

"We give them mostly light rock and a little country now and then," he said.

Dick became a hobby grower in 1954 at the age of 17, and he has watched orchids evolve in many ways over the years.

"Years ago, they were floppy, open and didn't have much substance," he said. "They were pretty, but delicate. Now they've become these round, full, glistening flowers."

Dick agreed that orchids are really very low-maintenance plants.

"All you really have to do is water them once a week, give them good, indirect light and fertilize them every other time you water," he said.

According to information from the American Orchid Society Web site (www.orchidweb.com), most native orchids grow anchored to trees or shrubs in the tropics or subtropics.

They may grow up to be hardy, but the orchids at Hilltop get a delicate start. They originate in flasks in a laboratory, grown under completely sterile conditions.

They are then moved to plastic containers were they germinate and sprout.

"I can get 150 to 200 plants from some of these (containers)," Dick said.

Just how many species of orchids there actually are is unknown.

The Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew in the United Kingdom accepts about 22,000, but there could be many more, the AOS site said.

One of Dick's greatest joys is crossing different types of orchids to see what happens. Currently, Hilltop has more than 50 unique hybrids registered with the Royal Horticultural Society.

RHS was founded in London in 1804 as the Horticultural Society of London. The organization is a worldwide authority on several different types of flowers and plants.

According to information on Internet encyclopedia site www.wikipedia.com, "Since the establishment of International Registration Authorities for plants in 1955 the RHS has acted as registrar for certain groups of cultivated plants. It is now registrar for nine categories -- conifers, clematis, daffodils, dahlias, delphiniums, dianthus, lilies, orchids and rhododendrons."

RHS publishes the International Orchid Register, a central listing of all known orchid hybrids, and is the host of the world-renowned Chelsea Flower Show.

The Wells' pride and joy is a one-of-a-kind orchid with wide-open, slick, deep-reddish purple flowers with a yellow outer edge. Dubbed "Hilltop's Jewel" as a hybrid with the variety name "Dazzling," the plant holds a National Award of Merit from the AOS -- the second highest honor the society bestows.

"This one is for the collector," Dick said proudly, holding the plant aloft. "This plant is probably worth $10,000."

Even after many years in the orchid business, Dick is still excited about learning new things. He is an accredited AOS judge -- a benchmark that required years of work to achieve.

"There is a lot of testing," Dick said. "I had to spend three years as a student judge and do a paper every six months to present to the judging center judges in St. Louis."

When judging orchids, Dick finds the challenge to be not awarding the highest marks to the flowers that are his personal favorites.

"We talk about color, form, the number of flowers per spike and texture," he said. "When you become a judge, you can't limit yourself. You have to learn about and appreciate all species and hybrids. I read every night."

For all his reading, working and studying, Dick knows he could never come to a point where he had nothing more to learn about orchids.

"I'm continually excited about new things," he said. "But I don't now nor will I ever claim to know everything."

Store hours at Hilltop are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or by appointment.

The greenhouse is located at 1151 E. C.R. 800S, Cloverdale. More information can be obtained by calling (765) 795-4066 or visiting www.hilltoporchids.com.



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