An opportunity for orchids
May/June 2009 California Country magazine
By Brandon T. Souza
Tropical plant thrives on California’s coastline.
Nestled in the heart of Monterey County, Rocket Farms boasts one of the largest greenhouse operations for growing phalaenopsis orchids in the United States. Unlike the traditional orchids often used in corsages, these beautiful potted plants are the newest ornamentals to make their way onto store shelves throughout the country. And according to Rocket Farms Executive Vice President Marc Clark, the Asian-inspired flowers are becoming increasingly popular.
When Rocket Farms began its operation in 1983, its growing capabilities were limited to vegetable transplants, which grow February through May. But owners Charles Kosmont and Sergio Silva wanted to find a way to utilize the empty greenhouse space in the off-season.
“We saw a great opportunity in the market due to so many new colors and felt that customers were ready to see a potted plant like an orchid at an affordable price,” Silva explained.
Today, Rocket Farms produces nearly 1 million phalaenopsis (fay-lee-ann-op-sis) orchids a year. With an attractive price point and the guarantee that the plants require no watering for up to 20 days, consumer appreciation continues to grow for the long-lasting splash of color these orchids provide.
Native throughout Southeast Asia, phalaenopsis orchids naturally thrive in the tropical heat of places like Taiwan, a country that even has a body of land off its coast appropriately named Orchid Island. As a type of shade plant, orchids are typically found below the canopies of moist and humid lowland forests in the wild, protected from direct sunlight.
Such conditions, however, do not allow the strategic drop in temperature that signals the plant to begin “spiking,” a process by which the orchid believes it is in danger and immediately goes into a reproductive mode. This, in turn, produces a stem-like structure from which multiple flowers bloom. Climate-controlled greenhouses in Taiwan can easily mass-produce baby orchid plants. But given the country’s proximity to the equator, temperatures still do not drop to optimal levels for spiking.
California’s sunny but often-cool coastline, however, provides the perfect scenario for the needed temperature drop. Located just 5 miles inland from the beaches of Moss Landing, Rocket Farms’ location is ideal.
“Our cool coastal climate provides the perfect spot for growing phalaenopsis orchids,” Kosmont said.
Clark describes the location as a “great pocket, right between two hot spots in California.”
“We can grow a great product with so much less energy than other parts of the state and even the U.S.,” he added. “There are so many benefits to being in this climate—most importantly a better overall plant for the consumer.”
With a phalaenopsis orchid, people can enjoy it as a decorative part of their home or office year-round.
“These aren’t the typical orchids that die within a week of getting them,” Clark said. “They’re actually planted in a medium—a soil-like substance—and can last for a very long time.”
A fully grown orchid shipped to a consumer’s door takes about two years to produce. Rocket Farms is continually changing its varietals, with about 80 percent of the flowers being novelty orchids—those in yellows, greens and purples, and many with an array of stripes, spots and other eye-catching patterns. The most popular varieties have traditionally been white and pink, but Rocket Farms has sought to change that consumer attitude.
“We wanted to expose Americans to all the unusual colors and varieties we were seeing in other parts of the world,” Kosmont said. “We wanted them to see that phalaenopsis were more than just pink and white.”
The commitment to overseeing such a successful operation is all in a day’s work for Kosmont, Silva and Clark, who all agree that they love their California rural lifestyle and encourage consumers to equally appreciate the value of the state’s agriculture sector.
“There is no substitute for fresh and local,” Kosmont said. “The loss of every California grower or rancher means increased dependence on out-of-state or foreign production. We should support our farmers and ranchers by buying California grown at every opportunity.”
Rocket Farms orchids are available from retailers including Costco, Safeway, Whole Foods and Albertsons or online at www.rocketfarms.com.
Caring for your phalaenopsis orchid
The experts at Rocket Farms offer these tips:
Light: Provide medium to bright, indirect light. Avoid direct sunlight.
Water: Because they pull moisture from the air, these plants generally don’t need watering. In dry climates, apply no more than 1/2 cup of water every three weeks.
Temperature: Preferred daytime temperatures are around 70 degrees.
Fertilizer: Use a 10-10-10 or 12-12-12 or similar orchid fertilizer.
Reblooming: After your last bloom falls off, cut the stem about halfway up from the base. Continue watering and, in about six to nine months, new blooms may appear.
For more details: www.rocketfarms.com.
Brandon T. Souza is a reporter in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.