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Third-generation Fla. orchid grower reigns at world conference
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The berry-colored buds looked ready to burst. Bob Fuchs tried peeling open the petals, but the hybrid orchid tightly refused to be coaxed into bloom.
Fuchs had hung the Vanda Robert's Delight "Crownfox Big Red" just inside the door of a 90-degree greenhouse. He hoped the added heat and humidity would force one of the crown jewels of his orchid collection to flower for this week's World Orchid Conference, the event that established him as orchid royalty more than 20 years ago. Miami hosts the five-day conference this year, starting Wednesday.
A third-generation South Florida orchid grower, Fuchs has registered more than 700 hybrid orchids, but this vanda is the only one he's named after himself.
Fuchs remembered seeing the buds unfurl into palm-sized, bright red flowers for the first time.
"I was so intrigued by the quality that we named it 'Robert's Delight,' because it truly is my delight," he said.
The orchid went on to win the equivalent of "best in breed" at the 2002 World Orchid Conference, an event that every three years features exhibits, seminars and prizes for orchid enthusiasts worldwide.
Fuchs won the grand champion prize for the best orchid in the world at the 1984 conference with another hybrid with round, fuchsia flowers and a netting pattern on the petals. It encouraged him to stop teaching junior high art classes and make the family passion for orchids a full-time business.
The virgin hammock his grandfather bought to nurture a collection of native Florida orchids is now the 40-acre Fuchs Hammock Preserve in Miami-Dade County. Fuchs' father led orchid hunting trips in the Fakahatchee swamp in southwest Florida, and in Central and South America.
Fuchs, 61, is now recognized as an expert in vandas and hybridization -- crossing two compatible orchid species to produce a new flower.
In the heated greenhouse, staring at a plant that wouldn't flower for another week, Fuchs said this is most exciting time: the waiting to see what will bloom after two species have been crossbred.
The technique is becoming less common, orchid growers say, even as the flowers become more ubiquitous, thanks to the popularity of the book "The Orchid Thief" and the movie "Adaptation." Inexpensive orchids are sold in discount retail stores and garden shops as a longer-lasting alternative to cut flowers.
Dozens of orchid deliveries will have the same color, shape and size. They are clones, grown from cuttings of one plant to ensure consistency.
Orchids are a nearly $160 million industry in the U.S., second only to poinsettias in potted plant sales, said Ron McHatton, director of education and regional operations for the American Orchid Society.
He compares orchids to fashion accessories, discreetly showcased in photo spreads and home decor advertising.
"Orchids were really chic and rare and the 'rich man's hobby.' That's changing," McHatton said. "Plants are accessible at reasonable prices so I can have this unusual and beautiful and rare plant -- and I can get it at Wal-Mart."
However, he encourages orchid connoisseurs to seek out Fuchs.
"You don't get what Bob sells out of the Wal-Marts. Bob functions in a different field of the marketplace," McHatton said.
Orchids are the largest group of flowering plants in nature, but many species are being lost to development and farming as their habitats are razed, and more countries are restricting their native plant exports. Hybridizing and cloning preserves these orchids for future generations, Fuchs said.
"Through hybridization, by crossing flowers together, you have something new and exciting happening," Fuchs said. "If you stop making hybrids, we won't have anything new."