The Big Orchid
The Seduction, Danger and History of Santa Barbara’s Most Famous Flower
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Whether you find them in the wild, gaze upon them in the cozy comfort of your living room, or stumble across them on your way into your friendly neighborhood Trader Joe’s, it is hard not to react to an orchid. Their seductive curves reminiscent of the ultimate feminine form, their fragrance a subtle intoxicant, and the explosion of wild, LSD-like colors across their petals recall to our subconscious a forgotten notion of awe-inspiring beauty.
By Paul Wellman
Growing in trees, clinging to barren rock faces, and sprouting up from forest floors, members of the Orchidaceae flowering plant family have been found everywhere from the Arctic Circle to remote tropical jungle islands. With more than 24,000 known species and countless hybrids, orchid blooms have captivated men and women from all corners of the globe for centuries. Their flowers run the gamut in size-from a pinhead to more than three feet in diameter-and are often awash in colors that defy description. Simply put, orchids are sex in flower form-exoticism defined.
Orchids have inspired songs, been the subject of best-selling books and big-budget Hollywood films, spurred age-old myths of immortality, and generated a multimillion dollar international industry. Remarkably, the latter has found its epicenter here on the South Coast for the past 50-some-odd years. Long before syrahs, chardonnays, or film festivals became Santa Barbara’s most celebrated brand products, cymbidiums, cattleyas, and paphiopedilums grown in area nurseries by some of the most brilliant minds and sure hands in the orchid industry were being shipped all around the world. From recreational growers and cutting-edge hybridizers to famed pioneers and legendary orchid hunters, the fabric of the international orchid industry has long looked to the sandy shores of Santa Barbara for inspiration and innovation.
A Welcome Climate
While there may not be an exact start date of Santa Barbara’s orchid love affair, there is certainly a time period when the courtship clearly began. Much like our seaside hamlet’s long-suffering relationship with the rich and famous, the orchid-at least in the early years-enjoyed an almost symbiotic relationship with the financially well-endowed and their sprawling garden-filled estates.
Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, wealthy Santa Barbarans such as Anna Dickinson, Eliot Rogers, and Edward and Emily Carpentier purchased orchids from distributors in England. Santa Barbara’s room-temperature climate and welcoming growing conditions greeted the imported flowers with open arms, nourishing them and encouraging an industry to take hold, especially that of cymbidiums. It wasn’t long before others joined in, like William Stribling who planted out the famous Riven Rock property; Elizabeth and Harold Chalifoux, also of Montecito; and delivery truck drivers turned orchid magnates Bob and Reg Peterson. Within a matter of years a patchwork of world-class cymbidium growing operations had taken hold-from Goleta to Carpinteria and on into Ojai-demanding the attention of the global orchid community. Thus, in 1945 the first Spring Cymbidium Orchid Show was organized by the Santa Barbara Horticultural Society. From a modest first year in Montecito’s Grange Hall, the annual event, now held at Earl Warren Showgrounds, has since morphed into arguably the most prestigious orchid show in the entire world, the Annual Santa Barbara International Orchid Show.
As impressive as the initial stages of Santa Barbara’s orchid story are, it wasn’t until the early 1950s when oil tycoon Sam Mosher purchased Dos Pueblos Ranch that our region became the widely respected international orchid heavyweight that it remains today. With ungodly sums of money at his disposal and a background in the cut-flower business, Mosher turned the historic Gaviota ranch into the epicenter of the world’s orchid community. Dropping an excess of $1.5 million, Mosher assembled one of the best breeding collections money could buy with flowers from all around the world. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s the Dos Pueblos Orchid Company was hands down the largest orchid producer in the world with some two million plants-cared for over the years by well-known Santa Barbara growers like Joe Patarak, Robert Norton, and Knute Hernland-growing in their 22 acres of greenhouses. These were heady days for Mosher and company, and as much as hard work was the calling card of the operation, so was eccentric indulgence. Extravagantly landscaped with fountains, pools, fields of birds of paradise, and elaborate promenades, Mosher’s kingdom was also home to a collection of exotic animals from all over the globe that occasionally served as the main course of wild and bacchanalian dinner parties. Though long since closed, rumor has it that the remnant of Mosher’s orchid empire has recently closed escrow, and though it remains to be seen what the new owners do with it, the essential ingredients of a successful orchid operation remain.
Orchid Hunters Among Us
On a recent sun-soaked afternoon, in a booth at Goleta’s International House of Pancakes, Lance Birk leaned back into the squishy vinyl embrace of his chair, a half-eaten bowl of chocolate ice cream in front of him. His cool blue eyes burning with a stern intensity, the 68-year-old former orchid hunter-looking as fit and muscular as many men half his age-flexed his arms behind his head and answered my question without a trace of braggadocio: “What the fuck do you think it was all about, man? I’m a competitive dude. You know, be the first and be the best.”
I had just asked him why he-a father of two and one-time successful Santa Barbara restaurant owner-had risked life and limb so many times over the years, chasing rumors of undiscovered and long lost orchid species to the far reaches of the globe. “I always thought anybody could do the things I did. They just had to make up their minds and go,” he said to me, but it was becoming clear that such a nondescript claim was actually the well-measured understatement of a supremely confident and accomplished man. After all, Birk spent the better part of three decades getting shot at in Central America, dodging deadly tropical diseases in Indonesia, hiding from pirates in Thailand, outrunning the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, surviving an airplane crash in Malaysia, falling off cliffs on several continents, riding out a typhoon in the Gulf of Siam, and other such Indiana Jones-esque activities in the pursuit of wild orchids.
Life wasn’t always this way for the Santa Barbara native. Before being turned on to the captivating world of orchids by lifelong friend Gary Gallup, Birk laughingly admitted that he “didn’t know an orchid from a petunia.” But that changed quickly in 1963 when his “adventurous life started.” Setting out for the Yucatan peninsula with their eyes on an eventual final destination in Panama, Birk and Gallup hit the road “just to see what was there.”
Though they never made it to Panama, they did discover a never-before-seen Mayan city, not to mention a bevy of spell-binding orchid species living in their natural habitat. The hook was set for Birk, and until his final orchid collecting mission in 1986, he would live a double life, la Indiana Jones, running his family-owned and ever-popular Copper Coffee Pot restaurant and jetting to remote locations in Mexico, South America, and Southeast Asia hunting orchids, bringing them home, and propagating them from seed in his own greenhouse along Las Canoas Road. He figures he was responsible for discovering at least “a few dozen” new species over the years, though he claimed he never really cared to keep track and never sold a single one for profit. By the mid 1980s, Birk was widely regarded as having one of the largest and most exotic private collections of orchids in the world until a mysterious fungus on an imported orchid from Thailand viciously destroyed his entire collection in less than three years.