Wayne Ferrell thought he was just picking up a summer accounting job 30 years ago when he graduated from Chico State and found work at the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate. But when some key employees left, he was soon setting up the estate’s annual display at the Santa Barbara International Orchid Show and got hooked in this mysterious flower. This native from Bishop, California, is now general manager of the estate — which was founded in 1957 and is open seven days a week at the end of Patterson Avenue on More Mesa — and also president of this year’s 72nd annual Orchid Show, which is March 17-19 at Earl Warren Showgrounds.
“Santa Barbara is really the epicenter of commercial orchid growing in the United States,” said Ferrell. “We have the right climate here for growing cymbidiums, and down in Carp you have heated greenhouses that are the biggest producers of phalaenopsis, the grocery store orchid. That’s the largest-selling potted plant in the world right now. The industry has really grown.”
Which orchid started your fascination? Cymbidium tracyanum. It’s from Burma. It’s extremely wild, these long sprays of bronze-colored flowers with red strips. It blooms before 90 percent of the other species, and it’s richly fragrant. I remember walking along the aisles and seeing this spray of flowers shooting up from some foliage, and they really caught my fancy.
Usually what happens with orchids is you start researching them a little deeper. The next thing you know you’re looking at Burma in the foothills of the Himalayas. Then you learn how to divide and pot them, and about pollinators and hybrids and mimicry. Every orchid species has an interesting story behind it.
What are some other interesting species? The Darwin orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale. It’s from Madagascar. Back in the mid-1800s, collectors would go all over the world and send live plants back to England, where taxonomists would classify them. He received an orchid and was fascinated by it. It was a huge thing; from the petal to the bottom of the spur is probably 15 inches. He noticed that there was a little bit of nectar in the spur to attract pollinators. So he wrote that, in order for this orchid to be pollinated, there must be a moth with an 11-inch proboscis. They all thought he was foolish. But about 20 years after his death, they found the moth!
Will that be at the show? One out of every three years, someone has one in bloom. Certainly, if we have it in bloom, it will be there. It’s really fascinating to see. And since it is pollinated by moths, it is fragrant at night. It has a lot of little tricks to get pollinated.
Tell me about this year’s theme, Orchid Mystique. People go to such extents to collect and grow them, all the way back to the 1800s, when they called it “orchid delirium” in the U.K. Nurseries would send their collectors all over the world for months at a time. Many would die from typhoid or yellow fever or falling off cliffs or being attacked.
And there are modern-day growers like Robert Weltz, who worked on the stock exchange in New York. I don’t know what his first orchid was — maybe he picked it up at Trader Joe’s — but he soon asked his wife if she minded that he use their spare bathroom for orchids. Then it was the spare bedroom. Eventually his wife got fed up, so he rented the flat below his and converted his flat into a complete growing area for orchids.
Finally, because Santa Barbara was an orchid mecca, he moved here, bought a place in Montecito, had a ticker tape installed in his greenhouse to watch the stock market, and lived for another 15 years growing phenomenal orchids.
What drives this passion? Orchids are really about sex. The whole reason flowers look like they do and why they are the most evolved plant is that they’ve gone through all the adaptation to attract pollinators, which range from bees to hummingbirds to flies to all kinds of things. When people look at an orchid, they sense there is something very unnatural and yet also natural about why the flower looks the way it does.
What else can we expect this year? We’re partnering with the Santa Barbara Zoo. They are going to have children’s activities, like painting murals and scavenger hunts. They’re going to be extracting pigment from flowers by crushing the flower. So it’s going to be suited for children, as well.
411 The 72nd annual Santa Barbara International Orchid Show is Friday-Sunday, March 17-19, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., at Earl Warren Showgrounds. (3400 Calle Real). See sborchidshow.com.