Story by Shannon Wianecki
Photo by Masako Westcott
With around twenty-six thousand recognized species, Orchidaceae is the largest family of flowering plants. Orchids inhabit nearly every ecological niche on Earth: Australian swamps, Mexican cloud forests, even Siberian tundra. But this floral abundance is disappearing from the wild. Development encroaches ever more deeply into prime orchid habitat and centuries of over-harvesting have taken their toll. That’s why Jeffrey Parker’s work at Tropical Orchid Farm on Maui is important. Part chemist, part flower grower, the reed-thin horticulturalist raises some of the world’s rarest orchids. He’s specially licensed by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) to propagate these living gems and export them internationally.
The plants Parker works with aren’t the docile hybrid blooms that crowd supermarket shelves around Mother’s Day. Rather, he and his business partner Kathy Klett cultivate those orchids’ feral progenitors: astonishing, often bizarre beauties that hail from around the world. Among them is the fairy-like Pleurothallis alata. Native to Costa Rica, it measures just an inch and a half tall, and its triangular, burgundy-spotted blossoms require a magnifying glass to fully appreciate. The elegant Angraecum longicalcar from Madagascar dangles sixteen-inch nectar spurs and exudes a sweet perfume at night. Bulbophyllum medusa stinks; named for the snake-haired gorgon from Greek mythology, it lures pollinating flies with its putrescence.
After three decades in the business, Parker is a walking compendium of orchid lore. “I have 3,400 records in my lab book, so I can look up any species we’ve worked with,” he says. Each of those records represents a plant he and Klett hand-pollinated and coaxed into reproducing. While orchids bear half a million seeds apiece, very few germinate in the wild. Parker can germinate every last one in his sterile lab. He transfers the hardiest to the nursery, where he relies on Maui’s hospitable natural environment to nurture them.
“It’s not the same thing as growing thousands and thousands of flowers for the hardware store,” says Parker. “We sell to the most prestigious scientific institutions and botanical gardens. That makes my work feel worthwhile.” Fancy gardens aren’t the only beneficiaries of Parker’s and Klett’s efforts, though. Any orchidophiles seeking to dabble in rare orchid preservation can purchase specimens of their own at www.tropicalorchidfarm.com.