by Catie Joyce-Bulay
What started as a hobby 35 years ago has bloomed into a unique business for two self-proclaimed orchid nerds. Mark Srull and Joan Bateman opened Orchidaceae in Walla Walla, WA in 2003 after moving from Seattle, where they ran a smaller orchid greenhouse for five years focused mostly on rare collector species and hybrids. When the couple, with backgrounds in graphic design and marketing, moved to Walla Walla they kept this focus and expanded to include more commercially viable varieties in a larger 10,000-square-foot greenhouse.
When they made the transition to the drier eastern part of the state, they learned they had to adjust their thinking about how they grew orchids. “Initially we were really shading down in the summer,” says Bateman. “What we learned is the plants really want higher light. In the summer, we used to put down four shade clothes, now we use two. We grow in really bright light conditions throughout the year.”
Phalaenopsis, the kind of orchid most commonly seen in grocery stores and floral shops, accounts for most of their sales. They grow a variety of different sizes, types and colors.
Most of the orchids they grow come from starter plants they purchase from a grower in Taiwan at 18-to-36-months-old and will tend them until they bloom. The amount of time it takes between the plants arriving and blooming varies depending on size and season. The plants take longer to flower in the winter, even though the greenhouse is heated, since there is less daylight. Bateman and Srull are currently tracking this to get a better idea of growth times throughout the year. “We’re going to do a 12-month study so we have better predictability,” says Bateman.
Once in bloom, most of these orchids go to grower-owned wholesale flower markets in Portland and Seattle, and are bought by florists and event planners predominantly. Orchidaceae also sells regularly to a local Seattle grocery chain and a small portion of their sales comes from business in Walla Walla.
Their delivery driver makes the four-hour long drive to Portland’s Oregon Flower Growers Association Co-op once a week and the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market every other week. They employ someone part-time to run their booth at the Portland Market. In Seattle, the market is responsible for selling the flowers, and instead of rent, they pay a commission.
Two important marketing components, especially in the Seattle Market, are sustainability and American grown. “During the War on Drugs in the 1980s, [the United States] offered subsidies to farms in Columbia and Peru to grow roses and flowers,” says Bateman. The idea was to convert and replace crops of coca, used to make cocaine. Because of these subsidies, trade agreements and cheaper labor, these flowers pushed a lot of American flower farmers out of business. In the last few years, with raised consumer awareness and advocacy through the Slow Flower Movement, many American flower growers are making a comeback.
“It really hurt the American flower grower,” she says. “The Seattle Market is a huge driver of the [Slow Flower Movement]. Buy American — it’s really helping a lot of American flower farmers to keep and grow their businesses.” Bateman notes that some florists and event planners are now making American-grown flowers a part of their mission.
Another way Srull and Bateman help their business stand out is by promoting their sustainable growing practices. Orchidaceae uses Safer Soap instead of chemical pesticides. They, along with all other Seattle Market growers, are Salmon Safe, a certification that indicates sustainable land and water use practices to ensure salmon habitat protection.
A growing part of the business is online sales. About 30 percent of their greenhouse space is devoted to rare species and hybrid varieties Srull grows and sells online. This is a labor of love and patience. “When I work on something it’s usually a five-year cycle through the whole thing,” says Srull, who says he doesn’t keep track of how many different orchid varieties he’s growing at a time. “I may phase them out, bring them back. It’s sort of like fashion, you have to keep moving a little bit.”
Orchidaceae sells hybrids of the lady slipper-like Phragmipedium, fragrant Cattleyas, uniquely colored Phalenopsis, and single and multifloral Paphiopedilum on their website. Many start from sawdust-sized seeds that he propagates in a sterile lab. He contracts with a biologist from nearby Whitman College to help with the delicate process. Srull’s orchids spend their first two years growing in flasks of nutrient-rich agar under grow lights. When they are large enough, they are transplanted and moved into the greenhouse where they will eventually be planted in individual pots. It will be a few more years before they see their first flower. Most are sold as they begin to spike, or grow a stem. Some Srull sells in the flasks of around 20 seedlings.
“Orchids are a really interesting and fun plant to grow,” says Srull, a San Diego-native who learned about orchid breeding from prominent growers there in the early 1980s. “The diversity is amazing.”
Srull has created several different hybrid varieties, which he registers and names through the Royal Horticultural Society. He has won numerous awards from the American Orchid Society for his orchids.
They also sell their rare hybrids on Ebay. “We probably would never get so many people looking at our plants if we were just using our own website, because there are a lot of little specialty orchid places out there in the marketplace,” says Bateman, who notes that sites like Ebay have a loyal customer base. “Ebay is a great way to get a lot of eyeballs on your product.”
She says it can sometimes be challenging to accommodate both Ebay’s seller regulations and be responsive to the needs of customers, but it is well worth it. They do more business through the site than their own website, and their Ebay store drives traffic to their site.
Bateman advises, in addition to keeping branding consistent and putting the company web address on all communications with customers, photography is an important part of Ebay sales.
“One of the things that buyers really like is that every photograph of the plant is the actual plant that’s going to be sold,” she says. “It’s a lot of photography, but customers like that they can see exactly what they’re getting.”
Shipping is another consideration. They do online sales from February to mid-November so that plants are not damaged by the cold. They only ship plants that will fit into a specific box size so that the shipping is cost effective.
“Overall, it’s been a great thing to sell through them,” she says. “They have a lot of good tools, and you get reviews. It’s really a positive experience for us.”