RICHMOND, Va. – Even within Richmond’s red brick historic neighborhood known as the Museum District, Art Chadwick’s florist’s shop seems like a quaint throwback to an earlier time. A bell chimes as you open the door. Fans swirl below a pressed-tin ceiling. Cymbidiums, cattleyas and other flowering orchids are presented in decorative pots on round tables. Along one wall, a green pleated sofa invites patrons to linger and chat.
It’s a mild Friday afternoon in winter, and a small but steady stream of customers arrive, chatting in relaxed fashion with the proprietor. Chadwick, 56, is dressed casually in a brown cable-knit sweater. He seems to be a guy comfortable in his own skin, smooth and urbane — in sum, exactly what you might expect in the genteel and luxuriant world of orchids.
For all the delight of this little flower shop, I can’t help thinking that it should belong to a time before mass merchandisers (nevermind the internet) came along and did away with mom-and-pop haberdashers, milliners, green grocers and the like. But Chadwick & Son Orchids is thriving and preparing to expand.
To understand why, you have to perch yourself on that green sofa and observe carefully. You will come to see that the customers aren’t just leaving with orchids.
They are arriving with orchids.
Art Chadwick is meeting a need that is both absurdly obvious and, in the world of horticulture, spectacularly unmet. He babysits the orchids that you bought and bloomed and are now watching decline in a stupor of regret, shame and despair. Give Chadwick that flowered-out, wrinkled old moth orchid you got a couple of months ago and he will nurse it back to blooming health. Nine or 10 months after you drop it off, Chadwick’s colleague, Janis Ranck, will ask you to come back. When you pick it up, it will be like a poodle fresh from the groomer: clean, fluffy and raring to go. He charges $2 a month to mind the plant — at pickup time the accumulated bill is about the price of a new one — but you will be getting back a larger, more robust and more floriferous orchid. More to the point, you will have your orchid back.
“It has sentimental value,” he says. “The plant gets bigger with age. They want to see it again.”
Chadwick opened his business in 1989 with the help of his father, who is now in his late 80s and still raises 800 cattleyas in his Wilmington, Del., home. Art Sr. helped his son build his first greenhouse and provided thousands of his own plants to create an early inventory, but has not been involved in the day-to-day running of the business.
His son opened the Museum District shop 15 years ago, about the same time affordable orchids were flooding the market and on their way to edging out the poinsettia as America’s most popular houseplant. Was he perturbed?
“I was a little worried until I saw how dreadful they looked in the stores,” he says. “The first few days they are there they’re OK, but soon afterward they start to go down.”
Another reason for his viability is the sale of other, more specialty orchids. In addition to the cattleyas, customers find such beauties as vandas, similar in size and form to phalaenopsis but bluer and patterned, and oncidiums, with their profuse sprays of bright, delicate blooms.
But to see Chadwick’s biggest bulwark against the cheap orchid tidal wave, you have to take a little trip. We climb into his plush if aging Lexus SUV and make our way west out of the city to Powhatan County.
After 25 minutes we are in a place whose rural character is being eroded by the lapping waters of suburban development, but when we turn into a short driveway, we find a property that is its own 20-acre enclave. On the left sits a dark brown log cabin where Chadwick lives; on the right is a range of greenhouses.
The entrance is fashioned into a retail area, a shop with a counter and shelving, but this world under glass (more precisely, panes of polycarbonate) is essentially a composite of several greenhouses that grew over the years. The atmosphere is humid and full of faintly sweet scent.
In one small redwood glasshouse, approximately 2,000 phalaenopsis are crammed onto growing benches. The January light is bright but diffuse, the temperature reads 66 degrees and the air is moist and agreeably clammy. The orchids are full of new flower spikes with buds in several stages of growth. A few have begun to flower and will soon go back to their owners.
Orchids that arrived in perilous shape receive red tags, but even these, for the most part, have been nursed back to flowering health in the intervening months. Chadwick likes to grow phalaenopsis in clay pots with a sphagnum moss medium, discarding the common plastic pot and the bark mix, both of which are used by growers to save on shipping weights and costs, he says. Each has a label bearing the owner’s surname and a bar code.
The orchids spend the summer outdoors under shade cloth — they like Virginia’s hot, humid growing season — and are brought inside in the fall, but only after getting at least three weeks of 50-degree night temperatures. This is required to initiate a new flower spike and is probably the reason your indoor phalaenopsis grows lushly without re-blooming.
Inside Greenhouse No. 2, the orchids are hand-watered every few days with water that has been warmed to about 65 degrees.
“It took us a few years to realize that this is really the secret to growing orchids,” Chadwick says. The popular advice of adding a couple of ice cubes to the pot “is the worst advice you could give,” he explains.
Chadwick’s orchid boarding service began as a sideline but has grown into three-quarters of his business. He has about 2,000 customers boarding 13,000 orchids — an average of 6½ per person. “Some people have one, some have 500,” he says.
Back in the Museum District, I chat with some of his customers. Jennifer Friend says “everybody knows” Chadwick and his orchid service. She has been boarding her 10 orchids here for a decade. “If I kept them,” she says, “they’d die.”
“I think there are a lot of people like me who would not have become a collector were it not for Chadwick’s,” says Sarah Ann Scott. She is dropping off two bloomed-out dendrobiums and a cattleya and picking up a perky slipper orchid.
Susan Jamieson, an interior designer, has 50 orchids with Chadwick’s. “Every time they call and say you have got an orchid to pick up, I wonder which one will it be,” she says. As many as 10 find their way to her home at one time, and she puts them around the house: over the mantel, on a coffee table, in a bathroom, on a bedside table. “They’re all over,” she says.
Chadwick started his career as an electrical engineer but found the corporate environment too stultifying, and he got out early with his dad’s help. Growing other people’s orchids “is a crazy niche,” he says. “I never thought I would be doing this.”