Off on an orchid adventure
By MARTIN DeANGELIS Staff Writer, (609) 272-7237
Published: Friday, June 23, 2006 LINWOOD — Walter Off is an orchid expert, an orchid artist. His family has been in the orchid business for more than 80 years. Every year, their Waldor Orchids displays seem to win awards in the famed Philadelphia Flower Show. And several times every year, Off goes off on trips to inviting places such as Hawaii and Florida, hunting for new lines to restock Waldor's Linwood greenhouses.But Frank Trifiletti is an artist in a whole different medium. “I'm a hoagie guy,” he says, sitting at a table in Rose's Garden Grill, the Northfield sandwich shop named for his wife.But he's Walter Off's hoagie guy — the orchid man is such a regular at Rose's, the Trifillettis gave him one of the sandwich world's highest honors: On their menu, the cheesesteak is subtitled “The Walt Off.”
As they got to know each other in the two years or so since the Trifilettis moved their sandwich empire from Glassboro to Northfield, Off would tell Trifiletti about his plans for his next orchid adventure. And Trifiletti liked the sound of those warm destinations, so he started asking Off when he could join him on one of the trips.
A few months ago, Off came into the shop with his answer.
“He said, ‘Why don't you come with me to Ecuador?'” Trifiletti recalls, right before he also recalls the first problem he had with that invitation: “I didn't even know where Ecuador is.”
And as he tried to find out more about the South American country, Trifiletti started finding all the reasons it wouldn't be a simple trip to a tourist-trampled haven like Florida or Hawaii.
“Colombian guerillas. Dart frogs ... snakes. What are they — leopards or jaguars? Jaguars, I think. Anacondas. Crocodiles. They have all that,” he says. “And I'm getting really worried, so I said, ‘Walt, I have to back out.' He said, ‘No. I'm not going to let you.'”
And so they left earlier this week on what would be the orchid adventure of a lifetime for anybody — and especially for Trifiletti, given that about all he knows about orchids is that he really, really likes looking at the ones Waldor raises and nurtures and buys and sells.
But a few days before the trip, in his greenhouse, Off had another worry to add to his friend's list — elevation. The Andes mountain range runs right through Ecuador, which is tucked between Colombia and Peru, straddling the equator on South America's west coast. The mountains climb more than 20,000 feet above the country's Pacific shoreline, but Off doesn't expect to go above a mere 6,000 or 10,000 feet as he does his orchid hunting on his own first trip to the country.
Off also offers a different version of how he got this unlikely traveling companion on a trip in which the 10 or so other travelers are all orchid extremists — some of them Off's fellow judges for American Orchid Society competitions. The orchid man says the hoagie guy insisted on going along, so Off finally gave in and invited him.
Remind him of Trifiletti trying to back out and Off answers with a little smile, and a little explanation about the difficulties and penalties involved in canceling plane tickets these days.
There is no doubt why an orchid expert would want to go to Ecuador. Off explains that there are 30,000 known species of orchids in the world — and 3,000 of them are native to Ecuador.
But what isn't so clear is why an orchid artist would want his favorite hoagie artist to be part of this orchid orgy. Off's answers range from “comic relief” to his friend's food knowledge to a variation on that theme: He says the rest of the group is bringing Trifiletti along to be their professional taster — if something doesn't kill him, they'll try it too.
Off never did answer that question seriously, other than to insist that Trifiletti going was Trifiletti's idea, not his own.
And as for the hoagie guy, he says he does have a serious reason for going — and a serious goal for while he's down there, away from his wife and two sons.
“I love flowers. I really do,” he says. “But in a country that's just worlds away from the U.S., what I'm really going to be interested in is not ending up in the hospital.”
The orchid artist smiles again when his friend talks that way.
“He's just really paranoid,” Off says, standing among his orchids. “Then again, I think I had Rose more scared than Frank was.”
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