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Thursday, December 18, 2008

A hothouse wonderland


Orchid lovers follow their noses to a South Jersey holiday tradition.
By Jacqueline L. Urgo
Inquirer Staff Writer

LINWOOD, N.J. - Forget Black Friday.
To the region's orchid lovers, early December is about Purple Friday - and Saturday, too.
For four days this month, fans of the exotic flower head for a cluster of connected greenhouses called Waldor Orchids on a dead-end side street in this tiny Atlantic County mainland town to do their holiday shopping and decorating - at a 20 percent discount.
Who would have thought that sale-priced orchids could inspire nearly as much retail pandemonium as a pile of marked-down cashmere?
But orchid shoppers are a hardy bunch, apparently willing to accept parking spots blocks away from Waldor's postage-stamp-size lot, hike in the bitter cold through the surrounding neighborhood, and then wend their way through the grower's narrow greenhouses to seize their finds.
They eschew the poinsettias and cheery Christmas cacti available elsewhere to come to Waldor's - sometimes driving two or three hours - to find the perfect specimen of phalaenopsis or cattleya.
Like toy soldiers in perfect rows, thousands of uniformly flowering specimens, with cute names such as Twinkle and Silver Bells, are displayed on growing racks.
Their tropical beauty also graces little enclaves in waterfalls and rainforest displays left over from Waldor's entries in the Philadelphia Flower Show. Waldor's, owned by Walter and Bill Off, is one of the show's oldest exhibitors, and its 12,000-square-foot display in 2004, featuring about 1,000 plants and 100,000 blooms, was one of the largest orchid exhibits ever in North America.
The brothers will be back in 2009 for the Bella Italia-themed show with a display featuring a re-creation of the Italian Riviera with bright orange and red orchid clusters.
At the holiday sale, crowds grab the red and green orchids first, then covet the white ones as gifts or decorations, said Walter Off, whose father, George, began growing prize-winning orchids on the property in the 1920s to supply Atlantic City's hotels.
He died in 1987, but Walter, 60, and Bill, 59, and their families keep the business and its traditions, including the holiday sale, alive.
Customers are reminded as soon as they walk through the door why they came: The thousands of orchids smell like spring. And the splashes of color - purple, pink, yellow, green, red, blue - nearly shock the senses.
"For some people - the orchid fanatics - it is a big part of their holiday tradition, whether they are coming here to find gifts for other people or they are treating themselves," Walter Off said last week as he and his crew shipped off the last of the region's wholesale orders and began preparing the greenhouses for the throngs who would arrive Friday.
Waldor's runs three other sales - Memorial Day, summer, and fall - but none draws crowds like the double-weekend holiday sale, Walter Off said.
From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and yesterday, the Off family and its handful of employees helped customers choose from thousands of plants and find the correct plant food, gave instructions on orchid care, and boxed up plants for safe passage home. Next weekend, they will repeat the ritual.
Prices range from about $14 for a two-inch pot to $85 for a potted arrangement.
"We go every year, both weekends," said Maggie Zimmer of Lower Merion. "I wouldn't miss it for the world. Before we had our own SUV, I used to borrow my neighbor's so that I'd have plenty of room to be able to properly transport back home whatever I bought."
Frank Duckworth of Galloway Township said he had been going to the sale for years because the orchids made perfect gifts for colleagues and business associates.
"Since they supply orchids to all the greenhouses and stores, they really have the best selection," he said. "And they have varieties that you'd never see anywhere else."
Such as the cloned orchids.
When George Off began growing orchids in the 1920s to supply his father's hotel, the Brighton, and others in Atlantic City, the notion of cloning plants - or anything else - was only a mad scientist's dream.
But thanks to his scrupulously clean growing methods and his descendants' desire to continue his fascination, Waldor's is cloning heirloom varieties of showy cattleya orchids that might have been lost to history and selling them to collectors, Walter Off said.
The classic cattleya is the variety that historically wound up in most corsages for Easter, Mother's Day and proms.
It fell from favor as corsages went out of fashion and collectors sought easier-to-grow varieties, such as cymbidium and dendrobium.
But three years ago, the Offs initiated a cloning program of more than 50 cattleyas, including their most famous: the Lc. Elizabeth Off Sparkling Burgundy. The plant is grown exclusively for Waldor's in Hawaii and then shipped here and sold in two-inch and four-inch pots after attaining a certain size in the Offs' greenhouses.
"Many of these varieties would have just died out, become extinct, if we hadn't started this program," Walter Off said, "so we're very excited about it."
He said he was happy that his children, Amy, 32, David, 29, and Rachel, 21, were involved in continuing the business into a third generation.
"My father decided not to go into the hotel business in Atlantic City like this father had, and he started this business instead," Walter Off said. "I think he would be proud that we are continuing his tradition."
Contact staff writer Jacqueline
L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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