Gardeners yearning for a spark of romance this Valentine's Day, take note: It's easier than ever to fall in love with orchids. Once accessible only to wealthy enthusiasts with well-traveled connections, reasonably priced exotic orchids are now at your grocery store or garden shop.
Orchids are hard to resist. Their fragile petals — often radiantly translucent or marked with intricate designs — emerge from tall, bending stalks. Some, such as those from which vanilla is made, produce delicious fragrances. Others, including Australia's hammer orchid and European bee orchids, mimic specific insects and their pheromones to attract pollinators in the wild.
Orchid scents can be alluring for people as well. Local orchid enthusiast and judge Tim Brooks, a trustee of the American Orchid Society (AOS.org), said that a Rhynchostylis gigantea that he has blooming at home is "putting off a fragrance of fresh spring air, like a sheet drying in the wind, which is very welcome during this wintery time of year."
Interest in orchids has risen with the ease of access to healthy specimens and the growth of support groups of orchid lovers, who share techniques and advice.
"People are learning not to be afraid to try growing orchids," Brooks said. For many people, that interest leads to building greenhouses and establishing friendships with other growers.
How can you start learning about orchid culture or select a few to grow? Here are some ideas:
Buy an orchid
There are more than 25,000 species of orchids on six continents. Many were discovered and collected from natural settings; others are carefully bred hybrids. Most commercially available orchids require indoor habitats, although there are some, including Kentucky's native lady's slipper, that survive as wildflowers.
You can find an assortment of the classic Phalaenopsis, or moth orchids, and occasional Cymbidiums at groceries and big-box stores.
Some trusted online sources include Russ Vernon's New Vision Orchids in Indiana (Newvisionorchids.com), Stephen Benjamin's Oak Knob Orchids in Bardstown (Oakknob.com) and Norman Fang's Norman's Orchids in California (Orchids.com).
Grab a book and learn
Better Homes and Gardens Orchid Gardening by Better Homes and Gardens, (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 224 pp., $19.99) is a well-organized, basic guide that will help newcomers find their way through the language, history and how-tos of choosing and keeping healthy orchids at home.
Light exposure, watering regimens and temperature ranges for various orchid types or "alliances" are detailed in a photo gallery and in discussions of diseases, pests and root health, and proper potting of these epiphytic plants. More than 500 color photos clarify orchid culture, and online reference sites and seller contacts expand the book's scope. Easy to read, this primer creates a strong foundation for getting started with orchids.
Join an orchid society
■ The Blue Grass Orchid Society usually meets the second Thursday of the month at Crestwood Christian Church,1882 Bellefonte Drive. The next meeting will be a members' show-and-tell at 7 p.m. Feb. 9. Go to (Web.me.com/jimlurton/Blue_Grass_Orchid_Society)
■ Paris Orchid Society Meets at 7 p.m. on second Thursday of the month from September through June at the State Garden Club Headquarters of Kentucky, 616 Pleasant Street, Paris. (859) 987-4781.
■ Other listings may be found on the Mid-America Orchid Congress Web site, Midamericanorchids.org. Also, the American Orchid Society site has information about events and meetings at AOS.org.
Go to a flower show
■ The theme of the 2012 Philadelphia Flower Show is Hawaii: Islands of Aloha. Orchids will have a starring role in displays portraying the flora of this tropical paradise. Details about the show, March 4-11, may be found at Theflowershow.com.
■ The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx will have an orchid show March 3 through April 22. You may enjoy the work of internationally acclaimed vertical garden expert Patrick Blanc, who has incorporated orchids and other tropical plants in his groundbreaking "green wall" concept. Classes include orchid history, photography and floral arranging. Details are at NYBG.org.
In her greenhouse, orchid expert Christine Chowning of Lexington grows orchid specimens from around the world that she has collected on trips during the past half-century. Bolivia, Burma, Madagascar, South Africa and Reunion Island are just a few of the places where she has traveled in search of rare species.
"I've always loved plants, even as a child," she said. After successfully growing her first few orchids on her kitchen windowsill, she decided that a collecting trip to Honduras would make an interesting vacation. Her first find, a Brassavola glauca, is featured in a black-and-white photo on her wall.
After joining the American Orchid Society, she earned accreditation as a show judge. Little by little, her hobby grew into a life-long study, filled with travel, new friends and thousands of gorgeous orchids.
"By joining the American Orchid Society, you can talk to people to learn the right way to grow orchids," she said.
Her favorite orchid tour company is Robert Fuchs' R.F. Orchids Inc. in Homestead, Fla. It's an operating nursery and botanical garden. You may sign up for tour news and shop for unusual varieties at Rforchids.com.
Reach master gardener Susan Smith-Durisek at firstname.lastname@example.org.