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Orchid fever spreads in the suburbs

Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

Brandt Moran prunes orchids in his backyard greenhouse in Pepperell.

By Kathy Shiels Tully Globe Correspondent 

Ask avid orchid growers how they first got involved with the exotic flowers that have an intimidating reputation and those complicated Latin names, and their answers will be as varied and colorful as the blooms.

“I’ve been killing orchids since 1983,” says North Reading resident Bob Richter, straight-faced.

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A member of the Massachusetts Orchid Society since 1993,

Richter has over 3,000 individual orchids (“I don’t even know how many”) growing in his large greenhouse, which is 58 feet by 26 feet and 18 feet tall. He used his engineer background to design and build it himself.

Richter will be among the veteran hobbyists competing for awards mingling with curious beginners and flower lovers at the annual World of Orchids show Nov. 4-6 at Mahoney’s greenhouse in Winchester.

Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

Brandt Moran cares for some sensitive blooms.

Brandt Moran of Pepperell says there’s no denying the competitive aspect of orchid growing. “It’s the reason guys like us” grow orchids, he says, referring to himself and Richter, his friend when they’re not competing and his nemesis when they’re facing off, bloom to bloom. “We want to grow the plant better than the other.”

The competition is all about the flowers. The size of their greenhouse doesn’t matter. Richter’s is bigger than Moran’s, which stands 12 feet by 16 feet, and is 14 feet high. “You need height for tall plants,” said Moran. He has one orchid almost 5 feet tall. Another is 8 feet, “but I can’t get it to bloom. Think big bamboo.” He’s giving it one more year.

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And then?

“Dumpster.”

Brigette Fortin of Marblehead houses over 300 orchids under the warmth of special fluorescent lamps in her basement, mostly for her own pleasure. She’s thrilled by all the different shapes, colors, scents, and sizes.

“I like to go downstairs and open the door [to the basement], especially in winter,” she says, since orchids mostly bloom December through April.

Hooked since her teens after seeing her father’s cousin grow orchids in Canada, Fortin joined the orchid society of Quebec City when she was 15.

“I was the only member under 40,” she says.

An architect by trade, Fortin’s also designed winning displays over the past five or six years for the annual Massachusetts Orchid Society show, never knowing until that day what she’s going to do until “the flowers show up.” Members from all over provide about 100 blooming orchids for the 100-square foot exhibit.

Fortin says she grows a lot of Cattleya, which includes 113 varieties familiar to many as the choice for corsages. Her favorite is the Laelia purpurata, a magenta-hued species from Brazil that can grow up to 2 feet.

Jeff Feldman, Wayland resident and Massachusetts Orchid Society vice president, says beginners need not be intimated. Growing orchids is no different than learning anything new.

“Except that we have a saying: ‘You aren’t a good grower until you kill your weight in orchids,’” Feldman says.

He became an orchid-lover/killer seven years ago after discovering orchids at the Lyman Estate greenhouse in Waltham. “We even have one member, Bob Hesse of Winchester, [who’s] a judge at the event, who used to give a talk, ‘What kind of an orchid killer are you?’”

One thing that has changed over the years, say society members, is availability. Beginners can now purchase orchids at stores such as Trader Joe’s, Home Depot, and supermarkets.

Some members, including Ellen Shapiro of Somerville, use the society as an educational resource. Growing orchids can be “intimidating in the beginning,” she says. “I’m still learning every day.”

Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

Brandt Moran's Pepperell greenhouse is filled with colorful orchids.

At monthly meetings, members can bring their blooms to a table to be judged by aficionados. Ribbons are given out in six different categories, plus there’s a special “grower” award.

At the upcoming show in Winchester with American Orchid Society judges, “It’s a whole other world,” Fortin says. Moran won a prestigious AOS award for one of his flowers last year.

Moran first got involved with orchids about 18 years ago. Trying to escape their small Melrose apartment in winter before they moved to Pepperell, he and his wife, Lisa, would drive down to A & P Orchids in Swansea. There, they’d spend the day immersed in the 4 acres of colorful, fragrant flowers.

Each time they visited, Moran would pester Nick, the grower, with endless questions about the orchids, yet never buy one. He was too intimidated.

Nick changed that on the couple’s third visit.

“He just gave me one,” Moran says. “He cut the bloom off and said, ‘Take it home. Rebloom it. Get a bloom on it. . . . You’ll figure it out.’

“And I’ve been addicted every year since,” says Moran, now an award-winning, well-respected orchid grower himself.

Orchids, says Massachusetts Orchid Society treasurer Sasha Crotty, are the perfect new houseplant, especially now that they’re more easily available. As for her own collection, Crotty confesses to having over 200 in her small Boston condo. When friends ask how she amassed so many, she says the answer is simple.

“I bought one. Maybe I’m a bit of a collector,” she says. “Orchids and shoes!”

Rare and unusual orchids from around the world will fill Mahoney’s 10,000 square foot greenhouse for the World of Orchids show. Cost is $10 per person, children 8 free. For more information, visit www.massorchid.org or call 617-729-5900.

Handle with care

Bob Richter of North Reading, a member of the Massachusetts Orchid Society, says it’s important to learn the specific requirement for each variety of orchid.

But in general

Maintain a minimum temperature of 60 degrees.

Re-pot every two to three years with appropriate material such as bark, moss, and humus (decaying organic material).

To water, bring the plant to a sink and drench for five minutes, then let it dry out.

Did you know?

Richter also shared the following facts about orchids:

There are more than 30,000 species in the world, and more still being discovered.

They can be found on every continent except Antarctica, and in every elevation below the tree line, from the desert to the jungle.

About 53 species are native to Maine, and about the same number are native to Massachusetts.

In May, Pink Lady Slipper orchids sprout wild all over the Middlesex Fells Reservation, which spreads over 2,575 acres in Malden, Medford, Melrose, Stoneham, and Winchester.

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathy@kathyshielstully.com.