Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - February 12, 2010

No ordinary orchids

Los Altos Hills grower will show off his blooms at San Francisco exposition

by Martin Sanchez

Japheth Ko bought his first orchid bulb in his native country of Taiwan when he was 10 years old. The bulb cost him the equivalent of two cents. Orchids are a popular flower in Taiwan, he said, and his attention was captured by an orchid in bloom on a store shelf.

Unfortunately, the young Ko was disappointed when the orchid's leaves fell off in the fall — a normal orchid behavior he is now well aware of — and assumed that his miniscule investment had landed him with a bulb of correspondingly low quality.

"I threw it away, thought it was dead! I didn't have good enough knowledge," he said.

Ko, who now lives in Los Altos Hills, has come a long way since then. From Feb. 26-28, Ko will participate in the Pacific Orchid Exposition in San Francisco. The Exposition is the largest annual orchid show in the country, Ko said, with more than 150,000 orchids of all shapes and sizes on display.

"Many people love the show here because we have so many varieties," he said.

Prizes of several hundred dollars are awarded to the show's best flowers, but "it's really about bragging rights," Ko said with a smile.

Ko does most of his cultivation work on weekends. Orchids can live for many years, so much of his work consists of watering different specimens at different required intervals.

The plants also require different types of care in different seasons, and he uses air conditioning and humidifiers to regulate the conditions in his greenhouse.

There are over 20,000 orchid species, Ko said, and he estimates that he owns almost 300 plants of about 40 species. Most are kept in his backyard greenhouse, but he keeps several blooming plants on display in his house.

One of these orchids sits alone in a small, sunlit alcove near his living room. On the plant, about 30 deep-maroon flowers adorn three narrow, arching stalks. Each flower consists of five teardrop petals surrounding a bright yellow-and-orange-rippled lip, whose shape and intricate patterns are reminiscent of a pair of butterfly wings.

The plant, nicknamed "San Francisco" after the city where Ko bought the original bulb, has earned its prominent placement. It won the award for "Best Odontoglossum Alliance" — a combination of the genus Odontoglossum with two other orchid varieties — at a Peninsula Orchid Society competition in Redwood City on Jan. 22.

Ko began to seriously cultivate orchids 15 years ago. He enjoyed growing roses before then, but eventually tired of them.

"After a while, there is no variety in roses. They have different colors, but it is always the same shape," he said.

"The variety, if you look at different orchids, is just endless. Some of them are very hard to grow. ... They can be a challenge to yourself," he said.

He entered his first orchid competition about five years later.

"You're at a flower show, and think, 'Wait, I have a flower better than that!,'" he said.

Ko eventually became a certified American Orchid Judge out of a desire to learn more about the flowers. He now attends monthly "judgings" up and down the Peninsula.

The Bay Area is prime orchid-growing territory. Weather is one important factor — the Bay Area's relatively cool summers and warm winters allow local gardeners to cultivate orchid species that would not survive anywhere else in America, Ko said. Ko's Dendrobium victoria-reginae orchid, a pale-violet, gently drooping flower native to mountainous Philippine Islands, is one such variety.

The Bay Area's Hetch Hetchy reservoir is "another blessing," Ko said, as minerals in well water often mar orchid petals with unsightly spots.

The Peninsula is fertile ground for orchid growers as well. In addition to Ko's monthly judgings and the Pacific Orchid Exposition, orchid societies from cities such as Santa Cruz, Cupertino and Redwood City all host shows from January to March.

Adventurous Bay Area orchid growers make these shows enjoyable, Ko said.

"People around here love to grow different species ... weird things most people don't grow," he said.

At the Pacific Orchid Exposition, Ko is looking forward to seeing exhibits of "the best grown orchids," which are often arranged in elaborate, interwoven designs spread across large tables. Arranging flowers in this fashion is usually a spur-of-the-moment decision that requires "a special talent" for "artistic expression," he said.

"You have to balance the color, balance the shape of the plant ... arrange it so the leaves and the plant are not dominating," Ko said.

Ko does not have time to put together one of these full-sized displays, he said, but he will sometimes fill a small basket with several of his plants to display at shows.

"My wife will help me arrange the flowers together. She has that kind of talent. I don't," he said.

Perhaps. Yet the few orchids on display in Ko's home have clearly been arranged with definite artistry. None of them share a shape, color or size with their neighbors and each one sits in a spot where the light and surrounding furniture complement it perfectly.

And, surely, bestowing the nickname "Ming Feng" — as Ko did to a particularly beautiful Cattleya orchid with delicately ruffled pink petals — on a flower in honor of one's wife is a form of "artistic expression" as "special" as it is touching.

"I hope people will become interested (in orchids). In this age of the Internet, people have virtual gardens, but it's not the same as a real flower that you can grow and hold in your hand," Ko said.

With such an eye for beauty in simplicity, maybe Japheth Ko has, as James Joyce said, a "touch of the artist about him" after all.

What: "Carnaval" Pacific Orchid Exposition

When: Friday, Feb. 26, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Early Bird Preview 9-10 a.m.; Gala Benefit 6:30-10 p.m.); Saturday, Feb. 27, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 28, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Where: Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

Cost: $12 online/$14 at the door; 65+ $8 online/$10 at the door; parking $10; Early Bird Preview $20; Gala Benefit $35 advance/online, $40 at the door

Info: Call 415-665-2468 or visit www.orchidsanfrancisco.org.

Editorial Intern Martin Sanchez can be e-mailed at msanchez@paweekly.com.

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