He brings orchids back from the brink
If your orchid looks sickly and droopy, swallow your pride. Extinguish your guilt. Don’t give up. There’s hope — and it’s found through Art Chadwick Jr., of Richmond’s Chadwick & Son Orchids.
Orchids have a reputation for being finicky plants, even for experienced gardeners, but Chadwick believes otherwise. People just need to understand these beautiful plants and when they bloom, he believes.
Chadwick learned from a master, his father, Arthur Chadwick Sr., who at age 89 continues to give tender loving care to 800 orchids, some dating from the 1940s.
Art Jr., a former electrical engineer, started his orchid business in 1989 and now — 13,000 orchids, 12 employees and 11 greenhouses later — his business is, well, blooming.
He does not just grow orchids; he is the caretaker of other people’s orchids. A steady flow of loyal customers streams in and out of his Museum District shop at 203 North Belmont Avenue, most arriving with orchids needing resuscitation.
Many customers arrive embarrassed and practically begging for help. “Can you save it?” they plead.
He and his staff take the flowerless plant, nurse it for nine or 10 months for $2 a month, bring it back to health and return it to their excited owners.
“Orchids are the crème de la crème of the horticultural world,” Chadwick said. “My father taught me the finer points of orchids over the past 30 years, and I am still learning new things every day. Not only do orchids live forever, but they make people so happy.”
Ask longtime customer Melanie Lapkin. “I take my orchids to ‘camp’ at Chadwick Orchids, where they take care of them until they start blooming again,” she said. “I love getting that phone call to come pick up my rebloomed orchid. The plants come back bigger and better than I could have achieved myself.”
Reversing the orchid woes
Chadwick didn’t start out to create a business niche boarding orchids. It basically found him. “When we started in 1989, no sooner did we sell an orchid than the owner brought it back for us to take care of. What? Okay, I guess we can do that. Now 13,000 plants later, this is our main business.”
Many shoppers are drawn to a potted orchid brightening the grocery store or garden center and, on a whim, take it home. The first few days the orchid seems stable, but soon it starts declining and people are flummoxed, Chadwick noted.
When an orchid arrives at his shop, he gives it a number and health rating and then takes it to one of his 11 greenhouses in Powhatan, quarantines it for a week to prevent the spread of pests or diseases, and repots it in sphagnum moss.
“They’ll die if you put them in the ground,” he offered. “Sphagnum moss is a medium that can breathe.”
Sometimes longstanding clients leave their sickly orchids on their front porch. Chadwick staffers pick them up, tend to them and then deliver the blooming one — or in some cases, a new one — back to the owner’s front porch, “like the milkman,” Chadwick quipped.
In between, his team fertilizes the poor orchid a wee bit and waters it with 65-degree water every few days. Orchids spend the summer outside under a cloth basking in Virginia’s humidity — conditions that mimic their native rainforests.
In the fall, staffers move the plants inside. Then in the greenhouse, with thermostats at 60 degrees, most orchids thrive.
“The work is very labor intensive,” said Chadwick. “There are no machines.”
All about orchids
Orchids are in the Orchidaceae family, which has around 30,000 species. Most orchids are epiphytes, plants that grow on trees or rocks, with their roots in the air, rather than underground. They get their moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. One type, cymbidiums, are terrestrial.
Cattleya orchids bloom at the same time each year. Phalaenopsis typically bloom between January and April. Dendrobiums, oncidiums and paphiopedilums are somewhat random in their blooming times.
Orchids are found on every continent except Antarctica, with the densest populations in the tropics of South America and Southeast Asia.
Orchid blossoms have three petals and three sepals, arranged alternately. A central petal forms a lip, often serving as a “landing pad” for pollinators. Some orchids can live 100 years.
Although there was a time when the cattleya orchid was a corsage on every prom gown, that tradition has waned, if not vanished. Today, orchid lovers, both veterans and novices, use them to decorate homes and offices.
Chadwick has never advertised. His Powhatan-based boarding service has been featured on CBS Evening News and in the Washington Post, Smithsonian and Richmond magazines. He hopes to expand to Richmond’s Short Pump, Alexandria and Charlottesville, Virginia.
His 2,000-plus loyal customers, who come from within a 60-mile radius, tend to be well-to-do people who can afford a $28 to $50 orchid and the $2 per month boarding fee.
“Orchids have glamour,” he said, “so celebrities like them. They attract the who’s who.”
Some customers have one; some have many. Susan Dolman Webb usually has 10 blooming in her home, and she’s grateful for Chadwick’s.
“It’s hard to have the right conditions in your home,” Webb noted. “[Chadwick] provides a wonderful service that enables me to indulge in this floral love affair.”
Some devotees pay for a subscription to the orchid of the month club, so Chadwick’s staff deliver a blooming orchid to their home or business every month.
“Orchids are wonderful and addicting,” according to the American Orchid Society’s website. “Once you have one, you will find that you want another, and another and another.” A visit to Chadwick’s store will likely convert you.
A blast from the past
Shoppers arriving at the Belmont Avenue shop are first greeted by a soft, lavender awning and big windows full of orchids. The store is a 1950s, mom-and-pop throwback, its interior punctuated with bright magentas, pinks, whites and yellows of blooming orchids.
Under a pressed-tin ceiling, orchids flower in pots on round tables. Large, brightly colored paintings of orchids fill the walls. They were painted by Anne Chadwick, Art’s deceased sister. “She grew up with orchids too,” he said.
In 1929, Manda’s Orchid Company, a New Jersey grower no longer in business, created a cattleya orchid hybrid and named it for Lou Henry Hoover, President Herbert Hoover’s wife. Since then, every First Lady, a total of 15, has had a new cattleya orchid hybrid named after her.
Chadwick has created and named a cattleya orchid for the last five First Ladies: Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. Each hybrid takes seven years to bloom from seed and eventually goes to the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. He has also presented orchids to Virginia politicians such as former governors Doug Wilder and Tim Kaine, now a U.S. Senator.
Why does he devote his life to caring for these plants? “It is so rewarding to return a blooming orchid to a client who has been waiting patiently for a year. They literally scream when we call them and say that their orchid is ready. It is almost like reuniting families.”
Chadwick & Son Orchids welcomes visitors to their greenhouses Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Groups tours require an appointment. December holiday season time is busy. See more online at chadwickorchids.com.
Orchid Information, including tips for beginners, can be found on the website of the American Orchid Society, aos.org.