Bill Owen just couldn’t resist their beauty —their exotic, outrageous beauty. As a young man in the 1950’s, his family took him to St. Petersburg, Florida, and the only thing he REALLY loved there were the incredible orchids he saw. According to Joyce, his widow, she made a fatal mistake early on in their relationship by buying him a book on the subject. That was the beginning of his lifelong passion for breeding and growing orchids, not just ordinary varieties, but something unique and stunning, something with rich blood lines. Bill did not want the ordinary Heinz 57 varieties. He wanted to focus on unique, collectible items. Joyce either had to go along with her husband’s passion or get divorced.
In 1961. with the help of an aunt in Kernersville, NC, Bill was able to follow his passion and began to grow orchids in a small greenhouse. In 1962 Joyce and he got married. A year later, Bill accepted a full time job with The Ecusta Paper Plant, while Joyce took a job as a bank teller in Brevard. Later she started teaching math at Bevard High School. With both of them workiing, they were able to build their first greenhouse. Joyce started to sell cut orchids to florists and to other wholesale businesses. She shipped the flowers to customers by bus. Joyce, then a young mother of two girls, stopped teaching and managed to find time to take care of the orchid business as well, with her husband helping when he could. All along he was breeding, seeking better, nicer, stronger more unique orchids. Joyce was the one who made needed repairs, fixed motors, and managed the greenhouses. She was the hands-on person. At that time, of course, orchid corsages, wrist corsages, and boutonnieres were very fashionable for special occasions. So demand was high, and the business flourished.
Joyce herself primarily likes dealing with the people–many of whom now are close friends—going to shows, and seeing her customers. Amazingly, many doctors and lawyers all like to collect orchids. She particularly likes seeing the new varieties of orchids–Phalaenopsis, Cattleya, Oncidium, and Vanda that her husband was developing–so vivid, graceful, colorful and exotic. One of her favorites is Cirrhopetalum Daisy Chain Orchid, the flower of which has the shape of half a daisy. The orchid family is the largest in the world, and the colors are just outrageously beautiful–some speckled, some dotted, all just delightful.
A tight knit family of long time employees are part of the company today. Russ Bolt, David Warren and Sheila Nicholson gravitated early on to the neighboring greenhouse, which was filled with amazing, colorful creatures. They managed to work there whenever they could squeeze in the time, before and after school or on weekends. This has continued for 30 years. Russ and David continue on with Bill’s vision and quest. They handle the day to day operations of the business, are outstanding breeders and growers, and are knowledgeable with the many varieties of orchids. Bill passed a true legacy of his love and passion for orchids to them.
In addition, Eddie Lowery and Ben Presnell contribute to all aspects of running the business, helping with any needed task and furthering sales.
Owen’s Orchids began to deliver in their own vans in the 1960s. One man had a regular route to New York City. If you were shipping plants rather than cut flowers, you needed your own vehicle to keep them at the proper temperature. Owen’s Orchids participates in major orchid shows and festivals, such as the Miami International Orchid Show, the Atlanta Orchid Show, the Washington, D.C Orchid Show, the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show in Charlotte, and the WNC Orchid Society Show in Asheville. A lot of planning, work and effort goes into setting up a stunning orchid display for these judged events.
Owen’s Orchids has won many awards, for their exception colors and graceful blossoms. Their successes have caught the attention of collectors worldwide. In fact, a large shipment will soon be made to a major collector in Chile —almost half a greenhouse will be going to him. Apparently, the paperwork involved for an international shipment to obtain the Cites Certification can be overwhelming. Today Owen’s Orchids is considered the oldest and largest quality grower in North and South Carolina, possibly even in the southeast.
Many an event has orchids furnished by their greenhouses. You might have seen the Owen’s Orchids displays and not realized it. They have been at Masters Golf tournaments, in high end furniture showrooms in High Point and at the Grand Old Opry House or the CMA Music Festival in Nashville. These dazzling orchids grace fundraisers and private homes in Atlanta, Savannah, Charleston, Cincinnati, Sea Island, the Middleton Plantation, the Biltmore Estate, or the Grove Park Inn. Movie stars often fill their homes with Owen’s Orchids, perhaps looking for that perfect centerpiece on the dining table of maidenhair fern with delicate lady’s slippers or a large entryway display of exotic Cattleya.
The design and color talents of Sheila Nicholson are called into play for benefits, events, or even these private gatherings. She too has been a part of the Owen’s Orchids operation for years and knows what to expect from her plants —when they will be fully in bloom, what height they are, so they will look their best at the right moment. She studies the chosen setting —often through pictures—finds the best container to be used, and coordinates the specific needs and desires of the event planners. She searches out the colors and shapes of the flowers, so that the presentation is “over the top” and exceptionally beautiful.
Apparently blue is a color seldom seen in the orchid family, and there are no black orchids —maybe a deep dark purple, but no black! She takes a truck loaded with a fine collection of plants suited for the occasion. She doesn’t want the flowers to be hidden by other accessories; they are there to be noticed, to stand out in the crowd, to be sensational. It is always a challenge to design the display well, but have it be an exciting one. She says there is “not a day that I don’t enjoy! I love the people, and I love the shows.” According to Sheila, orchid corsages and boutonnieres seem to be making a comeback today for proms, graduations, and weddings.
In 1994 Bill retired from Ecusta and was then able to concentrate and continue his love of breeding and growing orchids full time, until he passed away in 2009. He loved to make new strains by cross breeding and cloning. Remember it takes three to seven years before an orchid flowers! Bill spent hours and hours on his beloved hobby and always chose what plant to clone and what to cross breed. The naming of a new plant is still done through the Royal Horticultural Society in Great Britain with the necessary paperwork sent to them. If you see the word Pisgah in an orchid’s name, it is most probably something that was bred in Pisgah Forest at their greenhouse. And believe you me, there are a lot of Pisgah’s in the official books! A varietal name often used is Joybil, a combination of their two names (Joyce and Bill).
Owen’s Orchids primarily uses either Sphagnum Peat Moss or Fafard #1P, for planting. The Fafard #1P is an excellent general purpose soilless mixture with good drainage that can be used for seeds, plugs, cuttings, and flowering plants. Joyce said they hardly ever use Pine Bark as it is too acid, and the quality of Cypress Chips and Douglas Fir Bark varies so, that they find it difficult to use. Styrofoam packaging helps with drainage. Owen’s Orchids uses plastic pots almost exclusively, as these pots are lightweight, have lots of holes, and do not break easily. Most orchids need to be repotted every two years into a larger pot, and watering is critical. People often ask how often and how much? These are difficult questions. The general answer from Joyce was, “When it has dried out, then water it well” She did say, “In order to bloom, an orchid must be cooler at night than in the day.” For more blooms, it is important to feed the plants after they bloom, perhaps with a 20-20-20 or a 30-10-10 fertilizer. “An orchid should not have direct sunlight on its leaves, which will burn them. If it will burn your skin, it will burn the orchid.”
The plants at the greenhouses can range in price from $5 to $5,000. There is a sale table with $20 orchids. Owens has a very successful rental/exchange program, where a customer can bring back the plant with a receipt within a reasonable time–in good condition–and get 50% toward purchasing a new blooming plant. Several customers even ship the orchids back and forth out of state. Mail orders are often taken for special occasions, such as birthdays, Father’s Day, anniversaries, Mother’s Day, and Christmas. Weddings functions are provided all year long, probably at least one a month. The brides and their mothers often come to Brevard to place an order well ahead of time, to be certain the quantity and color are available for the wedding day ceremony. Boutonnieres for the groomsmen and corsages for the bridesmaids and family members are also often needed.
Owens Orchids is located at 115 Orchid Heights Drive, Pisgah Forest, NC 28768. The phone number is (828) 877-3313 and website is www.owenorchids.com. A visit to their greenhouses, overflowing with a wide variety of stunning orchids, is quite a special treat to see, smell, and enjoy.