Philly-grown flowers, even in winter

It started with one single plant on a windowsill. Lois Duffin had always been interested in houseplants, and in 1981 she decided to give orchids a try.

“At the time I thought that if I could grow an African violet, I should be able to succeed with an orchid,” she recalls.

Within a few years, the windowsill plant led to a thousand orchids under lights in the basement, and around 1990 Lois Duffin Orchids became a business.

Today Lois and her husband Jim are the proprietors of two greenhouses at 1301 E. Mermaid Lane in Wyndmoor, located on the site of Robertson’s Flowers Center of Operations. On one of our many recent cold, cloudy, and icy days, I went to visit the greenhouses. Just walking in I felt like I had been given my happy pills. It was warm, it was light, and it smelled really good.

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“You should visit on a sunny day,” Jim said. “That’s when it feels really good.”

Orchids always strike me as something midway between houseplants and cut flowers, and in a lot of ways have advantages over both. Many of the most popular orchid varieties will send out flowering spikes that can last for weeks or even months. Actually, these flowers can end up being the house guests that you adore and appreciate yet still get bored of. But to my mind it’s better to find a flower tediously long-lived than throw out an expensive bouquet after five days in the vase.

When not in bloom, orchid plants are rarely anything exciting to look at, but with a little knowledge and a small amount of commitment, many types aren’t hard to coax back into flower the following year.

Yes, I know; how many of us are looking to add the extra responsibility of tropical plant culture to our daily lives? I’m with you on that one, and in my more downtrodden moments I will toss away my non-blooming orchids along with the pants that no longer fit in an attempt to man up to certain realities. But reading the cover story in this month’s Smithsonian magazine gave me a new perspective on my on-and-off orchid habit, which feeds my larger and more serious addiction to flowering plants.

The article goes into detail about the cut flower industry, which is largely centered in Colombia (70 percent of flowers sold in the U.S. are grown there.) Distribution requires a lot of energy, since it is reliant on a “cold chain” of refrigerated trucks and warehouses each step from the Colombian savannah to the final point of sale.

The author points out some sobering facts about the global cut flower industry, like lack of governmental regulations, which allows growers great latitude regarding working conditions and chemical usage. I also learned that a single rose (blossom, not plant) can require three gallons of water, a level of thirst which has lowered the water table over part of Colombia.

Back here in Philly, Lois and Jim Duffin are keeping it local. They propagate almost all of their orchids themselves, usually by division. Many take five to 10 years to reach blooming size. Instead of hundreds of the same plant, they have one or two of hundreds of varieties; all together 10,000 plants in the greenhouses. They try to specialize in plants that aren’t available in the big box stores, like dendrobiums and cymbidiums, but they have a huge variety beyond that. They love to talk shop and will advise on the best plants for your growing conditions.

“People come in with questions, and we’ll talk with them about their plants,” says Jim. “Sometimes people will bring their own orchids in and ask us to figure out what’s wrong with them.”

With the biggest flower giving holiday on Monday, maybe it’s time to think beyond the red roses. Lois Duffin Orchids is open by appointment. Call 215-450-3592 or email The business offers orchid kenneling (which is keeping people’s orchids when they aren’t in bloom).  The Duffins will offer a course at the Mt. Airy Learning Tree this month, called The World of Orchids.

And when I asked Lois if she still thought that orchids were as easy to grow as African violets, she just smiled.

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