Orchids, it seems, make otherwise normal people do crazy things. Susan Orlean’s 1998 best-seller The Orchid Thief described the lengths to which modern-day orchid enthusiasts will go to acquire their dream plants — the most rabid even resorting to larceny.
And then there’s Margaret Bridge of Cornwall. Now 63, Bridge chucked a successful career to get her hands dirty full-time with these mythical plants, traditionally regarded as both exotic and fragile. In May 2010, she bought a wholesale orchid business in Chester and rechristened it Black Meadow Flora. She freely confesses, however, to a wee bit of naiveté about this, her fourth career (previously, in order: business administrator, attorney, fund-raiser). “I jokingly refer to this as my retirement job, but I’ve never worked more in my life,” she says. “I’ve never been as deeply involved or committed to something. But I love it.”
Delicate beauty: Related to asparagus, orchids are thought to be the largest family of flowering plants — there are more than 22,000 known species
How did she get hooked? About 10 years ago she began admiring orchids kept by several coworkers. She soon bought a plant of the genus Phalaenopsis, one of the most common. “Over the course of 10 years, I had collected 150 orchids of different types,” she says. “They are enormously intriguing to me. Most people recognize the Phalaenopsis as the orchid because it’s the most popular, but the sheer variety of orchids would amaze you. Every single individual plant is unique: beautiful colors, strange shaped leaves, roots hang out all over the place. They come in incredible colors and stripes and spots. They can be as small as your fingernail or 10 feet tall.
“I built my own little greenhouse at home. It was wonderful therapy for me. I had a high-pressure, job and I’d go out to my greenhouse and play with my orchids.”
Earlier this year, Bridge provided 3,500 orchids to the gift shop at the Bronx Botanical Gardens for its orchid show. (Her orchids go for $12 to $45 apiece wholesale, with higher prices for the newly expanded retail sales.) It’s a big enough operation that three of her adult children work for the company in some way — including Bridge’s daughter, Micki Bridge, the greenhouse manager. Mother Margaret mostly handles the sales/purchase end of the business, though she’s also the primary delivery truck driver. Most sales are in the metropolitan New York area.
Bridge believes that her beloved orchids are mistakenly underestimated. “Most people would be amazed at how hardy these plants are,” she says. “Last year, when the Northeast suffered a major snowfall, our home lost electricity for four days, including my greenhouse.” Among the plants housed there was the first orchid she’d ever bought. “That plant, my 10 year-old, along with many of the other ones, survived those extreme low temperatures for four days. I guess that’s the essence of perfection, in a way: the will to live and the strength of the plant itself.” For more information, visit www.blackmeadowflora.com.
Orchidalia Obscura (or orchid facts to help you win that trivia game):