Wednesday, December 30, 2009
When this particular prehistoric bumblebee met its fate, trapped by tree resin, it was unaware of the story it would share with a distant future. Its minuscule wings, preserved in fossilized Miocene amber, carried an enormous piece of botanical history: pollen from Meliorchris caribea, a now extinct plant, evidence of the earliest species of orchid known to man.
Eighty million years later, the orchid has assembled a résumé to rival any decorative plant’s, affecting everything from palates to pop culture. Orchids gave the world its arguably most famous flavor of all time, vanilla, and earned Chris Cooper an Oscar in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. They star in the opening track of The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan and in homes throughout the world, where, placed correctly, they transform residential energies via the benevolent forces of feng shui. They’ve become ubiquitous at farmers markets and grocery stores; the USDA estimates more than 100 million are bought and sold every year in the U.S., a sales rate eclipsed only by poinsettias.
One of the world capitals for the international orchid empire is Salinas, where Matsui Nursery has mastered the finicky particulars of the Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, empowering Andy Matsui’s business to grow more potted orchids than any other on the planet.
In 1998, Matsui made the pioneering decision to convert his 75 acres of Salinas Valley greenhouse – a full 2.8 million square feet – from a cut flower nursery solely for the cultivation of Phalaenopsis and other orchids.
THE ORCHID ASSEMBLED A RÉSUMÉ TO RIVAL ANY DECORATIVE PLANT’S.
Today, the greenhouses are home to a whopping 10 million plants. The annual wholesale value of Matsui’s potted orchids totals more than that of all the orchid growers in Hawaii, some 90-plus growers, combined.
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The main facility on Old Stage Road is as breathtaking as the beautiful fuschia, lime-green, maroon, white and gold blooms it shepherds. Each of the greenhouses resembles an Area-51 hangar – so vast the opposite end is scarcely visible, and so technologically advanced (the double walled poly-carbonate frame automatically opens and closes gaping vents to keep temperatures around the 65-80 degree range) that the feel inside borders on alien.
Seductive scents charm the air – honey, vanilla, coconut cream-pie. Every shade in the rainbow (besides blue) crowds into view. The orchids wait patiently in small plastic pots atop waist-high tables, separated by color and variation, all in south-facing rows.
Dr. Yin-Tung Wang, a retired professor of biology from Texas A&M University, is director of research and development for Matsui. Without him, the sprawling scene may not exist.
Wang found Matsui after being denied a research grant in 1994. Still hoping to study the nutritional needs for domestic growers of Phalaenopsis orchids, he began scouring for other funding sources.
“I started seeing an increase in popularity in Europe that started in the ’80s,” Wang says. “I knew it was going to get big, and as a scientist, we need to see what might be happening five to 10 years down the road.”
Wang sought strategies for the speediest propagation, longest-lasting blooms and heightened hardiness. He tested nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the pots. He tinkered with soil and air temperatures. Ultimately, he hit paydirt: a cost-effective method of mass-producing orchids.
Now Matsui Nursery ships wholesale everywhere from Washington state to Washington D.C. Its products can be found locally in stores like Safeway and Trader Joe’s for $7 to $25.
The entire operation employs 180-190 at its two facilities, making it one of the biggest in Salinas Valley.
“Employees are the company’s biggest assets,” Matsui says.
He attributes his success to that work force, the local community that provides them, and the loyalty and support he says he’s received from others in the floriculture industry since his start in 1967 as a chrysanthemum grower from Nara, Japan.
It’s not just lip service. In 2004, he set aside $4 million of company profits and established the Matsui Foundation. His ultimate goal: to award 2,500 scholarships totaling $100 million to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a college education.
“When I die, I can’t take any money with me, so it will go towards the scholarships,” Matsui says. “We’ve given to about 18 kids each year, 14 high school, and four junior college students.”
It’s fair to say the nursery has a gift for cultivation.