Robert Palmer nearly disappears when he starts walking and talking about orchids.
Arms waving, gently swinging aside plants hanging on their hooks in the shade house-before you can catch up, Palmer is stalking away and already talking about another special plant he brought back from Thailand or Hawaii. You’ve got to hustle just to keep him in sight, much less catch everything he’s saying.
"Thoroughbred is what you might call this," Palmer says, grabbing and giving a quick pat-down to a huge, 20-year-old Vanda that’s nearly the size of a bush. "That’s what I look for: reliable bloomers, good-looking plants, and really, they’re the fine stuff that keeps me interested."
It doesn’t take much of an eye for orchids to see that these are not ordinary plants. Flower spikes radiate everywhere, pushing out little clouds of startling blooms-sometimes tiny and delicate and sometimes with the fragrance of chocolate or vanilla or something else totally unexpected.
"There’s a lot of joy in breeding new things, a lot of joy, too, in preserving the old species that are rare and ever harder to find," Palmer says. "Right now I’m heavy into Vandas, both species and hybrids.
"There’s so much variety, it’s really hard to ever get bored," he adds. "Some flowers last only a day, others last for weeks; some are fragrant-each is different. Don’t forget, orchids are the largest family of all flowering plants. You can satisfy your orchid whims because there’s so much to be satisfied with."
The truth is, Palmer doesn’t look old enough to be an orchid guru, but he is, and he obviously loves the plants. He has roughly 100,000 orchids in his 30,000-square-foot Manatee County shade house (the floor area of 15 average suburban houses), called simply Palmer Orchids. But his main occupation is grower for Sun Bulbs in Arcadia. That’s where he supervises the daily care of millions of plants in an operation that has six full acres under shade-nearly 10 times Palmer Orchids. It’s the largest orchid-growing operation in the Southeast, with sales spanning the entire country.
"Commercial growers, the big ones, have a limited selection, but specialty growers like me can produce plants for what they are rather than just for a buck," he explains, offering an insight into his private passion.
In Palmer’s case the quest toward guruship began in Sarasota when he was given a small orchid (Epi. radicans) by his parents. He was 14, with a passion for fishing that still has a grip on his life. (To this day Palmer’s 20-foot Mako is ever at the ready for his Sunday fishing trips, both locally and, on longer weekends, into the Keys.)
But with both parents plant enthusiasts (his father Bob, a retired Sarasota physician, grows bonsai, while his mother specializes in orchids) that 14-year-old found a second passion in his life, growing orchids of his own. In fact, his years at the University of Florida, leading to a degree in ornamental horticulture in 1979, were spent living and working in an orchid nursery.
After graduation the younger Palmer joined Sun Bulbs, and has never left the orchid culture that’s really a world unto itself.
"It’s a very small, close-knit group, the orchid growers," he says. "I had to laugh when I read The Orchid Thief because I know all the players, even globally. Everybody knows everybody; you play fair because word travels fast. Oh, yes, word travels very fast."
While Sun Bulbs’ entire stock is mass-produced and wholesaled around the country, Palmer Orchids specializes in his "thoroughbreds." Palmer wholesales to local dealers catering to serious collectors, though his operation is also open for retail on Saturdays.
Not only does Palmer have a shade house full of orchids, he has a yard full, too. Some, such as certain Vandas, grow best in the unrelenting Florida sun. But others, hundreds of them, are growing on and in the trees at Palmer Orchids.
"In Costa Rica (where he was both buying orchids and sailfishing recently, surprise!) I saw more and more varieties being used for landscaping," he says. "We’re doing the same thing here. You see what can take the drought, take some sun, and be able to take a beating in the winter-but come back fine in the spring. Orchids these days are about finding things in an international environment."
Recently Palmer was called by Selby Botanical Gardens, which is interested in his expertise in landscaping with orchids-both full-sun Vandas and terrestrial nun orchids. "So that sounds like fun.
"Orchids are getting more and more affordable all the time, and with more and more people interested and growing them, the future really looks bright," Palmer says. "Not to make me rich, of course, but bright. It’s a real labor of love because you can enjoy, really enjoy, what you can do with it."