Orchid grower wins the highest honor after decades of cultivation

By by Dianna Wray
March 22, 2011 at 6:02 p.m.
Updated March 21, 2011 at 10:22 p.m.

Michael Zeplin talks on Tuesday about winning a certificate of cultural excellence for his Dendrobium Lindleyi, the orchid hanging above his head, from the American Orchid Society at one of his greenhouses at Gulf Coast Floral. Zeplin's orchid received 93 points in the competition, which is nine points higher than any other plant of its kind has ever scored. Even though he has been growing orchids since he was 12 years old, Zeplin said that he has never won anything of this caliber for his work until now. BELOW:

Michael Zeplin talks on Tuesday about winning a certificate of cultural excellence for his Dendrobium Lindleyi, the orchid hanging above his head, from the American Orchid Society at one of his greenhouses at Gulf Coast Floral. Zeplin's orchid received 93 points in the competition, which is nine points higher than any other plant of its kind has ever scored. Even though he has been growing orchids since he was 12 years old, Zeplin said that he has never won anything of this caliber for his work until now. BELOW:

A small, proud smile crept across Michael Zeplin's face as he examined the gold-colored blooms exploding from his prize-winning orchid.

Zeplin has been raising orchids since he was 12 years old. He was caught by the exotic nature of the plants and their variety.

Walking into his aunt and uncle's greenhouse as a child, the sweet scent of the flowers was unbelievable, Zeplin said. He loved the flowers and soon started trying his hand at them, with varying degrees of success.

"When I first started growing, I killed a lot of orchids," Zeplin said, with a wry grin.

From childhood, Zeplin always planned to go into the family business, raising plants.

He studied the different types, but orchids were always his favorite. He loved them long before they became popular - orchids are now the second best selling plants, outpaced only by poinsettias, Zeplin said.

He spent years raising the plants, tenderly caring for them until the rather plain-looking plants would reward him with colorful blossoms and a scent so powerful that in some cases, the smell of a single flower could fill the room with the intoxicating aroma.

The flowers fascinated him. Orchids come from all over the world - there are more than 25,000 varieties occurring in nature, not counting the man-made hybrids that have sprung up through the years.

Every orchid has a specific creature that pollinates it, and every orchid has a scent that is unique to that type of flower.

A few years ago, Zeplin got his courage in place and entered two of his plants in the San Antonio Orchid Society's monthly show - participants bring their finest blooms to be judged and rated by experts on orchid quality.

Zeplin arrived with two plants, eager to show what he had grown. He was told his blooms were too old, that their quality was too poor to enter the competition.

It was crushing, Zeplin acknowledges. He took his plants home, doubting he would ever enter another event.

Then, a few weeks ago, his Dendrobium Lindeleyi began to bloom, sprouting hundreds of sweet-scented golden yellow flowers from waxy green stems.

"After that, I thought I don't know if I'll ever do this again or not. When this one bloomed, though, I thought, well, let's try one more time," Zeplin said.

He arrived at the Houston Orchid Society's monthly show with his hopes carefully pinned down.

He had started the plant in a pot the size of a teakettle, but it took him and a friend hoisting it between the two of them to get it to the judging room.

No one said anything when he walked in, Zeplin said. A woman from the registration booth rushed over suddenly and whispered that his leaves were dirty, that he needed to clean them before the judging.

He was scrubbing them furiously with handy wipes wetted from a bottle of water when they took the plant to be judged.

"I couldn't stand to listen to the comments. I walked around. I looked at other orchids. I was pessimistic about the whole thing," Zeplin said.

He was shocked when another competitor congratulated him on winning.

He was astounded when the judges told him his orchid, with 4,375 blooms and nearly perfect stems, had been given the highest score recorded for a Dendrobium Lindeleyi.

Orchids are judged on a myriad of qualities, from the size and shape of the blooms, to their scent, to the state and presentation of the stems and roots of the plant itself. Judges around the globe grade orchids on a 100-point scale.

The highest score a Dendrobium Lindeleyi has ever been awarded is an 84, Zeplin said. His orchid got 93 points and was awarded the Certificate of Cultural Excellence, one of the highest honors possible for orchid growers, Zeplin said.

"What he did is like coming up to bat in the major leagues for the first time and slamming a home run," Richard Schmidt, a longtime orchid enthusiast and member of the American Orchid Society, said.

Zeplin will receive an award from the American Orchid Society, and any orchids cultivated from his plant will be known as "Michael Zeplin's Honey," because it smelled like that, Zeplin said.

After 49 years of growing orchids, Zeplin had almost given up hope of having his flowers recognized when he won the competition, he said.

"That was the first time I had ever won, and to win the highest honor - I didn't know what to think, what to believe. I look at that piece of paper every day, and it still feels unreal," Zeplin said, running a large hand across the piece of paper describing his accomplishment.

Now, his win has given him the courage to enter some of his other orchids - as the owner of Golf Coast Floral, he has a greenhouse full of them.

"Having my flowers dismissed like that made me think about showing some of the others," Zeplin said, surveying rows of plants he has cultivated for years. "I was so proud when I found out I won."


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