"How much money is enough?" a reporter once asked John D. Rockefeller.
Replied the tycoon: "Just a little bit more."
Rockefeller was talking about dollars and cents, but his insatiable desire to acquire is a fate shared by all types of collectors. It doesn't matter if it's antiques, stamps or Elvis memorabilia, avid collectors will tell you they're never finished accumulating.
The same could be said of gardening enthusiasts who are passionate about certain types of plants, such as bromeliads, African violets, roses and hibiscus. Sure, those plants have hundreds of varieties to collect and some are even easily hybridized. But the Rockefeller of plants has to be the orchid (Orchidaceae), the world's largest family of flowering plants.
There are so many orchid varieties, the exact number is a mystery. But it's safe to say there are almost 1,000 genera, more than 20,000 species and a whopping 100,000 or more hybrids and cultivars — with new ones being added every year.
Marion Steele has collected orchids for 28 years and has more than 1,000 growing in greenhouses at her Largo home, which sits on 2 1/2 acres. There are cattleyas, vandas, dendrobiums, phalaenopsis and other genera in a rainbow of colors, sizes and shapes. So many, but yet there could be more.
"I had enough (orchids) many, many years ago," Steele admits. "But they are so beautiful and they are always coming out with something new and different. I'm improving my collection all the time."
This orchid lady is not alone. There are more than a dozen more just like her — the group is named "Orchid Friends" — who gather monthly to show off their orchids in bloom, share or trade plants. When Steele hosts the gathering, they're likely to see dozens of her plants in bloom. If they're lucky, they'll see her favorite: a spectacularly large dendrobium that produces 100 or more creamy yellow blossoms at a time. Yellow is her favorite color.
Steele grew up in Pennsylvania, but has lived in Florida for more than 40 years. A lifelong gardener, she planted every tree, shrub and other plant on the property, which had been a horse pasture. The family raised horses for a while, but now the stables house her orchid supplies and serve as a work area for repotting. Since she retired in 1998 after teaching biology at Clearwater High School for 30 years, Steele rises at dawn and spends several hours each morning tending to the orchid collection, as well as the beautifully landscaped grounds.
The 10-foot mahogany double doors at the home's entrance are adorned with 76 hand-carved cattleya orchid blooms and the flagstone pool patio features another orchid bloom crafted from stone. There are handpainted orchid murals on the walls, embroidered orchid towels and orchid soaps in the guest bath and the home office computer displays a photo of her favorite yellow-blooming orchid.
The exquisitely detailed blossoms and buds that hold so much promise fill her thoughts. "I used to dream about them, but I've overcome that. But it's still relaxing to think about the bud that's going to open," she says.
Another day, another bud, another blossom. This orchid lady is living the dream.
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer and a master gardener. Contact her at email@example.com