When thinking about Easton’s agricultural bounty, certain crops are plentiful and in high demand: tomatoes, corn and greens in summer; apples, pumpkins and Christmas trees in fall. Orchids do not make the top 10 list, but maybe they should.
J & L Orchids occupies a curious space in Easton’s farming community. The current owners, Ines and Alejandro Carreno, together with their two sons, Lucas and Gaston and daughter, Cimi, bought the business and adjacent house on the property four years ago on what can only be described as a truly blind leap of faith.
Established in 1969 by orchid enthusiasts and chemists Janet and Lee Kuhn, the business grew as the couple traveled the globe and brought home many rare and exotic orchid varieties. Upon their retirement in 1978, three of their employees, Cordelia Head, Lucinda Winn, and Marguerite Webb, who acquired the Kuhn’s passion for orchids, took over.
The three continued to build the mail order business for hobbyists and introduced locals to species beyond the widely available commercial varieties. They also offered classes and seminars. Periodically, busloads of orchid lovers arrived at the Sherwood Road greenhouse to learn about orchid care and preservation.
As time went by, the Cooper family, who owned the property, including the home and greenhouse, decided to move to Florida and the partners put the business up for sale. For years, there were no takers. Giving up all hope of selling the business, they decided to sell the home and tear down the greenhouse.
The Call to Adventure
The Carreno family was driving up the Merritt Parkway en route to watch their son, Gaston, crew in a regatta in Old Saybrook, when Ines, a real estate broker in the Washington, D.C. area, scanned through local listings and saw a property in Easton with a greenhouse.
“Real estate agents are always looking around, and we were getting tired of living in D.C.,” Ines said. “Every time we went somewhere, I looked for properties.”
Maybe, she speculated, “It had to do with my wanting a new career.”
She knew nothing about orchids. “I mean I liked them, but I used to kill them. I just didn’t know how to care for them,” she confessed.
Fortunately, her husband, Alejandro, an architect, knew a lot about landscape design and “had a green thumb.” The fateful detour took them to Sherwood Road and they contemplated buying the house and the business. “I knew this was something special,” Ines said. “It was a family decision. It was crazy, but we put in a bid.”
No one in the family really knew anything about running an orchid business. Ines and Alejandro worked together in Virginia and D.C., buying, designing and renovating houses for their clients. Their children were on decidedly different paths; Lucas studied physics at Cal Tech, Gaston completed his studies in naval architecture in Southampton, England, and their daughter Cimi was living in Chicago.
Lucas, who now spends many hours a day cultivating, propagating and photographing the 2,000 species and hybrids of orchids in the greenhouse, remembers the day they moved in. “It was Inauguration Day, 2017,” he said with a touch of irony.
A New Beginning
By the time the deal was done, the orchid inventory was depleted, and the Carreno family really didn’t know where to start. Ines asked former employees Head and Webb to teach them. “We needed them to be more involved,” she said, “and they agreed.”
In addition to learning about the orchids themselves, there was a business to run. The mail order business, including promotion, preparation and shipping was key. There were orchid shows to attend, resumption of J & L classes, local events and sales. Having moved in January, there were concerns about keeping the plants warm enough. And then when hot weather arrived, keeping them cool enough.
The education began and continues today. There is much work to do, not only in the greenhouse, but on the property as well. As all in Easton know, trees require pruning and sometimes removal, and old houses like the Carreno’s 1734 saltbox needs plenty of TLC. In short, the work is unending, but happily, their son, Gaston, is adept at a variety of improvement tasks.
The Mission According to Lucas
As the de facto on-site botanist, teacher and orchid preservationist, Lucas described the Carreno’s desire to look at the survival of orchid species from a global perspective.
“What we do is try to keep growing and propagating the different species, or supporting orchid nurseries around the world to keep a farm growing,” Lucas said. “This is preferable to growing more destructive crops like palm trees or commercializing into cut flowers and growing only a fraction of the diversity.”
The effort is cooperative. “We also occasionally swap plants with different botanical gardens in order to preserve different species that haven’t been found again in the wild. We hope to have enough to repopulate the original niche, or at least preserve the species for future hobbyists and breeders, by perpetuating them in private terrariums or greenhouses all around the world,” he said.
The Impact of Climate Change
It is no surprise that climactic changes and global warming have had a serious and substantive impact on many forms of flora.
“Climate change is an issue when it comes to changes of rainfall and temperature, in that cold growing plants are having to experience longer periods of drought, monsoon, or high temperatures than they’ve had to in the past,” Lucas said. “This, coupled with deforestation and palm oil plantations, has caused a severe drop in the number of species that are still in existence.
“Most orchids that are grown for commercial use are only a small number of genera and species. There are many, many more different, distinct species that range from a quarter inch to 30 feet tall, and depend on niches all around the world.
“Since they’re not as reliable or easy to care for, the different species are of interest to collectors or botanical gardens. Most times the locals where different species grow have no interest in them, and can find them nuisances; they can germinate on fences or in gutters, and people are used to them like we’re used to different grasses and spring ephemerals,” he said.
There are common misconceptions about orchids: They are wildly expensive and don’t last. They are perceived as temperamental and hard to care for.
Most species available at J & L have similar needs. Here are Ines Carreno’s basics to care for most orchids all year round in Easton homes:
- Water early in the morning with tepid water. “You don’t want to wash your hands with cold water, right? Plants like comfortable water temperatures, too,” she said.
- Rinse thoroughly and let drain, so roots won’t rot.
- Water when the plant gets dry. “You can tell. It will feel light when you pick it up,” she said.
- Forget the myth that putting an ice cube in the pot is efficient and effective.
With occasional re-potting, dividing and propagating, orchids will bloom every year. Here’s the good news: J & L will help you. If you bring your sorry, bloom-less orchid to the greenhouse during hours of operation year-round, it will be rejuvenated free of charge.
Ines reminded that orchids are perennials. They bloom once a year and then they can bloom annually for many years, like all the perennials in Easton’s gardens.
“They can live 40 or 50 years or more. They can outlast us all,” she said finally.
J & L Orchids is located at 20 Sherwood Road, Easton, Conn., 203-261-3772, jlorchids.com. Open Thursday to Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Tuesdays and Wednesdays by appointment.
Photos by Richard Falco