It's Summer Year-round in the Homes of Orchid Lover

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Jason Becton
Jason Becton
Jason Becton's fascination with orchids bloomed on his first day at work at Ogilvy & Mather back in 1998. On his new boss' desk he saw a beautiful flower. "I'd never thought of them before," he said. But its simple beauty caught his eye and he knew, "I can do that."

Inspired by the beauty, he went online and purchased his first orchid. It bloomed, but only once. He bought more. Orchids are renowned for their difficult cultivation, and some bloomed, others didn't-and one that he particularly wanted to, wouldn't. He sought counsel from the New York Horticultural Society, where a woman recommended he attend some sessions of the Manhattan Orchid Society. He did, and his interest grew. His collection expanded from 15 to 50 plants.

Orchids satisfy his scientific and artistic cravings. During high school, Mr. Becton excelled in biology. Early on at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., he was a pre-med student. But while living in Paris during his junior year, he fell in love with travel and art, and decided that he wanted a job and career that would allow for that. Art afforded him some flexibility, and he found he had a knack for advertising.

Now 29 and a senior art director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, New York, Mr. Becton owns 250 orchid plants. Early on, he realized that "most of the books on orchids are written for people who have greenhouses. [Growing orchids] in a Manhattan apartment is a completely different experience." One attempt to grow Masdevallias-notoriously difficult plants because they require cool temperatures and high humidity-ended sadly. The project began in the dead of winter-generally the hottest and driest time of year-inside an apartment. "I spent about $300 on a nice selection and watched them die, one by one, over the three weeks that followed," Mr. Becton recalled. Another time, he bought a humidifier that kept his plant room a balmy 80% to 95% humidity. The plants loved it, but when he found a giant patch of black mold growing on the wall, he realized he needed to make a compromise. "Now, the apartment's at 60% humidity," he said. The minimum the plants can take is 40%.

Mr. Becton learns about the plants from fellow collectors, books and online resources. Orchidmall.-com, he said, is a great site for everything orchids. Gnyos.org, site for the Greater New York Orchid Society, and aos.org, the American Orchid Society Web site, both have cultural information.

He also travels to see new plants. "The more you get into orchids, the more you want to see them in person." In November 2004, he traveled to Peru to see a rare South American slipper orchid, a plant that can only be viewed, legally, in that country. From a town called Tarapoto, with a group of friends he trekked four hours-a journey that included a 90-minute hike up a muddy rain forest hill-before finally viewing a huge, blood-red flower. "It was exhausting," he said. "But orchids are really beautiful things. There's nothing in an orchid that's not there for some practical reason."

It's not a cheap hobby. He's spent as much as $150 on a single flower, but his usual price point is $20 to $30. Factor in potting, lighting, fertilizer and other equipment, and, all told, he quipped, "I'm afraid to think about it. I've spent over $11,000 I'm sure."

Mr. Becton's partner shares his fascination for orchids, and the two have split their collection between their Manhattan apartment and their house in Queens. The Manhattan space is reserved for blooming flowers. "Finding the proper space to display all of them in a way that doesn't look chaotic, ugly or clinical is a challenge I've been unable to solve as yet."

Devoted to a worthy cause? Have a secret fishing hideaway? If you have a fascinating Off Hours activity, describe your passion in an email to Mike Ryan at mryan@crain.com.
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