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Oh, orchids

by: Jonathan House, Sean McMillen, above, tours the experimental greenhouse at Hana Farms. This is where the growing process for some of the orchids begins.

A West Linn farm on Borland Road has festive curb appeal. A curved ceramic blue wall is vivid against the lush green backdrop; chickens and a rooster roam freely, and owner Sean McMillen visits each of the many areas containing orchids at any given time.

Since Hana Farm's opening in March of 2006, McMillen said people have traveled from as far south as Eugene and as far north as Seattle to get hardy orchids - a Hana Farms specialty.

'There are some people who are growing them,' he said. 'It's much more popular in Europe but it's starting to catch on (here).'

With between 25,000 and 30,000 species, the orchid family - more scientifically known as Orchidaceae - are the largest and most diverse of the flowering plant families. McMillen said that when many people think of orchids, they think they are difficult to care for and never bloom.

'Not true,' he said.

He explained that orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica.

'There's some that bloom underground and never emerge from the ground. There's some that never touch the ground. There's so many different kinds; some easy, some hard,' he said. 'There's just no better color. They're just attractive things. And I like the challenge.'

McMillen said he enjoys working with homeowners to choose plants best for their property, soil and light conditions and style.

'If you're going to grow orchids in your garden you want moist soil that is free draining - it's going to drain,' McMillen said. 'Those are the two basic rules. After that, everything is up in the air.'

Three ways to

differentiate orchids

Orchids aren't just a hobby for McMillen - they are a knowledge base, a conversation starter and a series of trial and error attempts. Because there are so many orchid varieties McMillen said many of the plants do not have literature to outline their growing patterns, temperature preferences or even their name.

'And if they do have literature, it may not be relative to our climate,' he said. 'The only way to figure out what they are is to sit with them and figure out how they grow.'

The two-acre farm sells stock orchid plants and features planted orchids as well as other plants. And their hardy orchid collection simply notes what temperatures the plants can take.

McMillen explained that there are roughly three ways in which orchids grow:

n Epiphyte orchids grow on the sides of trees and in tropical environments. Epiphytes refer to any plant that grows on another plant or object for physical support.

n Terrestrial orchids are anchored to the ground by underground roots. The plant gets the nutrients it needs through these roots. Hana Farms grows these.

n Saprophytic orchids have underground roots like terrestrial orchids but do not have chlorophyll. They do not have the ability to complete photosynthesis so the species gets its nutrients from decaying matter in the soil. Some of them grow completely underground during all stages in the plants life.

Pleiones bloom best when planted in acidic soil, such as under rhododendrons or Douglas Fir trees. The Spiranthes cernua var. odorata - an East Coast native - can bloom in the Northwest through Thanksgiving.

'They don't care if they get a frost. They're from New York state,' he said.

Don't let the long plant names confuse you. A quick walk with McMillen around the property spells out the liveliness of each plant.

'The real color comes in the spring - rich salmon colors, pinks and oranges,' he said. 'But you can have something growing year 'round.'

Pursuing a passion

A good bulk of McMillen's orchid collection came from a friend that built up his collection over 25 years and sold it to McMillen. Hana Farms contains a handful of green houses; one features orchids that are rare.

'Once I have enough, then I can sell them,' McMillen said. 'These Bletilla ochracea are a buttery-yellow color - just beautiful.'

So how does McMillen choose what plants are brought to the farm?

'If I like it. It's strictly scientific, you can see,' he said. 'If I find it interesting, I try to grow it.'

Before opening the farm, McMillen studied architecture and built architectural scale models at Nike Town. After returning from the Army in 1997, he got his horticultural degree and pursued his favorite hobby full time - growing orchids. A tattoo of an Asian Lady Slipper orchid on his leg confirmed his passion permanently.

Champagne toast

to nature

It's not uncommon for McMillen to have a champagne toast when a unique and tall plant blooms after years of waiting. But, not all flower petals need to be large to have impact. Cypripedium californicum - commonly known as the Siskiyou lady slipper - is known for the flower's distinct shape of the petal.

'I am the only nursery in the country that has this plant to my knowledge,' McMillen said.

Although the flower itself is small, the black geranium features petals that are rich with dark color.

'It's a small flower but the color is just gorgeous,' he said. 'I don't know anybody else that has this plant.'

The Calypso Bulbosa in famous for being stubborn.

'These are difficult to grow,' McMillen said.

But that's what makes the wait worthwhile for McMillen - when a plant finally comes around and cooperates. Some orchids at Hana Farms are very small, some have purple leaves and some grow to be thirty inches tall with white flowers and pink spots.

The world is a lovely and fascinating place if you just open up your eyes and smell the orchids.

'I'm absolutely a plant collector - a plant collector that's gotten way out of control,' McMillen said. 'I cater to people looking for something different.'

For more information about Hana Farms, call 503-638-0985 or visit www.hana

farms.com. Hana Farms is open Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment at 1600 SW Borland Road in West Linn.

The farm is open by appointment only from November to mid March.