An orchid used to be a rare and pricey thing. Not so these days, reports the Wall Street Journal: Orchids have now taken the crown from poinsettias as the No. 1 potted-plant moneymaker in the US, and you can buy them at Lowe's for $5.48. Why the change, and how? We have Taiwanese entrepreneurs to thank, and the Journal likens their approach to "the energy and methods applied to making consumer electronics." The industry is based around the Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, and dates to the 1980s, when a government-owned company switched from producing sugar to growing orchids after realizing there was more money to be had.
Sugarcane fields were razed to make way for greenhouses, and "an intricate orchid-production chain" formed, with small groups of independent growers overseeing various steps, from producing seedlings to repackaging the flowers as they grow over 12 to 18 months. But it's actually the Netherlands that makes the most money off orchids, though Taiwan is the world leader in exports. One Dutch rival has greenhouses in the US, and interacts directly with retailers; most growers in Taiwan, however, care for the orchid during just one stage of its development, and play no role in the ultimate sale. And they've become so efficient at what they do that margins keep shrinking as growers continually work to drive down costs. "An orchid is no longer worth what it used to be," says one grower. "We learned how to grow them too well." Click for the Journal's full piece. (Read more orchid stories.)