David Bird never gets bored with his plants. Orchids, he notes, are the largest family of blooming plants on Earth, with almost 30,000 species. He's been hooked ever since a family trip to Hawaii in 1978, when he bought five Dendrobium orchids.
In 2001, he began growing orchids in a cave on East 23rd Street near I-435 at the Interstate Underground Warehouse. Bird's Botanicals had 10,000 plants in five rooms.
"It was a very unique situation. We were becoming a tourist attraction," Bird says. "When you'd drive into the cave to see us, it's kind of dark, it's kind of dingy, and all of a sudden, you open up this door and there's this room full of thousands and thousands of plants. You could smell them with the fragrances and the color."
All of that changed in the fall when the cave's owner burned a large pile of trash that had accumulated on top of the cave. Smoke from the fire seeped into Bird's ventilation system, instantly affecting the delicate flowers. He estimates that he lost nearly 7,000 plants.
"I think watching your plants die is the worst thing you could possibly have to deal with," he says, "after 16 years of watching your plants grow and flourish and bloom."
Now, he's operating out of two greenhouses.
Bird had sought a cave space years ago after his enterprise outgrew his personal greenhouse.
"The cave was the ideal situation for the orchids, because I could control everything that they needed: the light, the humidity, and the temperature," he says.
If a plant was blooming too early, say too many days ahead Valentine's Day or Mother's Day when he planned to sell it, he could move it to a cooler room. If a plant was blooming too slowly for those same occasions, he could move it to a warmer room to accelerate growth.
Greenhouse environments are harder to control, but he has noticed that some varieties of orchid that hadn't been exposed to enough light in the caves have recently begun to bloom.
For now, Bird has no retail space but will set up shop at the River Market in downtown Kansas City and at the Overland Park Farmers' Market, so customers will be able to find him.
"Without the cave, a lot of people are going, 'What do I do?' We get a lot of plant doctoring. They'll come in and the leaves are soft and withering, and that's because they've probably overwatered it."
It takes seven years for orchids to bloom, so they're not quite as delicate as their reputation.
"It's got to be able to put through a lot of harsh conditions," Bird says. "The only couple things are: Don't freeze it, don't cook it, and don't put it outside in full sun after it's been inside in shady conditions."
Still, keeping orchids alive in the non-tropical Midwest is part of what's attractive about having them.
"It's the challenge and also they want to see it bloom with their own experience," Bird says of his customers. "It's when they bloom it themselves, now they feel like they have a sense of accomplishment. Now that plant becomes part of the family, and they might have it for years and years."
David Bird spoke with KCUR on a recent episode of Central Standard.