by Sue Ann Rybak
Mt. Airy resident Lois Duffin never intended to become an award-winning orchid grower. She just wanted to grow a few household plants in her living room window.
Duffin, who grew up on a dairy farm in Bowling Green, Ohio, said she always enjoyed working in the garden.
“I loved to plant any kind of flowers,” she said, “but our soil wasn’t very good.”
Unfortunately, when she moved to Mt. Airy with her husband, Jim, she quickly discovered they “didn’t have the right kind of soil to grow vegetables or flowers.”
“So, I grew all kinds of house plants – coffee plants, banana plants and African violets,” said Duffin, who was a stay-at-home mom, guitar teacher and director of liturgical music at Holy Cross Church in Mt. Airy.
“It all started with one orchid I bought in 1979,” she said. “At $25, it was the most expensive plant I ever bought. I put it in the windowsill in the midst of the ones I already had. After it finished blooming, I just didn’t know what to do, so I started buying all kinds of orchid books. Ten months later, it bloomed again, and I got all excited because I thought ‘I could do it.’”
She said from that moment on she was hooked.
“I couldn’t really afford them, but I had to get more of them,” Duffin said. “So, I started selling stamps from my stamp collection. I sold $135 worth of stamps. By the 80s, I was seriously collecting orchids.”
That’s when she decided to join the Greater Philadelphia Orchid Society (GPOS).
“I learned a lot,” said Duffin, who by then had started growing orchids in her basement under grow lights. “You can ask people about problems you are having.”
Duffin, who served as president of the GPOS for decades, arranged for dozens of orchid experts, many of whom are internationally known, to speak at their meetings.
“I hosted speakers from other orchid societies – England, South Africa, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil and many others,” she said. “We hosted several speakers in our home, and, as a result, we have traveled to three countries in South America.
“We got to see other people’s orchid collections,” said Duffin, “David Banks, who writes for the Australian Orchid Review, showed us around Sydney, Australia. We never stayed in a hotel when we traveled. We stayed with different orchid people. Banks even arranged for us to stay at somebody’s house in Tasmania. Thanks to the Greater Philadelphia Orchid Society, we have developed some great friends over the years.”
In 1990, Lois and her husband decided to turn her hobby into a full-time job. They began caring for other people’s orchids and started renting spaces in greenhouses in Wyndmoor, New Jersey and Pottstown.
In 2000, they decided to build two greenhouses on land rented from Robertson’s Florists. Now, Lois Duffin Orchids is one of the largest commercial growers of orchids in Philadelphia, with more than 500 types of orchids.
For ten years, they exhibited their orchids at the New York Orchid Show. In 2003, they won a trophy at the show for the “Best Phragmipedium” out of hundreds of entrants.
In 2014 and 2015, they won the Philadelphia Horticulture Society’s Orchid Award at The Philadelphia Flower Show.
And to think it all started with one orchid plant.
But growing orchids is a time-consuming and delicate process, and every day it gets a little harder to make a living growing and selling orchids.
“The orchid world is changing,” said Duffin, 84, who hopes to retire soon. “Countries like Taiwan and Columbia can mass produce orchids for less than what I pay wholesale.”
“I love growing orchids, but I am not getting any younger,” she said. “I would love to see someone take over the business who loves orchids as much as I do.”
From April 24 to 26, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Duffins will show their award-winning orchids at the International Orchid Show at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. For more information about Lois and Jim Duffin’s award-winning orchids go to loisduffinorchids.com or call 215-450-3592.