By Barbara Wood
Special to The Almanac
Just off Alpine Road, where Menlo Park meets Portola Valley at Interstate 280, is one of the Peninsula's hidden treasures, open to the public six days a week.
Behind the doors of the 36,000 square feet of greenhouses at Brookside Orchids, located just behind and up the hill from the old Webb Ranch fruit stand, are hundreds of orchids of every size, shape, variety and color. With conditions designed to meet the natural growing needs of different orchids, stepping into each greenhouse is like stepping into another world, ranging from the lush, wet tropics to the drier and cooler conditions preferred by orchids that naturally grow at higher altitudes.
The nursery offers almost everything the orchid lover could want: retail and wholesale plant sales, custom-made orchid arrangements, and repotting or dividing of customers' overgrown orchids.
Brookside also serves as a home away from home for the collections of orchid owners who are too busy, too space-deprived or just lack the green thumb needed to keep their orchids healthy. About 40 percent of Brookside's greenhouse space is devoted to boarding orchids and related plants for more than 600 clients from as far away as Petaluma and San Jose.
The company, which has been in Portola Valley as a grower and wholesaler of orchids since 1979, has been boarding and making retail sales since 1996. Owner Jim Heierle now lives in Cove, Oregon, but started the business after owning a plant shop in the Fashion Island shopping center called "Fancy Plants."
In addition to offering optimal greenhouse conditions for boarded orchids, Brookside, and another nursery under the same ownership in Pacifica, White Oak Orchids, provide water, fertilizer, pest control and even repotting or dividing if needed. When the orchids come into bud or bloom, the owners are notified by email or phone, and can either pick up their plants or arrange for delivery. Once the bloom has ended, for some types in as little as a week and for others up to six months, the orchids are returned to the nursery.
For the privilege, orchid owners pay a monthly fee of $5.50 per square foot, with a minimum of 10 square feet which is about the size of a card table. Pick up and delivery are extra.
The company also grows orchids from seed and sells orchids online as well as in Portola Valley. The minimum order for wholesale purchases is $200 at the greenhouse and $300 if shipped.
Mark Pendleton is one of 11 employees at Brookside and seven at White Oak, and has been working there for 18 years. He's the manager, but also responsible for hybridizing more than 300 named varieties of orchids.
On the company's website (brookside-orchids.com) individual orchids sell for $10 to $50, but Pendleton says he once sold a $20,000 orchid to a collector from Taiwan. The plant was a hybrid that had recently been given the American Orchid Society's highest ranking, a first-class certificate. Pendleton says the nursery didn't really want to sell the orchid, so had set the price high enough to make it unlikely anyone would buy it.
Pendleton, who says he wanted to be a collector (think fossils, butterflies and beetles) all his life, grew up in Southern California and now lives near the border of San Jose and Campbell. He started at the University of California-Los Angeles as a zoology major, but found that wouldn't allow him to take the field biology classes he was really interested in, so he changed his major — first to English and later to physical anthropology.
But orchids drew him. He worked as a carpenter, a mason, and "whatever I could to make a living and have a hobby of orchids," he says, until going to work in orchid greenhouses.
Pendleton seems to know everything that could be known about orchids, from the fact that "orchids are now considered the number-one-selling potted plant in America" to being able to tell at a glance when an orchid seedpod is ready to be harvested.
"A seed pod can hold upwards to a million seeds," he says, taking a small tooth-flossing tool to gently open an orchid flower to show pollen nestled inside.
Orchid seeds lack any type of nutrition for a growing seed, and are also very susceptible to disease, so must be grown in a sterile environment on a seaweed-based agar solution for the first year of life, Pendleton says. It can take from three to seven years for an orchid grown from seed to bloom.
After decades of working in orchid nurseries, does Pendleton have a huge collection in his home?
"Not a one," he says.
Brookside Orchids is open Monday through Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., at 2718 Alpine Road in Portola Valley. It sells at farmers' markets in Menlo Park (Sundays, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.), Old Oakland (Fridays, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.), Berkeley (Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and San Rafael (Sundays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.)
For more information go to brookside-orchids.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 650-854-3711.