The avant gardener

A backyard hobby now fills six greenhouses in Wimauma for the community's only orchid business that's an addiction for its owner.

By null, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 25, 2003

WIMAUMA - For Lin Cook, orchids are an addiction.

Cook started growing the colorful plants nearly four decades ago as a way to work off the stress of being a nurse for the dying.

Before long, her backyard hobby spread into four greenhouses not far from her home on Wimauma Lake. Cook sold those, only to fill another six greenhouses with orchids.

"You get into orchids, and it's just habit-forming," said Cook, 67. "It's worse than drugs! You've got to have one every time you see one."

Today, her vice has a name: Cherubs of Gold Orchids, located on 5 acres in Wimauma. It is Wimauma's only orchid business, and depends largely on word of mouth.

Cook quit nursing in 1995, and for the past year and a half has spent eight to 10 hours a day tending to orchids in various stages of bloom.

She sells about 100 varieties, in hues of deep purple, gold and blood-red. The plants cost anywhere from $25 to $150, depending on their rarity and how difficult they are to grow. Customers come from as far away as Sarasota for a new Cattleya, Bottle Brush or Howard's Dream.

On Monday, two Ohio women who spend their winters in Ruskin came to Cherubs, and confessed to Cook that they know nothing about growing orchids.

"So I gave them a little lesson," Cook said later. "Showed them how not to kill them."

The women left with three orchids, and big smiles.

They paid for their plants, but not everyone does.

Cook has a soft heart for children and teenagers just starting out as orchid growers.

This week, two teenage boys from Brandon came to feed their curiosity about orchids, and walked away with two plants that Cook gave them for free.

"I want people to enjoy them like I do," Cook said. "So sometimes, if a kid comes by, I'll give him one or two to get him started. Then I'll charge $5 or $10."

A grandmother of three with a doting manner, Cook has been giving away orchid plants ever since she started growing them 37 years ago.

"I still give away more than I sell," she chuckled.

Cook said she tries to charge less than typical orchid growers, and makes enough to cover Cherubs' operating costs.

She's the first to admit she's not a typical businesswoman, even though she dabbled in tropical fish farming for 25 years, trying to juggle it with nursing. Her husband Ray still drives semitrailer trucks because they can't afford to retire, Cook said.

But she's in the orchid business for more than profits.

Cook waits eagerly for the day when an orchid blooms, and the plain, humble-looking leaves sprout brilliant shades of purple and cream that look like silk.

Plus, she gets to work for herself, sans uniform and punch clock.

"For so many years, I had to get dressed for work: makeup, pantyhose," said Cook, who moved to Wimauma from Kentucky 38 years ago. "Out here, I can get all wet and dirty! This was never supposed to be a job, but it's turned out to be."

- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com

Cherubs of Gold Orchids

Where: 16011 Alderman Turner Road, Wimauma

Phone: 634-4490

Cost: From $25 to $150.

Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Owner Lin Cook will sell orchids at the Tomato Festival in Ruskin May 3-4, and at the Ruskin Farmers Market on Saturday morning.