Orchid Odyssey

Catherine Merriman
Catherine Merriman

A plant from Raleigh’s “orchid lady” makes for the perfect gift or home addition.

It all started 28 years ago, with one orchid, white with hot pink stripes. And then, two more the next day. Soon, Catherine Merriman found, orchids were the things she just could not resist. Looking ahead to the holidays, she ordered 30 orchids from a supplier in Hawaii and sold them to friends and family who needed gifts. When Valentine’s Day rolled around, Merriman sold out of plants yet again. 

In short order, Merriman became known as Raleigh’s orchid lady. People stopped her in the grocery store, asking if she could add them to her next order. With the growing know-how inherited from her father’s side of the family and an appreciation for beautiful flowers from her mother’s, Merriman took her love of orchids and turned it into a business. 

For the first year, Merriman sold the flowers out of her house, before starting the long process of scouring Raleigh for her first greenhouse location. Nearly at her wit’s end, Merriman had a “eureka” moment at the Snoopy’s Hot Dogs on Wake Forest Road in 1990. Looking up from her meal, she spotted a tiny vacant lot across the way. It was overgrown and wild, but Merriman saw its potential and operated her business from that plot of land for the next 26 years. These days, she keeps her plants in greenhouses out near the airport, and runs pickup and drop-off out of a storefront at 1604 Dixie Trail. 

When Merriman started her business, orchids were difficult to find in the Triangle. Now that they’re readily available at grocery stores across Raleigh, Merriman’s model has shifted; she boards orchids in their off-season, makes and delivers arrangements and helps with their presentation. Other than a modest sign that reads “Raleigh Orchids” outside her shop, Merriman has never advertised; her clients have all come to her by word of mouth. 

“I’m going to deliver your orchid as if it was my orchid or my mom’s,” Merriman says earnestly. “I’m going to make sure I pick one that is good and is going to last you a long time, and I am going to deliver it myself.” 

With the help of an assistant, Merriman has her hands in every part of the business, from delivery to pulling dead leaves in the greenhouse. 

Full of orchids in-process, the greenhouse sports plenty of foliage, but the space isn’t necessarily bursting with fragrant blooms. As tropical plants, orchids enjoy a warm environment, with make-your-hair-big-in-a-hurry humidity. As epiphytes, or “air plants,” air circulation is helpful. Merriman says, in an ideal situation, you almost shouldn’t be able to keep a hat on thanks to the breeze from the greenhouse’s fans. 

The names of the different species of orchid (phalaenopsis, meltonia, dendrobium) roll off of Merriman’s tongue like the names of siblings or pets. As she wanders the rows of plants, her dog, Honey, skitters before and behind. With deft hands, Merriman tends to her plants, tying them to stakes, selecting them for use in the shop, chopping off bad roots with worn silver sheers. She tries to keep the workbench at the front of the greenhouse tidy, although this concerted effort clearly runs counter to her easygoing nature. 

Despite working with orchids every day for nearly three decades, Merriman still stops short to gasp, “Look at that!” and “Isn’t that just the sweetest thing?,” as if she’s just seen a rare bird. Whatever orchid she has before her, it’s almost as if it’s the only orchid in the whole world—and that sense of wonder makes the hours of driving and pruning, sweat and care, worthwhile. 

For more information about Raleigh Orchids, visit raleighorchids.com

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