The customers strolled at a leisurely pace, pausing here and there like art connoisseurs at the Louvre, to gaze upon the tantalizing specimens on display.
Row upon row of masterpieces burst in a riot of color, exhibiting exquisite anatomical shapes that have been known to make a fellow blush.
The region’s ardent orchid collectors descended upon Atlantic Avenue Orchid and Garden on Sunday for a two-day open house in Raleigh, in what was likely one of North Carolina’s finest displays of one of our planet’s most seductive flowers.
A newcomer to the cult of the orchid might have been taken aback by price tags that could purchase an iPad.
Such princely sums are just one measure of the insatiable botanical lust known through the ages as orchid mania, orchid delirium and orchid fever.
“We preach beauty,” said company CEO Millie Lee. “We could sell you a pot from $8 to $500, depending on your pocketbook.”
Fanciers could have searched the world in vain seeking these particular flowers sprouting in Timbuktu or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Orchids populate the world over, including several dozen species that are native to North Carolina, but not so the varieties sold in a commercial orchidarium.
The head-turners exhibited here are the result of human experimentation, the botanical issue of hothouse matchmakers who specialize in producing showy hybrids.
Treated right, manmade orchid cultivars will bloom for four months or longer, their petals ablaze in fuchsia, vermillion and cyclamen.
“I’m feasting my eyes,” said visitor Molly Draney of Durham, a former TV producer. “The whole place looks like a magazine spread.”
Infinite variety is one of the allures of the orchid family, which includes some 25,000 natural species but more than 100,000 hybrids, with new genetic combinations produced every year.
On a prosaic note, the only noteworthy commercially important product derived from orchids is vanilla.
Sunday’s orchid shoppers included Erin Munnelly, a Raleigh resident who has cultivated orchids for three years and has some 50 specimens.
Munnelly, the principal flute in the Durham Symphony Orchestra, typically buys her orchids for as little as $1 from the discard pile at Lowe’s and Home Depot, where orchids past their prime are cast out.
On Sunday, however, Munnelly had selected a $28 Dendrobium orchid, the most she had ever spent on her beloved flower.
“This is a special trip for me,” she said.