Dick Wells, Orchid Farmer

Photography by Tony Valainis

Dick Wells is likely the only cadet in Citadel history who was reprimanded for storing an orchid in his closet.

“They caught me and I had to send it home,” says Wells, who was born and raised in Indianapolis. “I got 10 demerits for it.”

More than five decades later, Wells still loves the flowers. His business, Hilltop Orchids in Cloverdale, is the largest orchid farm in Indiana. His blooms brighten Methodist Hospital, The Empty Vase, and JP Parker Flowers. In his greenhouse, he grows more than 200 varieties of orchids and succulents. A judge with the American Orchid Society since 1998, he has won more than 100 national awards. Aficionados from California, Florida, and Texas track him down.

“Dick knows his stuff,” says Meredith Fleming, co-owner of Posh Petals on 54th Street. “He shows up with what we need and is excited for our success.”

Last October, Fleming did a downtown hotel wedding that required 300 cut stems of phalaenopsis orchids. Wells delivered stems with eight to 10 blossoms a piece. “The whole room came alive,” Fleming says. “It was sophisticated and rich and regal-looking. His orchids made the wedding.”

With more than 35,000 species, orchids inspire an addictive passion that is hard to explain, though the writer Susan Orlean tried in her book The Orchid Thief. The flowers beguile. The delicate blooms seem to tumble off the vine, perpetually in motion. Their central lip, a tiny embroidered purse, is etched and speckled with vivid colors—fuchsia, coral, musty purple, brilliant yellow.

But these beauties can also be brutish and foul. Wells shows off a bulbophyllum phalaenopsis, an ugly plant whose foot-long lavender, leathery leaves resemble tongues of a panting monster. Its flowers smell like rotten meat to attract the flies that pollinate it.

Wells says he has run into a few wacky characters in this business, and felt the sting of malfeasance. His most highly ranked orchid, which the American Orchid Society scored a whopping 94 out of 100, disappeared one night. Sold by mistake? Pilfered? He’ll never know. (He still has its brothers and sisters.)

His passion for orchids was ignited at Shortridge High School in 1954 when he was an ROTC Color Guard commander. One night, his Broad Ripple counterpart invited him over. “He had a 12-by-12 greenhouse full of orchids, about a hundred of which were in bloom. It was magnificent. We stayed up until 3 a.m. I was just absolutely got.”

Though earning only 60 cents an hour back then, Wells saved $40 to buy his first orchid. By the time he left for the Citadel, he had 200 plants. When he and his wife, Sandy, began raising their three boys, his job at Allstate couldn’t support his habit. In 1973, with bills to pay, he sold his entire collection of 700 orchids.

“I wasn’t mad,” he says, “but it was a blow.”

One Christmas a few years later, Sandy gave him a pair of orchids. “I said, ‘Do you know what this means?’ She said, ‘Yes, unfortunately.’”

Eventually, the Wells bought a 40-acre “hobby farm” in Cloverdale, populating it with cattle, hogs—and orchids. He built a lean-to. Then, a greenhouse. One day in the late ’80s, Sandy, the family bookkeeper, approached looking grim: His hobby was costing them $10,000 a year. In response, he suggested they open an orchid business.

Sandy was furious. “I said, ‘We’re going to starve to death,’ and I walked out of the greenhouse and slammed the door,” she says. Happily, a few hours later, she walked back in.

Hilltop Orchids opened in 1991. Sales exceeded his seven-year plan and subsequent six-year plan. In 1994, Wells retired from his day job.
While orchids were once a luxury for the elite, Wells sells most plants for $12 to $45. Orchids look fussy, but Wells advises practicing “benign neglect.” When the roots turn white—water them. Every other watering, feed them.

On a typical workday, Wells waters, fertilizes, prunes, de-bugs, greets customers, and organizes deliveries. At 81, he walks stiffly, but he has no intention of quitting. As Sandy puts it: “I’d have to roll him under a bench and let him be fertilizer if I took it away from him.”

Wells strolls across his realm of 25,000 plants. He leans over a smoky orange bud. “Sometimes they need some help,” he says as he gently presses and the blossom bursts open. Magic. Divine, almost. But Wells, a devout Christian, remains humble no matter how many miraculous orchids he brings into the world.

“I hybridize,” he says. “God still makes the flowers.”