It’s hard to imagine when visiting David Rosenfeld’s orchid greenhouse complex — a structure consisting of two temperature-controlled rooms and a third work room filled with award certificates — that the entire edifice is the result of a 1978 family outing to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Even David, professionally Dr. Rosenfeld, is somewhat amused as he recounts the story. His work week as a pediatric radiologist at the now Rutgers Medical School in New Brunswick kept him quite busy. Weekends at his Princeton home were devoted to his wife, Joan, and their three daughters, then ages 11, 8, and 4. The idea of growing plants was just not part of his life.
A balmy spring weekend was forecast that year and he and Joan thought it would be a treat for all to visit Longwood Gardens, where the girls could walk and run about after the one-hour drive. So off they went and, after admiring the flowering trees and the vistas of tulips and daffodils, they walked into the Conservatory. It was filled with orchids. David was smitten. “I think I would like to grow these,” he said.
“Enough is enough,” replied Joan, who has known him since their high school days in Cresskill, New Jersey, and knew how demanding his job was and his wish to spend time with the family. But because she not only understands him but also loves him, she decided — after he kept mentioning orchids — that she would help him in his quest. In those days, orchids were not widely available for sale.
The Rosenfelds had lived in Lawrenceville when they first moved to the Princeton area in 1973 and Joan had shopped at the now defunct Bentley’s Market on Main Street. “There was always an orchid by the cash register,” she recalls. So she went back to the store and asked about orchids. She was taken upstairs, shown a greenhouse filled with several hundred orchids, and told that David was more than welcome to see them.
David did come by and, at Mr. Bentley’s urging, not only joined the Central Jersey Orchid Society but also began his quest to acquire and raise orchids. Now president of the society, David encourages others to share his orchid passion. As such, he is excited about the Society’s Saturday, May 2, orchid auction, which will be held at the Princeton Senior Resource Center from 1 to 4 p.m.
“This is bigger than anything we have ever done,” David says. Growers from throughout the country, including Hawaii, will be donating plants. There will not only be rare and hard-to-find orchids, he emphasizes, but also beautiful and inexpensive easy-to-grow plants. Depending on the intensity of the auction, prices will range from $10 to several hundred dollars.
Growing advice will be available for each plant. Given David’s orchid journey, he is especially qualified to give such advice. “My father was a dentist and my mother was business manager for his office,” he says. “Neither had any interest in gardening.” He adds, “And since I had to mow the lawn I was definitely not enamored of the subject.”
During his years as a student — earning an undergraduate degree from Case Western University, a medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and a residency at Montefiore Medical Center — there was no time to even think about gardening. In 1964, however, he made sure there was time to marry Joan after his first year of medical school.
By 1978 the Rosenfelds lived on Riverside Drive in Princeton. There was a large but unfinished basement and it was there that David began his orchid collection. He started simply, buying a bench and fluorescent lights. A year after he visited the greenhouse above Bentley’s Market, there were 50 orchids brightening up David’s cellar. There was one major hitch: no water outlets. Trays of orchids were brought upstairs to the kitchen to be watered. Joan pitched in when David worked late.
At the end of the second year there were 100 orchids blooming away and often emitting fragrance in the basement. While the continual climbing back and forth provided good exercise, it wasn’t favorably reviewed. David recalls saying, “Maybe we should have a greenhouse.” Joan readily agreed.
A greenhouse was attached to the house, and the number of orchids tripled. “Coming home to that greenery and luxurious color was a great way to escape from some of the emotions I dealt with as a pediatric radiologist,” David says. “It was often psychologically hard imaging premature babies and seeing catastrophic results.”
Joan, a Penn State graduate, also saw an opportunity with the greenhouse addition. “I decided to go into business,” she says. “I called it Exclusively Orchids and traveled around on weekends to sell plants at various shows. Some I bought wholesale, and others were propagated from those in our greenhouse.”
“It covered the heating expenses,” David notes. It also put Joan’s name into the orchid world, and they both have orchids named for them. After the Rosenfeld’s fifth grandchild was born — and all within a two-hour driving distance of their home — Joan closed the business.
In 1989 the Rosenfelds went out for a local drive. They wound up on some back roads in Skillman and saw a man putting out a “house for sale” sign. David stopped the car and asked the man what direction the back of the house faced. When he heard it faced south, and thus was an ideal location for a greenhouse, they decided to buy the two-acre property.
They hired a greenhouse architect to design the structure and were pleasantly surprised when their Princeton house sold in short order. “There was a problem,” David says. “The new greenhouse was under construction and we had more than 300 orchids in our Princeton greenhouse.” He finds it hard to praise the new owners enough. “They were terrific. They allowed us to keep our orchids in the old greenhouse — for six months! — and to come back periodically to water and care for them.”
There are now about 1,500 orchids in the Rosenfeld greenhouse, ensuring that something is in bloom throughout the year. One room holds warm tolerance orchids; the other those that prefer cooler temperatures. Now retired, David divides and repots orchids in the work room and hangs his numerous award citations there. With 63 awards won at national judging, David is among the top orchid hobbyists in the country. He has been busy propagating as well as dividing several of these winners and is donating them to the Society’s auction on May 2. And with vendors from around the country donating plants, David will also be an active buyer.
Both David and Joan find great satisfaction not only in the beauty of the plants that have become an important part of their lives but also in the variety of people they have met through the Society and shows. “People who grow orchids come from all walks of life,” he says. “Wonderful, interesting people whom I would not have met otherwise.”
“At our meetings,” Joan adds, “there are what we call sill people — those who have an orchid or two by a window — and greenhouse people. We all share a fascination with this plant, and there are no limits on that fascination.”
As David notes, you don’t need a greenhouse and you don’t need a lot of equipment to enjoy the beauty of orchids. Then again, after coming across the Rosenfel’s trajectory with orchids, you never know what your future may hold should you visit the Society’s upcoming auction and acquire that first beautiful plant.
Central Jersey Orchid Society Annual Auction, Princeton Senior Resource Center, 45 Stockton Street. Saturday, May 2, 1 to 4 p.m. www.centraljerseyorchids.org.