The Orchid Wizard

In Fukuoka there’s a store that deals with only one thing — orchids. Well, Placer Workshop must be an orchid shop, right? But then why the typography on the whole of the wall? And look closer. The orchids are matched with the typography in a way that’s novel and, well, totally cool. Just what is this shop? And who is running it?! We spoke to owner Yoichiro Uchida to find out.

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As soon as you come inside you notice how humid it is. The humidity is important for orchids, then?

Yes, it’s important and so is the timing. Higher humidity in the morning and evening is the most effective. So when I open up in the morning I raise the humidity, and again in the evening. Right now it’s down to 76% [We were at Placer Workshop around one o’clock in the afternoon], but in the morning it’s up at around 90% so the store is super sweaty.

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Lots of these orchids I’ve never seen before. Are they foreign species?

Almost all are foreign orchids. There are only a few Japanese ones. And lots of people think that orchids usually grow on the ground — but that’s wrong.

They don’t? So are they parasites, then?

What’s special about orchids is that they aren’t parasitic but epiphytic. Unlike parasites they don’t take anything from the plant. Parasites are completely dependent on something but epiphytes are just renting a spot, so to speak. They attain their nutrition and food all by themselves.

Orchid seedlings proliferate like flowers such as dandelions, carried away by the wind to germinate where they fall. But in the case of orchids, pollen mass becomes a cluster and this is carried by a pollinator. These are usually insects, so “Orchid A” will always have a reciprocal relationship with “Pollinator A”.

The reason why orchid flowers are called erotic or grotesque is because the flowers imitate the backs of female pollinators and mimic them. When they want to mate, the pollinators mistake the orchids for the backs of their females and fly into them. For example, there is the moth orchid, whose name comes from how the flower is similar to a moth.

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This orchid is growing on a piece of wood.

Why do orchids grow on another plant, rather than out of the ground?

It is said that orchids were the last plant to appear on the earth. When the descendants of the orchid first came about, the earth was almost covered in greenery so there was nowhere for the orchids to live. The places it found to escape and survive were trees and rocks.

Thanks to its unique evolution in this way, orchids have the most species among flowering plants today. There are said to be 26,000-28,000 species. Orchid horticulture began in the 1700’s and people started cross-fertilizing, collecting the best groups and then making more hybrids from these. This continues today so if we include crossbreeds there are over 100,000 species.

Many people think of orchids as something you give as a gift, but actually we are eating them without knowing it. I also eat them.

What? You eat orchids? When?

Vanilla. Vanilla is an old species of orchid. Like coelacanth for fish, it’s just never changed. It’s also the only orchid that is like an ivy. It also flowers but only for a short time — between two hours and two weeks, or two days on average. It is seeded during this short time and afterwards you take the seeds and dry them, and then you can smell vanilla’s distinctive aroma. But in fact, when the plant is flowering there is no smell at all, which even science today does not understand why.

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Vanilla

In other words, unless you seed vanilla during the short time in which it flowers, there would be no vanilla beans. I’ve tried this many times but have never succeeded. It’s a really old species so it’s a bit different in form to contemporary orchids, and it doesn’t work if you do it in the same way. In places like Mexico and Egypt where they produce a lot of vanilla beans, there are craftsman just for pollinating. It’s done on commission so if you’re good at it, your salary is high.

Orchids are… complicated. There’s just so much you don’t know about them. Well, you’ve told us a lot about orchids but why did you start a shop just selling them? Because you liked them?

No, I didn’t know anything about them at first. Originally an Itoshima farmer was searching in Fukuoka for a place where he could sell orchids, so we rented him the ground floor of my family house — what is Placer Workshop today. Then the Bubble burst and business got bad, so he shut up shop. But there were already customers and so my family continued the shop from our house. Afterwards, the store staff left and this was just when I got back from studying abroad in America, and I was told to work here since I had nothing to do. So at first I was reluctant and didn’t like it at all. I was quite bitter about having to do it.

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Yoichiro Uchida showing us an orchid picture book.

So at first you were reluctant but now you seem completely taken in by orchids. When did the attraction hit you?

I got an order for an orchid as a gift and went to the farm in Itoshima to buy it, and there at the farm there was this kind of grotesque orchid like the ones in the shop now. I really like it. “What’s this?!” I asked and they gave me one. In the end it never flowered, but I looked at the picture book we had at the store and there were lots of ones I had never seen before. I was surprised that all these different plants were orchids and that’s when I started to think they were interesting. From when the farm starting producing the orchids I liked that I really got into them.

For a while I searched for strains of orchid that were interesting and as a hobby bought and cultivated them. When I decided to really make a go of it with these kinds of orchids I changed the whole of the store. That was about eight years ago. I thought that orchids like this are more attractive and fun that the ones that everyone knows.

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Placer Workshop’s wall is completely filled with orchids, pressed flowers and handwritten typography.

Yes, I see what you mean — all of the orchids here are attractive. And not just the orchids themselves, but the way the shop interior and the typographical decorated is matched with the plants is really novel.

When I changed everything up, I stopped selling orchid bouquets that are given as gifts in theatres, so sales dropped. I was worried about making ends meet and I found it refreshing to write on the walls. [Laughs] That’s how I started writing.

Have you ever studied art or design?

No, never. I just write what I like.

How do you choose what to write?

When I got back from studying in Boston I lost a lot of my English, but sometimes things would just come into my head and I’d write this, or phrases that I read in books and liked. It’s just how it comes.

When I was studying in America I drove four hours to New York from Boston. In the morning I was just walking around drinking coffee, and I saw there was lots of graffiti in the city. I really like the way Americans write so I wanted to copy this.

And the shop name, Placer Workshop, suggests you do workshops here?

Originally the name was “Western Orchids Specialty Store Placer” but I added “workshop” when I started running it. You can’t really come into contact with orchids so easily, so by calling my shop a “workshop” I thought it would communicate that’s what I do here. When people ask me about the workshops, then I organize one.

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1. Choose the tools you need for the workshop: tray, container, pincers, rubber band, spray, moss etc.
2. Take off the moss from the roots of the orchid.
3. Put the orchid in the container. This particular orchid is being made to grow on the outside of a glass jar.
4. Fix the orchid firmly to the container. Wrap up the roots and moss to finish.

Orchids are something you cultivate after buying them, so having a workshop where you first learn and then can buy a plant is a nice idea.

Yes. Many of the orchids available today need a lot of fertilizer. You can’t give so much fertilizer when you cultivate them at home, so there is quite a rebound. The orchids are forced to flower a lot so if you suddenly stop giving them the fertilizer, they are unable to get nutrition, and don’t flower the next year.

I want to deal in orchids that aren’t beyond your control — ones you can have fun growing at home. So as much as possible I don’t use fertilizer. This means that my customers also shouldn’t need to use any. For example, if a moth orchid flowered with ten clusters, then the next year it may only flower with six when you look after it by yourself — but this is normal. The other four only grew because of the fertilizer. My method is for making flowers bloom more casually, and I reduce the use of fertilizer in order to retain a relationship between plants and people that isn’t forced.

As I just said, almost all orchids grow on trees, so at the right time any you buy in a pot can be transferred to a wood block and you can make it grow on that. Right now I’m experimenting with trying to grow orchids on other things too, not just pieces of wood or trees. For example, on shoes, LP player needles, tube containers and so on. It’s a new attempt to examine what is a “vessel”? What is “support”? In this way you can learn all the things an orchid can grow on and you can get to know what orchids are like, and it’s fun even if you’re young.

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An orchid that has grown on a tube container.
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Do you have any future plans for the shop?

Right now it’s really tough for farmers. In orchid horticulture [in Japan] there are two types of orchid — orchids grown as original strains and those as gifts. For economic reasons, neither is selling well. I know people who are shutting down or quitting orchids in favor of strawberries. If this keeps up, orchids will go the way of the dodo, so we have to make it easy and fun to grow and maintain orchids in order for the farmers growing the good plants to survive. Orchid culture has been around since the eighteenth century and I’d like it to keep going into our children’s generation too.

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Yoichiro Uchida showing us a fully-grown twenty-eight-year-old orchid that has been cultivated on a small pot.

After thinking it was just a rather eccentric place, the more I heard, the more I saw what an impressive shop Placer Workshop was. Anyone who wants to learn about orchids or just listen to the ever enthusiastic Yoichiro Uchida, be sure to apply for a workshop!

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Placer Workshop
http://www.placer-workshop.com/

Shop No.1
1F 18-8 Tamagawa Machi, Minami-ku, Fukuoka 8150037

Shop No.2
1F 1-1-3 Daimyo, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka 8100032

Telephone: 092 511 3729
Fax: 092 541 2067
E-mail: placer@placer-workshop.com

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