Horticulture alumnus creates beauty below ground
Published June 25, 2012
When David Bird heads for his “cave,” he’s actually going to work. And it’s a vocation that produces amazingly beautiful flowers in a highly unusual spot.
Bird, BS ’82, horticulture, owns Bird’s Botanicals; an orchid nursery located in, of all places, the caves of an old limestone quarry. Miners once blasted out limestone to be used in cement at the Kansas City, Mo., location, but Bird has transformed the underground cavern into a virtual garden containing thousands of extraordinary orchids.
“I became interested in orchids at age 16 when my parents took my brother and I to Hawaii,” said Bird, who grew up in Jamestown, N.D. “I purchased my first five Dendrobiums there, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Using high-powered 1,000-watt sodium lights, a ventilation system, water supply line and an electrical transformer, Bird has created a year-round, nearly perfect growing environment. Bird’s orchid business occupies about 10,000 square feet of the former quarry now called the Interstate Underground Warehouse.
“Working in a cave is strange. The temperature is almost always the same. The lights are on from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., so everyday is sunny,” Bird said. “I have five orchid rooms – blooming, growing, warm, tropical and secret.”
According to Bird, orchids are something truly special. They come in every color, except black and true blue. With more than 25,000 species and 141,000 hybrids, orchids make up the largest family of blooming plants on the planet. “One out of seven flowers on Earth is an orchid. With all that diversity, I could never get bored with growing orchids,” Bird said.
His fascination with orchids was clearly demonstrated while Bird was a student at NDSU. During that time, he maintained the university’s orchid collection and added 300 new species and hybrids. “I did keep one plant alive from that collection for 30 years. Its name was Paphiopedilum Alfred x Dimmockii,” Bird recalled.
A proud alumnus, Bird said he chose NDSU because of its strong horticulture program, and his studies helped him solidify his career plans as a horticulturalist. But, Bird’s path took a few interesting turns before he created his underground garden.
After an internship at the International Peace Garden, Bird designed the garden’s famous Floral Clock during the eight years he worked there following graduation. Stops at the Des Moines Botanical Center in Iowa and a greenhouse operation in Wayne, Neb., came next. Those experiences led him to Powell Gardens at Kansas City, a visitor center and conservatory, where he displayed his horticulture abilities for seven years. While at Powell Gardens, his personal success at orchid exhibits prompted him to start Bird’s Botanicals in his spare time.
“I first built a 400-square-foot greenhouse onto my house in Blue Springs, Mo. In a year I had over 1,500 orchids and more on the way. I tried to rent additional greenhouse space, but nobody was keen to the idea,” he said of his then part-time job.
One day a stunning idea occurred to him as he drove past the Interstate Underground Warehouse. “I brought the manager a white Phalaenopsis and told him I wanted to grow orchids in his cave,” Bird said.
It took about six months of experimenting, along with heating up the rock ceiling and pillars, to get conditions in the cave just right. But, the orchids eventually flourished in their underground setting.
And Bird discovered he had another important decision to make.
“Finally, the orchids won out,” he said. “When I told my wife, Linda, I couldn't work all day at the Powell Gardens and half the night in the cave, I had to make a choice. She told me if I wanted to grow orchids full time I better get started. I left for Hawaii a week later and came home with a 1,000 more plants.”
And Bird keeps looking for new orchids to add to his incredible nursery. “I traveled to Ecuador to collect plants, and I make frequent trips to visit growers in Hawaii and California,” Bird said, noting 12 orchids have been awarded to him and two are registered, each of them named for members of his family.
His name is increasingly recognized among orchid enthusiasts. Bird and his unusual nursery were featured in the August 2011 issue of Orchids, the bulletin of the American Orchid Society. That story has sparked an influx of visitors to Bird’s operation.
It’s an experience he loves to share.
“This year, we added a classroom, media room and restroom to our sales room and work room,” Bird said. “The future of the business is to work more garden and orchid shows, since that exposure gets more people to visit the cave. We also are trying to expand our orchid and product line with orchid shirts, jewelry and concrete containers.”
If you’d like to take a look at his underground nursery, Bird’s Botanicals is open to the public on Tuesdays, and Wednesdays through Fridays by appointment. And he gives tours of his “cave” nearly every week.
For more information about Bird’s Botanicals, visit www.birdsbotanicals.com.