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by Robb Fulcher

The orchid is a demanding love.

Witness Bob Streeter, whose passion for the endangered exotic has made him a nurturing sort of mad scientist with his own patent for cloning, and an internationally-known grower of a flower so vaunted that it was visited by nighttime pollen thieves in Rio de Janeiro.

The sprawling Lunada Bay home of Streeter, a 72-year-old, semi-retired veterinarian, is overrun with countless thousands of orchids. Out back, only a swimming pool and spa remain in a yard covered half by protective netting and half by climate-controlled greenhouses.

Many of the plants require hours of tireless care over a six-year span from their pollination in a laboratory to their eventual flowering.

Even inside the elegant house with its breathtaking coastline view, a visitor's casual glance is likely to fall upon the face of an orchid.

"It's okay if you know you're crazy," Streeter said with an easy laugh. "If you don't know it, then you're in trouble."

It's not hard to talk him into a tour of the grounds, where classic purple petals look up from pots, and spill down in sprays from hunks of bark that hang on walls to simulate the trees from which orchids sprout in their native Brazilian jungles.

Some of plants bear the classic purple or lavender flower with its spreading petals and pouting lower lip. Others are yellow, waxy and tulip-shaped. Many are not recognizable as orchids to the uninitiated. They bear snowy white petals shaped like silver dollars, or deep, rich purple petals with spare, swooping art deco lines, or tiny, plump, gourd-like petals that look like they should be growing on the moon.

The sizes and shapes of the plants seem nearly limitless, some of them strikingly regal in their aspect and others downright silly in their loopy novelty.

"This one here is really weird," Streeter said, pausing to point out a bit of flowering exotica.

"Here are more of my offspring," he said, pointing to a picnic table with glass laboratory beakers filled with freshly crossbred green sprouts whose quality will remain a question mark for more than a half-decade.

"It's endless what you can do with them, and what has been done."

Streeter made his fame in national and even international orchid circles after spotting the freak mutation of an immature orchid in a friend's greenhouse about 10 years ago. The plant was among a number of the proud loddigesii species that had been cloned in a lab, and it should have come out identical to its young, equally unformed siblings.

"But I could see that this one plant was heavier than the others, it was different," Streeter recalled. "My friend told me 'It can't be different,' but he gave it to me for Christmas that year."

Years later, Streeter's eye for quality proved true.

"Sure enough, it was better. I put it up for judging and it brought the highest award from the American Orchid Society, a first class certificate."

He dubbed the unusually sturdy, thick-petaled flower Streeter's Choice. As with any champion flower, a cutting was sent off for cloning, and the plant is crossbred with multitudes of others to create an endless variety of new, exotic flora. Streeter holds a patent forbidding others from crossbreeding Streeter's Choice.

Three years ago, Streeter's Choice made the voyage to Rio for the gigantic World Orchid Conference.

"All orchids are endangered, so it's hard to get the entire plant into a foreign country and then get it back out again," Streeter said. "So I brought in a cutting, and it wound up getting a silver medal. The one that got the gold was a whole plant in a pot."

The first night of the conference, he was talking to a man so smitten by his flower that Streeter decided to give its admirer a small sampling of the precious pollen.

"We went up to the flower and all the pollen had been stolen," Streeter said with a good-natured laugh. "So we expect Brazilian orchids to be greatly improved in about four years."

Other world conferences have lured Streeter to Tokyo, New Zealand, Scotland and Vancouver.

When he's not submitting orchids for competition Streeter judges the plants, at world conferences and for the Cymbidum Society of America.

Streeter was raised by plant loving parents in Kansas City, Mo., and met Gloria, now his wife of 49 years, in Seattle, where he served as a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman and she entertained with the USO.

The Streeters moved to California in 1953, and to the Palos Verdes Peninsula three years later. Along the way the couple raised three kids who gave them a total of six grand-children.

Streeter opened the Crenshaw Animal Hospital in 1954, and in 1958 opened the Rolling Hills Animal Hospital, which is now run primarily by his eldest son, David.

Round about the time he opened his first veterinary hospital he purchased his first orchid, and became a Streeter named desire.

"Sears was having a sale, back in 1954, and I thought it would be fun to have an orchid," he said. "I bought a Cattleya and put it in our bedroom, and that is how it began."

Streeter finds that orchid people tend to have great patience, hence their willingness to nurse a plant for six years while it exists as little more than a potentiality, and to engage in painstaking crossbreeding that will yield truly satisfactory results in only about 1 percent of the cases.

He finds that orchid people are nurturing as well, tending to like animals.

"They like to raise things," he said. "They like to watch things grow."

The South Bay Orchid Society's Fall Show takes place Oct. 9-10 at South Coast Botanic Garden, 26300 Crenshaw Blvd., Palos Verdes Peninsula. For information call Polly Kinsinger at (310) 374-6471. PEN


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