Just outside of downtown Newberry, along a strip of country road, stands an inconspicuous sign reading, Carter and Holmes Orchids. Every now and then, visitors will pull their car up beside it and hop out to snag a photo. They will then turn into the drive, park in front of the some dozen greenhouses, and venture inside for a glimpse of the 73-year-old nursery’s extensive selection of homegrown orchids.
Mac Holmes is the second-generation owner of family-run business Carter and Holmes, which began in the mid-1900s when his father, Owen Holmes, and his father’s cousin, Bill Carter, began selling orchids as cut flowers for corsages. When cut-flower fashion dwindled, the cousins switched to offering their plants via catalogue, and the nursery soon gained international acclaim for their hybridizing program and resulting production of high-quality orchids, specifically art-shade cattleyas.
On a cool spring day, Mac introduces me to Kiki, a vibrant blue and yellow macaw and the nursery’s in-house mascot, then we head to Greenhouse 1. We go down row after row teeming with bright blooms, some as small as my pinky, some bigger than my head. There are frilly cattleyas, smooth phalaenopsis, and lady slippers with their funny extended chins. Flowers overflow from pots, hang from wall containers, a beautiful collection of tropical wonder planned with detail and purpose.
Carter and Holmes breeds from 2,500 in-house varieties, creating their own by cross-pollinating and developing in their lab. Depending on the type, these can take anywhere from 1–8 years to bloom from the time they’re pollinated. But the resulting beauty and quality is worth it to Mac. “Today, people think it’s an uphill battle to grow orchids,” he says. “They think they’re hard to grow. But where you’re buying them from, they don’t care if they live or not.”
He’s referring to the grocery-store trend to sell orchids as alternatives to cut flowers. Mac explains that these can be incorrectly potted, include bad instructions (ice cubes, what?), or have viruses. Stores fully expect customers to throw them away once they’ve bloomed. “Orchids thrive on benign neglect,” he says, explaining that healthy plants placed in good lighting will do well with only once-a-week waterings. He points out a few examples, which are about to be shipped to customers across the country. All Carter and Holmes orchids come with care instructions. In fact, the nursery hosts regular workshops on plant health and growth.
Twenty years ago during the company’s catalogue heyday, they had 32 employees and utilized 18 greenhouses. Their varieties, specifically cattleyas, became renowned among orchid enthusiasts and established personal collections across the globe, including at the Biltmore Estate’s conservatory. With the Internet bringing more competition, Carter and Holmes’s production is smaller—Mac now has eight employees, and they focus more on retail and online orders.
“It’s a lot of manual labor. It’s a seven-day-a-week thing, kind of like a dairy farm,” says Mac. “If I’m going to church on Sunday, I’m out here a couple of hours first.”
WHILE YOU’RE HERE:
The Newberry Opera House
Built in 1881, this elaborate French Gothic structure was recently renovated and now functions as a performing arts center—featuring acts from Willie Nelson to Edwin McCain. 1201 McKibben St, Newberry. (803) 276-5179, newberryoperahouse.com
Bill & Fran’s
Serving up classic Southern diner fare, it’s little surprise that Midlands travelers detour here on their way to the Upstate for a slice of fried apple pie with brown sugar ice cream. 11724 SC-34, Newberry. (803) 276-6888, billandfrans.com
Located in historic downtown Newberry, Star Chappell’s café offers fine dining of rotating seasonal plates.
1215 Boyce St, Newberry. (803) 405-0030, thecabanainc.com
Carter and Holmes will be at the Asheville Orchid Festival at the NC Arboretum, April 3–5. For more information visit carterandholmes.com.