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A Bounty of Riches From American Soil

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amado Vazquez feels especially satisfied with life on sunny Sunday mornings in Malibu. The 83-year-old drives a mile up Pacific Coast Highway from his nearby home to his orchid farm. He shuts the gate behind him, feeds the dogs, maybe works on a new orchid hybrid or relaxes by watching soccer on TV in a small office.

Orchid hobbyists, wedding planners and anyone who loves the colorful flowers know all about Vazquez’s refuge, Zuma Canyon Orchids. On an exclusive street, the orchid farm is a family operation that serves customers locally and in 50 countries.

Though it may seem strange to him, Vazquez is worth millions--if the offers he has had from real estate agents are to be trusted. But Vazquez doesn’t see what he has in millions of dollars; rather, he sees it as the realized dreams of a Mexican immigrant who got off the train about 55 years ago eager to work.

Sometimes, when he walks through his four acres tending to the orange and avocado trees that surround the greenhouse, he reflects on what got him here: a chance introduction to the orchid-hybridizing profession when, as a young man, he began looking after the collection of a wealthy San Marino man.

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“I don’t want God to give me any more,” Vazquez says. “Just protect what I have.”

Indeed, Zuma Canyon Orchids is the result of Vazquez’s lengthy work in the orchid industry, for which--as icing on the cake--he was recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the International Phalaenopsis Alliance six years ago.

“His work has been pioneering,” said Carlos Fighetti, president of the New York Orchid Society and president of the alliance when the organization recognized Vazquez for his work. “He’s developed some wonderful hybrids throughout the years.”

Vazquez was just the second person to get a lifetime award while still living, Fighetti said, and his other honors include an international gold award for the Bonnie Vazquez orchid, a yellow flower with purple lines named after son George’s wife.

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Zuma Canyon specializes in Phalaenopsis genus, a type of warm-climate orchid that can be grown in or out of a greenhouse. There are 80,000 plants at Zuma Canyon, all grown in small pots in the humid greenhouse where they are watered and fed nutrients and chemicals. The hybridizing process begins in a clean-air lab, where tiny seeds are put in small bottles and taken to another greenhouse until they are large enough to be placed in the pots.

George Vazquez, 49, the son who now runs the business and supervises its 11 employees, says the farm has 7,000 customers. He divides the clientele into three categories: growers who buy plants from Zuma’s wholesale operation; hobbyists who buy from the retail portion and the local Hollywood-Malibu crowd that includes entertainers and company CEOs.

The Vazquezes don’t like to name names when talking about their customers, but they have named orchids after some of them because of their good deeds and “a relationship with somebody here,” such as Nancy Reagan, and philanthropists Edie Wasserman and Leonore Annenberg.

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Whoever the customer, many want very specific orchids: flowers of a particular solid color or a particular background color with stripes or dots of a different shade.

Amado has crossed hundreds, maybe thousands, of plants to get certain orchid characteristics. And while his memory for most of these experiments is good, he records the results from a particular “mother” and “father” in a computer.

For example, a cross between a mother venosa malibu joy (yellow) and a father mountdora (light pink) will produce a pink flower with brown lines. There are innumerable looks, including: full-size or miniature orchids; all white; white with purple freckles looking as if they have the measles; purple with intricate patterns of yellow veins; or an off-white flower that seems it couldn’t decide whether to turn out white or pink.

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On those sunny Malibu Sundays when Amado might be found on a small tractor doing tasks around the property, he often thinks of how lucky he has been in the United States. There was no work in his trade as a shoe repairman back home, a small town near Guadalajara, Mexico. His brother, Jose, was in the United States and had served as a gunner in World War II--the sole survivor of a military helicopter crash in Mississippi. In 1946, Jose was living in Los Angeles and arranged for Amado to join him.

Although they had no experience with flowers, the brothers found work tending to the orchids of a San Marino man. After a few months, Amado moved to El Monte to work for Orver Orchids. And after 13 years there, he came to Malibu to take care of the collection owned by Arthur Freed, the legendary MGM producer.

Freed let Amado live in a house on the property, and eventually Amado brought the rest of his family--wife Maria, George and his older sister Linda--to live there. Not paying rent allowed Amado to save money and raise his children in Malibu.

“I don’t know where I would be if I had continued to grow up in El Monte,” says George, who now lives in Thousand Oaks with his wife and three children.

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Besides Jose, Amado had two other brothers--Joe and Pete--and a few uncles and brothers-in-law who followed them into the orchid industry, making names for themselves with local orchid companies such as Stewarts, Armacost and Royston, Tayama, and Gallup and Stribling.

“Our family is well-entrenched in the local orchid industry,” George says.

Freed died in 1973, and soon after, Amado paid $85,000 for two acres just down the street from Freed’s Malibu place. The land was owned by Dr. James McPherson, who went into the orchid business with Amado. Four years ago, Amado paid $400,000 to McPherson’s wife, Jean, for the two adjoining acres and now fully owns all the land where Zuma Canyon Orchids sits.

“He’s that immigrant success story that you hear about,” George says about his father.

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Amado, a modest man who considers himself lucky he never had to work in the farm fields like other Mexican immigrants of his era, feels fortunate for the opportunities he’s had.

For years he returned the checks he received from the Social Security Administration. He had made enough money to retire so he figured he didn’t need the government’s help. But at 70, he got a letter from the government ordering him to take the money.

He’s had offers of more than $3 million for the nursery land, but he does not want to sell what he dreamed of having for so long.

“I’ll be here until I die,” he says.

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* Zuma Canyon Orchids is at 5949 Bonsall Drive, Malibu. It is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (310) 457-9771.

* Jose Cardenas can be reached at jose.cardenas@latimes.com.


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