Shmulik and Oki Dror know the way from Kfar Sava to the orchid "convalescent home" in Maaleh Hahamisha with their eyes closed. But on this springlike Shabbat morning the two retirees are as alert as hunters. "Here's an almond tree," says Oki. "Here's another almond tree," replies her husband.

But what really interests them is not almond trees, but orchids. Every few minutes Oki glances at the back seat, where six orchid plants are sitting. They are not in great condition - naked, with isolated and wilted flowers. Each bent branch is attached to a stick with small hair clips. "It hurts me when it wilts, but I know it will renew itself and that's a consolation," says Oki. "That's why I take them to the rest home."

Shmulik, 73, and Oki (Yokheved), 70, are both former educators. Oki rises every morning at four, sits among the 30 orchids that grow in her living room and drinks coffee from an antique mug. "I get up every morning, see how another blossom has opened," she says. "If I have 2 cents, with one I'll buy bread so I'll have something to live on, and with the other I'll buy a flower so I'll have a reason to live." By 6 A.M., she is in the fitness room.

It all began 26 years ago, at their daughter's wedding. They wore orchids, and the flowers turned into a way of life. "I'm sick, but it's a healthy sickness," says Oki. Every other Shabbat, they drive to Maaleh Hahamisha with wilted plants and bring back the ones in bloom. Forty of their orchids are now at the convalescent home, including the rare, expensive and fragrant cattleyas. It's a costly hobby, admits Oki, "but I prefer to give up other things for them."

They stop, as always, at the antique shop in Abu Ghosh. The place reminds Oki of a traumatic experience. It was a hot day, and she left the orchids in the car and went into the shop. "When I returned to the car I saw that they had become scorched, and I cried like a child." Some did not recover.

But today the weather is pleasant, Shmulik makes sure that the flowers will get a breeze, and they make their visit a quick one.

It's hot in the large orchid nursery in Maaleh Hahamisha. On Valentine's Day in February, the picking was frantic, and now, with Pesach coming up, there's a real frenzy. Growers and amateur collectors stream in. Walking among rows of thousands of orchids, dazzled by the sight, they compare and make their choices.

Suddenly Sandy Kaye shows up. Only two weeks ago, she arrived in Ra'anana as a new immigrant from New Jersey, where she left behind an orchid collection. Her lift has not yet arrived at Ashdod Port, but Kaye, accompanied by two women friends, has come to purchase the orchid that will launch her new collection.

Oki flits from flower to flower, scattering advice, talking about her collection to anyone who will listen. "It hurts me that they are being raised by people who don't really love them. I want to believe that people who buy orchids are people with soul," she says.

"I want white with two stalks," demands Kaye in Hebrew with a strong American accent. "I'll help her find them," says Oki. She and Shmulik approach to make friends with the new immigrant. Kaye is nervous. She is surrounded by phalaenopsis, which is colorful, ostensibly popularly priced and common in Israel. In the U.S. she had oncidium. The oncidiums are more beautiful. She finds a cattleya and another white phalaenopsis, but neither is for sale. "Everything that's beautiful is not for sale," she protests.

Entry to the hothouse is forbidden to the general public, but Oki has special permission. She walks around among the thousands of orchids, some of them recovering, others growing and in bloom. "It's not what it used to be," she says. The hothouse used to belong to "Grandpa Yitzhak," Yitzhak Navat , a veteran kibbutz member, who made the orchid his life's work. There was a sea of cattleyas, and the blossoming seemed endless.

Oki falls in love with another orchid with large white flowers and decides to buy it for her daughter.

"She's a little down," she says. "Whenever I'm in a bad mood I buy a new orchid." Lior picks up a flowerpot and wonders whether Sandy will approve of the orchid. Although it is a phalaenopsis, it has vivid pink-purple flowers with thin red veins and spotted lips. We seem to have found Sandy Kaye's first Zionist orchid. Welcome to Israel.

A kind of madness

The orchid was here long before we arrived. The plant's Latin name, Orchideae, comes from the Greek word "orkhis," meaning testicle, because of the appearance of its roots. It was already blooming when dinosaurs populated the globe. Since the advent of the human race, fascination with the orchid has steadily increased and the myths surrounding it have become widespread. In the 18th century, Europeans discovered the exotic plant, which became so valuable it gave rise to robberies, and even murder.

People may no longer kill for orchids, but now as then, something about this flower can drive collectors mad. There is an air of the fantastic about it, and the fact that many have difficulty growing it does not harm its popularity.

It always begins with one flower, but doesn't always end there. An enthusiast will build one hothouse and then another, purchase rare species at prices reaching $100,000, and then perhaps end up in jail for theft and smuggling.

This fascinating psychological phenomenon inspired, for example, the film "Adaptation," based on "The Orchid Thief," by Susan Orlean. First published as an article in The New Yorker, it was then expanded into a book. In it Orlean documented her travels with an obsessive orchid collector in the swamps of Florida.

There are about 30,000 species of orchids, which constitute the largest family of flowers in the world. They are known to be vulnerable, but in fact they multiply and become more sophisticated all the time. They grow on trees, rocks, in and beneath the ground, and are found almost everywhere except at the Poles; because they thrive on humidity they flourish in the tropical regions of Asia and South and Central America.

Cultivated orchids have in recent years become more widespread and accessible than in the past. The streamlining of cultivation technology has led to expanded distribution and a decline in prices. The cost of an average orchid is now about NIS 100, and like many others before them, Israelis cannot get enough of the plants. In recent years the local orchid market has constantly expanded. Most of the plants are imported from Holland. They are sold not only in nurseries but in florist shops and grocery stores as well. Last year, Utopia, a botanical garden in Kibbutz Bahan in Emek Hefer, opened its doors with 500 species; the entry fee is NIS 49.

The Sahlavim BaSharon nursery in Rishpon, owned by Itzik Ben Yair and Tami Sharon, boasts a collection of thousands of orchids. Most are common species, sold at average prices, but there are also rare blooms that cost thousands of shekels. The place offers beginning and advanced courses, as well as seeding lessons. This is one of the only nurseries in the world where orchids are seeded by a complex process in sterile laboratory conditions, a skill that Ben Yair, 57, an engineer by profession, acquired in Florida.

"It's a very complicated hobby, like an endless puzzle," he says, describing the world of orchids in which he has been immersed for 20 years. "Orchids drive people crazy. It can start as a simple hobby and turn into something obsessive."

In Israel, he reports, thefts have already begun. "It's not common, but it has already happened here and there that people visited the hothouses and couldn't control themselves. There hasn't been any murder as yet." From 240 to 300 Israelis, he estimates, have home hothouses. "It's a steadily developing craze, which is increasing massively every year. It's a nice hobby for retired people, but there are also many young people and children who raise them."

One famous orchid fan is Aracadi Gaydamak. For a party he threw recently in honor of the Chelsea soccer team, he bought 600 orchids at NIS 100 apiece. "They are a hit in every sense of the word," says an employee in the Yoshko family store in Moshav Udim, who is responsible, among other things, for supplying orchids to the oligarchs. During this pre-Pesach season, the orchids are snapped up even before she finishes unpacking the crates.

This employee calls the customers "patients .... They come to me trembling, they have pictures of their orchids in their wallets. I make a living from crazy people." She has stopped giving her phone number to customers, "otherwise I would have no time to myself. People think that I'm exaggerating until they come to work for me. People become as close to orchids as they do to pets. I don't have a satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon. I promised myself that when I retire I'll do an anthropological study of orchid collectors."

A beginner's lament

Moshe Huppert does not understand where he went wrong. It all began when he fell in love with orchids some years ago. What made him fall in love? "What makes me fall in love with a girl?" he replies. "A tough question. Beauty, nobility, the challenge." Huppert, 60, an operations supervisor from Neve Monoson, didn't do things halfway. He took a course in orchid growing with Sarah Giladi, a well-known orchid guru from Jerusalem. From that point on, it was downhill all the way.

"I can't get new blooms. I don't know why. Apparently I don't create optimal growing conditions. I failed the test," he admits in despair. Are they too cold? Are they too hot? Deep inside, he knows the answer: "A hothouse. I think I have to build a hothouse in the yard." But then he counts the cost, the resources, the time, and sighs again.

After murdering several orchids, today he has three. Two of them live in the house, sad and naked. One is yellowing. "That's the beginning of clinical death," he says. "Maybe I'll send it to a convalescent home for a while. And then it will come back and I'll start again."

I remind him that at the convalescent home, they don't accept dead bodies. This is a sensitive point. Last year a dying orchid he tried to hospitalize at Maaleh Hahamisha did not pass the selection. "They looked at it and said it was a shame to invest in it, that it wouldn't recover. But this one can be rescued, I'm sure. They'll accept it."

And there does seem to be hope. It's small and has no flower, but it's green and vital. It lives in his office, but he wouldn't let us photograph it. "I'm embarrassed. It's small. You'll see it and be disgusted. I'm disappointed with the flower, or to be more precise, with the grower." But he doesn't blame only himself. "My wife actually takes care of it. I explained everything in the course to her, but apparently she doesn't fertilize it in time."

A pro's expertise

Unlike Huppert, Reuven (not his real name) has a hothouse. The former ecological engineer, 62, began to plan his hothouse, five by seven meters in size, five years ago. He studied orchid growing thoroughly and visited the hothouses of all the members of the Israeli Orchid Society. He retired a year later and within half a year of his retirement, after receiving a permit from the municipality, the hothouse was completed, at a cost of around NIS 35,000.

Reuven's hothouse contains a computerized monitoring system for orchids; engineered by Ben Yair, it is on an international standard. The system creates the humidity, temperature and other parameters required for ideal climatic conditions. Ben Yair has already sold 15 such systems; among his customers are Kobi Richter of Medinol and Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel, who recently build himself a second hothouse.

"I'm the youngest of the growers, but I have the knowledge of a Ph.D.," Reuven says. He and his wife keep track of "every single flower, when it blossoms, how long the blossoming lasts, size, everything is listed and recorded and photographed." Aside from the hours of research in the professional literature and on the Internet, he spends the entire day in the hothouse. "I check every single flower, see what has changed. There's always something to do. For example, the calcium in the water leaves white marks on the leaves, so I go over every leaf with lemon. Anyone who doesn't have patience can't grow orchids."

His orchids will not be thirsty. "They drink only distilled water or rainwater," he explains. On the roof of his house and in a pit in the yard that he dug himself, there are containers for collecting rainwater. In summer, the air conditioner contributes another 70 liters a day, and in case that's not enough he also has a reverse osmosis system, for backup.

Last Thursday, Reuven abandoned the hothouse for almost an entire day, leaving at 7:15 A.M. with about 50 colleagues for the Israeli Orchid Society's annual hike. The members of the society usually travel together to exhibitions all over the world, and meet on Fridays at the nursery in Rishpon for what is called the "congress." They have no problem with hiking on a rainy day. After all, they had a purpose: to find wild orchids.

"I wasn't enthusiastic," sums up Reuven in the evening. Although the wild orchids that grow in Israel are considered interesting, and some are even rare, they are not to his taste. "I don't like the originals, those tiny, pathetic ones. I like hybrids, those that have been enhanced, which are beautiful and colorful. But it was fun to go out together. These are pleasant and serious people."

When he returned in the evening to his home in the center of the country, he rushed to his hothouse and his 800 colorful orchids, mainly checking on the vandas, which are now in bloom. They originate in Thailand, and require almost 90 percent humidity. "Few people manage to grow them," he boasts. On an ordinary day he visits the hothouse every hour. "Raising orchids is like drugs. If I hear that there's an amazing cattleya in Kfar Giladi I'll drive there this minute, in the rain. This flower makes you drunk with its beauty. And it requires expertise. I love them all like my children."

His orchids blossom like crazy. On one wall, he says, there are 357 phalaenopsis. The cattleyas already have buds and will bloom in another two months. He has to tell us about them because entry into the hothouse is strictly forbidden to outsiders, including the media. Entry is permitted only to him, his children and his wife.

"The hothouse is closed, sealed," he says. He barely allows his wife to take one potted plant into the living room, and the only time he cut flowers was for his daughter's wedding. "I cut them and cried; 58 orchids."

Once, he says, someone offered him NIS 1,200 for an orchid. "I told him: 'Go home.'" He doesn't want to be disturbed. "Everyone knows me already. I don't want every Israeli who buys a potted plant in the supermarket to come to me." On the other hand, he offers his close friends an opportunity to keep orchids in the hothouse. "I take care of them until they blossom." He has 120 orchids under his care there now.

Reuven does not charge a fee for keeping the orchids, but the path to the hothouse is not easy. Every orchid brought from outside goes into isolation for two months, is sterilized and sprayed against pests. Only afterward is it admitted into Reuven's closed ward. No effort is spared to protect the orchids. Microbes, rats, humans - no inferior creature is allowed to bring disease into this perfect, perpetually blossoming world. First of all, the hothouse is insured and protected with bars. Reuven learned his lesson after someone broke in and stole 32 Australian parrots. Outside, a vicious guard dog is on duty.

"God help anyone who enters; I don't envy him," he warns.

All the orchids smile

Sandy Kaye loves the orchid we chose for her. She approaches the cash register with it, picks up another three on the way, plus four bottles of orchid fertilizer. She demands a new-immigrant discount. One doesn't argue with Sandy, the orchid diva.

A stay at the convalescent home costs NIS 7 per month per flowerpot. The Drors pay up. Oki waits for them to wrap her new orchid and Shmulik and Sandy go out to the parking lot. Sandy and the immigrant orchids pile into the red car and drive off toward Raanana, while Shmulik suggests to Oki that they stop to buy cheese at Shai Selzer's dairy. "What are you talking about? We have to take the orchid home," she orders.

It's hard to see Highway No. 1 through the jungle of orchids on the back seat. I'm holding a huge crate with six blossoming divas, next to us is another crate with six more plants, and on the floor the new orchid. As we approach the house Oki begins to give orders to Shmulik. "Yes, commander," replies her husband. He carries the orchids into the small elevator and goes up with them. "There's over NIS 1,000 here," he points out. Oki insists on climbing up the stairs up to the penthouse with the new orchid, and arrives panting and somewhat pale.

The apartment is full of furniture, paintings and statues, rare and fragile objects and clocks from distant times and places. Shmulik is a clock freak, especially grandfather clocks. And wherever you look, there are orchids. "Sometimes I have no room and I put some in the bathroom," admits Shmulik. They are planning to move to a new penthouse that is twice the size, where they will have room for many more orchids. "We're counting the days," says Oki. They place the plants that have returned home on the kitchen table, on a tablecloth that Oki spread out in the morning. Now the "process" begins. She has to water, fertilize, feel delighted.

"That's Sonia," she says, presenting a tall, purple orchid whose home is the living room, and tells of a psychiatrist and serious collector who she claims had an eye on Sonia in the convalescent home. "I arrived just in time," she says. Shmulik quickly climbs to the roof, where there is a wild, enchanting garden with a lemon tree, cyclamens and many other flowers. Oki doesn't like the garden.

Shmulik comes down the stairs with a watering can full of rainwater he has collected. "It changes my entire living room," he says lyrically. "When the old clocks chime, all the orchids smile at me. I could live in an orchid garden. There's something about an orchid. You look at it and you're never satisfied. There is no evil in it, only beauty. You give it warmth and light and love, and it responds."

Like pets?

"For me it's much better than pets. A pet is like a human being; its life comes to an end. But the orchid lives again. You bring it to a hothouse and it returns with more stalks, bigger, more beautiful and younger."

The time is 1:30 P.M. The antique clocks chime. The orchids, like colorful fountains of youth, smile at Shmulik.

Arousing lust

The psychiatrist who was mentioned is Dr. Alex Aviv. In his spacious clinic on the 18th floor of Dizengoff Tower in Tel Aviv, among the antique statues of Buddha and an impressive art collection, live about 30 happy orchids in a variety of colors and species. They enjoy the view of the city and the Mediterranean, a monitored temperature and ideal living conditions. There, in the tropical-urban jungle, sit the patients. The clinic is equipped with a humidifier, and to the right of the patient's armchair is a barometer. At the moment it shows 51 percent. Usually it is more humid in the clinic, says Aviv, 51, in a low and tempered voice, but there's nothing to worry about. Aviv's orchids are in great condition, some with dozens of flowers crowded on branches bursting with vitality.

On his computer one can see precise closeups of orchid after orchid, in a slide show. Some of the subjects of the photos are in the clinic, others are in the convalescent home, and some are in a better place. Each orchid has its own story. The screen saver is a Venus slipper, a rare orchid that looks like an alien creature. It actually died in Maaleh Hahamisha, but Aviv bears no grudge and drives there every two to three months. At present about 100 of his orchids are there. Thus they live on the Dizengoff Center-Maaleh Hahamisha axis for years, in a perpetual cycle.

"I don't treat them as something sacred, only as very aesthetic," he says. "There are people who inflate this issue; in my eyes that's fetishistic. I relate to the orchids in a somewhat egocentric manner, I enjoy the blossoming. I'm not obsessive."

He began the collection about 15 years ago and knows how to avoid becoming too involved with it. He denies any emotional attitude toward them, and they don't arouse associations in him. "I don't love them, I love their beauty," he emphasizes.

How do the patients react?

"Sometimes when they come for the first time they're surprised. Some ask if they are plastic. Usually they create a relaxing atmosphere. There are patients who are envious of how beautiful they are. They look so perfect to them."

Not far from there, in Dr. Ronit Aloni's sex therapy clinic in Tel Aviv, lives a lone orchid. It belongs to Ruta Cohen, the administrative director, but she doesn't like it. "Deep down," she admits, suspiciously regarding the exotic and arrogant creature that has invaded her life. "I even hope that it will die." But the orchid, which she received from her husband, Yigal, for her birthday in October, is alive and kicking. It has white petals that are pink inside, and spotted lips. She doesn't understand what it is trying to say. "I saw this flower and I said to myself, it's not staying in my house. It's not me. It's annoying. It takes itself very seriously, it's coquettish, distant. Somewhat like a cat. I didn't know anything about it, and suddenly you have to be an expert. I was even a little angry at this flower."

Nevertheless, she entered a reminder in her PDA that it has to be watered once every 10 days with mineral water. She took it to the clinic and placed it on her desk in the entrance. The sexually challenged patients cannot get enough of the orchid. "Only then did I understand what this flower does to people," says Cohen. "There is almost no one who comes to the clinic who doesn't react to it." In the wake of their interest, she discovered a growing photographic industry of orchid Internet porn.

You don't have to be a patient at a sex therapy clinic in order to notice the bursting sexuality of the orchid. Maybe it's the testicle-like sacs, the organic tongues, or the spotted wet lips that look almost like a clitoris. Orchid-lovers tend not to pay attention to the erotic aspects of the objects of their passion, but it is no coincidence that the orchid became Robert Mapplethorpe's muse.

Ruta's orchid continued to pique curiosity and arouse lust. Then a strange thing happened. The flowers began to fall off, one after another. Ruta was sure that was the end. "I thought I would throw it out, but then everyone told me: "Are you crazy, don't you see the buds?" The new flowers arrived soon.

"What, it loves me? I can't stand it. But I don't dare throw it out. I have respect for it. I'm even a little afraid of it. I went through a process with it. Because it has presence, and there's always something going on with it. I don't understand it at all. But meanwhile there are no buds yet," she sums up, with cautious optimism.

Immigrant absorption

It's a good thing that the day for photographing orchids has arrived. For two nights in a row I've been dreaming about orchids. Everyone reports to the studio in South Tel Aviv, dressed in black, each with his orchid. All the flowers are phalaenopsis, with the exception of the rare and expensive orchids brought by Ben Yair. The first in line are Shmulik and Oki. They stand in front of the camera on a black backdrop, holding the orchid, their faces frighteningly serious.

Sandy Kaye arrives, ready for action. When she recognizes the Drors she comments: The man is a hunk, and the lady with the red hair looks sad. The crates have already arrived at her new home in Raanana, she reports, and now she has to unpack everything. What would she do without the orchids?

"It's something rare and precious," she says. "I get up in the morning and take my prayer book and pray next to my orchids and it makes me so happy that God created such beauty. How can anyone be depressed when they look at these orchids? It makes me feel how wonderful the world is."

Shmulik and Oki are finished with having their picture taken. Shmulik is excited about meeting the new immigrant again. "Cindy, Cindy," he calls her. Sandy examines the orchid purchased for her in the morning. A phalaenopsis. In America the orchids are more beautiful, she insists. Shmulik reveals that in the nursery in Rishpon there are orchids like in America, and invites her to drive there with them. They exchange phone numbers.

Oki is nervous. The orchid looks somewhat depressed to her after the hysterical barrage of flashes, and she can't find the hair clip that held the plant to its supporting stick. Shmulik comes to help search. Now Sandy is in the spotlight. She is afraid that maybe she isn't young and thin enough, but the camera eats her up.

"She looks a little like Goldie Hawn," says Naomi Delal, who does the makeup. There's something to that. Shmulik says that Cindy looks pretty. Oki agrees. They say goodbye to her, and drive home with their two plants. "I feel like dancing," says Sandy happily, and begins to move sensually with the orchid held close to her chest.

"Did you see? It's not just a story about orchids. You have another scoop; it's also a story about immigrant absorption!" says Shmulik afterward on the phone. And what is the story of the orchid, really? Love, respect, clocks, money, beauty, utopia, Floral Prozac, sex, drugs, murder, eternity, insanity, flower. Flower and man. Immigrant absorption. God knows. W