The orchid collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post at Hillwood Estate

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist March 7, 2012

Spring has crept in early, but there is still a chance to fling yourself into a final act of winter by savoring orchids in moist, luxuriant greenhouses.

Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens stands as a shrine to that renowned orchid fancier Marjorie Merriweather Post, a woman who died in 1973 but who still draws a crowd through the opu­lence of her worldly acquisitions: among them the brick mansion above Rock Creek in Northwest Washington and its interiors adorned with fine paintings, period furniture and decorative pieces.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

Her life, too, was decorated, if not always decorous, and her wealth, her palatial homes, her four-masted yacht and her four marriages made her appear to leap from the pages of an Edith Wharton novel. You can’t say that about a lot of Washington heiresses.

The greenhouse, by contrast, seems rather restrained, in a good way. It’s a place to shuffle along narrow aisles to view lovely tropical orchids of various stripes, trying to see if their fragrance matches their exotic beauty. (It usually doesn’t, but you can’t have everything.)

One of the first things Post did when she moved to Hillwood in 1955 was to enlarge the existing glass and aluminum structure, not just to expand the growing space but to provide different interior climates to appease a variety of orchids. Phalaenopsis, or moth, orchids like it a little gloomy and hot; dendrobiums want bright but cool, for example. The reworked greenhouse provided a constant supply of orchids for the house, often cut for the vase — how luxurious is that?


Marjorie Merriweather Post poses with a cattleya orchid for portrait painter Douglas Chandor in 1952. (Hillwood Museum/HILLWOOD MUSEUM)

Post’s first love was the showy cattleya, used for a corsage on dressy occasions, of which there were many. “The orchid curator would send her a selection so she could match its color to her dress,” said Jason Gedeik, who is the new orchid grower at Hillwood. He carries a laptop with images of Post through the years. There’s the photograph of her begowned for her 1935 wedding to Joseph Davies, holding a bridal bouquet of literally hundreds of moth orchids. There is the 1952 portrait of her by Douglas Chandor holding a cattleya bloom as if it were one of her Faberge eggs. There is the 1958 photo of her with new husband Herbert May. A cattleya adorns her lapel.

Perusing the images, Gedeik has probably come to an obvious conclusion: Husbands come and go, orchids are forever. This might frighten the guy who has to keep them alive, but he is enthused by the prospect. He doesn’t know how many of the 1,945 orchids she owned at her death still survive in the collection (records were not kept), though many were undoubtedly lost over the years.

“I want to bring the collection back to its peak,” said Gedeik, who grew up in Hawaii and has loved the orchid family (the plant kingdom’s largest) since he was a kid.

He also wants people to see the orchids and see that they are not as impossible to grow as many believe. It is fun, though, to enjoy orchid flowers without the fuss or worry.

The greenhouse devotes one area to the slipper orchids that I love for their alien form and dark colors. The oncidiums are about to display their sprays of dozens of button-size blooms, typically in a beguiling yellow, maroon-black variegation.

Gedeik also has some pansy orchids on display, named for their large, bicolored blooms. Native to Amazonia, they like it hot and steamy. Nearby a spider orchid, Brassia rex, offers a stem with an array of slender-petaled blooms of striking size and delicacy.

Modern propagation techniques and global trade have made the orchid far more available and affordable than in Post’s day, especially the moth orchid. Still, there are so many unfamiliar and alluring orchids, the magic will never wear off, said Gedeik.

Across town, the U.S. Botanic Garden is staging its annual orchid show with the Smithsonian Institution. The result is a predictably satisfying display of choice orchid varieties, this year given a Japanese spin to mark the 100th anniversary of Washington’s flowering cherry trees. Hundreds of ground- and tree-dwelling orchids are set near the conservatory’s Garden Court canals, many of remarkable size and bloom count. From a large pot falls the cascading flower stems of the Cymbidium Fifi Harry, each three feet long, each carrying about 40 lime-green blooms, each three inches across.

The individual flowers of the Dendrobium speciosum are not much larger than an inch from stem to stern, but worth studying. The pale yellow and slender petals darken at the tips. They form a delicate embrace of the business part of the flower, a little cup that is white with elongated spots a muddy red. These flowers are arrayed on a horizontal stem about 15 inches long, and the whole apparatus contains countless hundreds of flowers. The plant has 30 of these spikes.

Just when you think it is safe to gather yourself, you find another impossibly ornate orchid named Epidendrum Helen Yamada Kauai Beauty (the names are victims of complex hybridization). Its scarlet pink blooms suggest garden phlox, but each flower has a strange serrated part that rises from a star of five petals. Before the outdoor plant world does its thing in the coming weeks, the orchid, in all its forms, is worth a quiet look.

Follow @adrian_higgins on Twitter.

Get your orchid fix

Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens Jason Gedeik leads tours of the orchid greenhouse daily in March. Visitors can also sign up for talks, including a session on cattleyas by orchid grower and author Arthur Chadwick on Saturday at 11 a.m. The museum is also holding several weekend workshops on orchid care ($25). 4155 Linnean Ave. NW. 202-686-5807. www.hillwoodmuseum.org. $15; reservations recommended.

U.S. Botanic Garden “Orchid Mystique: Nature’s Triumph” includes a setting of a Japanese garden in the conservatory’s East Gallery, along with an exhibit of photographs of Japanese gardens in North America by David Cobb and a selection of native orchids by photographer Hal Horwitz. There are also lectures on orchid natural history. Through April 29. 100 Maryland Ave., SW. 202-225-8333. www.usbg.gov. Free.

Philadelphia International Flower Show
The nation’s largest flower show runs through Sunday. This year’s main garden exhibits are based on an Hawaiian theme. The show includes six central displays and more than 35 garden exhibits, along with a competitive flower show and vendor’s mart. Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1101 Arch St. 215-988-8899. www.theflowershow.com. $27-$32.

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