The luxuriantly long winter orchid show on display at the National Museum of Natural History offers a familiar story in the West’s tango with this exotic flower.
A fellow named Nathaniel Ward came up with a way to ship them live in terrariums in the 19th century; wealthy collectors built greenhouses and got explorers to gather the tree-dwelling flora. Then the orchid captured the public imagination, first with the fine and dandy corsage and today with the cheap and cheerful phalaenopsis or moth orchid.
In an age when Amazonia is no longer an uncharted abstraction of richly imagined beauty, danger and natural wonder to the average Westerner — when a $12 moth orchid awaits the impulse shopper at the checkout — is it still possible to find magic in this plant? The answer, happily, is yes.
This might be as miraculous as the flower itself, given that the propagation technology of tissue culture has created the moth orchid conveyor belt. With a flowering plant from scratch in as little as three years, growers produce so many varieties that they don’t even bother to name them. The orchids might have numbers. Folks, even marigolds have names.
People whose lives are steeped in orchids don’t seem too worried about this. The moth orchid proliferation “doesn’t take away from how lovely they are,” said Sarah Hedean, an orchid grower at the Smithsonian, as she took me around the exhibition, “Interlocking Science and Beauty.”
The mitigation is that the orchid world is so diverse — some 30,000 species and even more human-bred hybrids — that different and unusual orchids are never far away. Even within the realm of the moth orchid, you will find novel varieties bred by and for connoisseurs. (On Sunday, the National Capital Orchid Society hosts an auction at Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville, starting at 10 a.m.) More to the point, some of the mass-market, commodity moth orchids are devastatingly beautiful. At the exhibit, one is tucked behind filler foliage, its spray presenting a chorus line of dainty blooms that are white-flecked with maroon patterns. I’d tell you to get one, but it doesn’t have a name.
The show spans the season, ending on faraway April 26, which means that with 350 or so on display at any one time, you need legions of other orchids in the wings ready to be switched in. Some, such as the cattleyas, can sustain such energy-sapping blooms for only a week or so. But another reason for the constant changes — every Tuesday and Thursday — is that the museum’s interior exhibition space lacks levels of natural light, warmth and humidity that many of the orchids want. You need a large collection to keep it so fresh; fortunately Hedean and her colleague Melanie Pyle have one of the largest around. The show draws from the Smithsonian’s permanent collection of 8,500 orchids and the U.S. Botanic Garden’s 7,000 or so.
I asked Hedean to show me some of her favorites, and she made a beeline to a lone, low but outrageously large hybrid of the cattleya tribe with ruffles of pale yellow and rich peach. The variety is Ojai Verde, and it was pumping out fragrance. The first time I smelled it, it recalled a pungent lemon. The second time, I thought I had my face in a bowl of fruit punch.
Nearby was a little flock of solid magenta dendrobiums (Regina Beauty Hawaii), fluttering in front of a split-leaf philodendron that never looked so regal.
Perhaps the most elegant flower was that of a ground-dwelling, slipper type, this one named Phragmipedium Fritz Schomburg. It is coral pink, and glowing. “It can tolerate low light conditions,” said Hedean, and its species parent “typically grows along streambeds.”
Next to it sat an eye-catching clump of stout slipper orchid hybrids, with bulbous flower parts, awash in glossy maroons and speckled markings. There is something of the triffid about them.
One of the reasons the moth orchid has proliferated is its tolerance of the tough conditions found in homes, where it is dark and dry. It can also bloom for weeks with a little bit of care. It still has a way to go before matching a wiry, tall, but undoubtedly fussier orchid named Psychopsis, which doesn’t stop blooming. “These have been blooming for two years,” Hedean said, examining the brown speckled, yellow flower.
If you want an even bigger winter orchid fix, you might venture a couple of hours north to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa., for an annual show within the grand and light-filled setting of its Conservatory. Approximately 3,500 orchids are on show, including displays in the opulent, marble-floored Exhibition Hall.
One of the stars of the “Orchid Extravaganza” exhibition is a moth orchid named Sogo Yukidian V3. Grown masterfully in Taiwan, its sprays are perfectly formed arcs of paired white blossoms. Longwood has a dozen of these on display for the first time. “We have wanted to get the plants here for years,” said Lee Alyanakian, an orchid specialist who helped stage the show. “We have seen them in the shows overseas.”
One thing you won’t find at either show is the abominable blue moth orchid, achieved by injecting dye into its vascular system. If you want to see a naturally blue orchid, look for the azure vandas on show at Longwood. “As close to blue as you can get,” Alyanakian said. Without a bottle of pigment, that is.
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