Longwood’s Tropical Punch: the cure-all to everyone’s winter blues [video]

Call it orchid fever. Longwood Gardens knows how to cure the winter blues.

Call it orchid fever. Each February Longwood Gardens brings brilliant tropical warmth and color to its four-acre temperature controlled Conservatory with “Orchid Extravaganza,” celebrating the divas of the plant world.

In a month marked by frigid mornings and leaden grey afternoon skies, spectacular orchids provide a welcome respite from winter. Exotic hybrids in brilliant colors delight the senses– more than 5,000 blooming orchids cascading over walls and twisting together in a riot of colors. An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 flower fanciers will stroll through the Conservatory to get a peek at the exotic blooms created by Longwood’s orchid breeders and suppliers from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and California. Visitors can absorb the sights and scents of the sea of blooms on display daily through March 31.              

Victorian explorers and horticulturists found ways to transport and grow exotic orchids. Orchidaceae are the largest family of flowering plants on earth, and adapted themselves to live on every continent except Antarctica and in almost every conceivable habitat. Mesmerizing and seductive, some live on the ground while others scramble up shrubs, or grow perched on trees or rocks. Lianas grow up forest trees, using its roots for support.

People seem powerless to resist the orchid’s magic spell.

“People get very passionate about orchids; they just seem to get hooked,” says Lee Alyanakian, who spent 18 years growing orchids at Longwood. “For a long time it was certainly a status symbol to grow these elegant flowers. Today, I think it’s become more of a trendy thing.”

Orchid hunting began for Longwood founder Pierre S. du Pont and his wife Alice’s home garden in 1922. Back then a dozen cattleya orchids were included in a gift of greenhouse plants from Mrs. Dimmick of Scranton, Pennsylvania to Mrs. du Pont. The story easily could have ended right there. These first orchids did not fare well, due to the du Ponts’ limited knowledge of their needs and habits.

But Mrs. du Pont persevered. Along with her husband, she was among 100 charter members of the American Orchid Society (AOS), whose mission, to this day, is “to promote and support the passion for orchids through education, conservation, and research.” In 1924, Mrs. du Pont was elected vice president of the AOS, and she served in that position until her death in 1944, at which time Mr. du Pont took over the office.

Longwood honors the du Ponts’ legacy with Orchid Extravaganza. In the exhibition orchids are crafted into exquisite arrangements and forms, including Longwood’s largest-ever hanging baskets, a spectacular oncidium waterfall display, and in a tip of the hat to Longwood’s new meadow garden– an indoor orchid “meadow” which grows in 625 square feet of parterres and beds. 

The beautifully mapped beds include ten different orchid varieties including tolumnea, dendrochilum, masdevallia and paphiopdiulum, tucked in among  greens, grasses, mosses, and the stumps of tulip and black locust trees.  Look for the small but spectacular stenorrhynchos speciosum, a South American terrestrial orchid.

“Last year we debuted the orchid meadow as a prelude to the opening of our 86-acre  meadow,” noted Jim Sutton, the exhibition’s display designer. “It was so popular we brought it back. We’re able to showcase plants that are smaller, not as flashy. It’s a nice way to boost our overall collection with what we have on display.”

Orchid Extravaganza is installed by more than 50 Longwood gardening professionals.  The sheer genius of their engineering, artistry, and curation stamps Longwood Gardens one of the premiere horticulture centers in the world. Sutton creates the show from a total of 6,300 plants representing 2,000 types of orchids that are grown in five greenhouses. Each one is set up for different light and temperature as needed by that particular species of orchid. Sutton is already working on next year’s show and will begin talks with vendors in early summer.

“It’s all about quality and quantity,” said Sutton, an expert in floral design, plant trials, plant selection, aesthetics and design. “Building relationships with the suppliers and finding the right orchids. We might be looking for 300 of one plant in a specific color, but you need to be flexible to some degree. We would really like to find a contract grower to fit our particular needs.”

Along the center walk is a mesmerizing display of the rare Phalaenopsis Sogo Yukidian “V3” orchids. Simply grand and glorious, pristine white in color, it is one of the very best white phalaenopsis grown and shipped in from Taiwan.  Celebrated for the length of time it will hold its multiple blooms, the large brilliant flowers can reach over four inches in size, and are displayed harmoniously on arching sprays. Definitely a show-stopper!

Five hanging baskets of chocolate brown cymbidium line the yellow-blooming Acacia Passage and  mark the entrance to the South American-inspired Cascade Garden. A shade not often seen in flowers, each blossom exhibits a luxurious circle of petals, rich color, and a bold display. These exotic orchids are grown in New Zealand at some of the most prestigious plantations in the world.

Celebrated for their alluring fragrance, orchids also possess some jaw-dropping attraction mechanisms. They can dress themselves up as female insects and lure male pollinators to the flower with stunning looks and smells.

“This tricks male insects into mating with them and brings about pollination,” Alyanakian explained. “They can mimic the shape of a female insect, or at night look very white and fragrant. It’s all about attracting the pollinator to these incredible plants. It’s about the next generation.”

Considered by many orchid lovers to be one of the most magnificent examples, the Blue Vanda are on display in the Tropical Terrace in the Conservatory. This flower’s enticing hue comes straight from Mother Nature, meaning it will continue to produce the same amazing blooms two to three times a year and hold their blooms for up to two months. Originating in tropical Asia, the Blue Vanda certainly delivers the “wow factor.”

“These plants are as close to blue as you can get in the orchid world, a really nice medium shade of blue, truly remarkable,” Alyanakian observed.

Ever wonder where the most popular flavor vanilla comes from? It’s derived from a rare and hard to propagate orchid, the Vanilla Planifolia.   The plants  climb up high onto trees and attach to the bark with roots growing from the leaf joints. 

Take a hike over to the Peirce-du Pont house, where you will be bowled over by 100 phalaenopsis orchids arranged as an “orchid island” where the house’s Christmas tree typically resides in December.

“There is really is a mystique to these coveted flowers,” Sutton said. “Orchidophiles are very passionate about their cultivation of these plants. Growing them doesn’t happen by chance, you need to be flexible and adaptable. If you are, you will end up with something really special in the end.”

Finally, you can purchase many of the orchids displayed in the exhibition in the The Garden Shop and the Visitor Center from April 1–4

For more information about going to Longwood Gardens: www.longwoodgardens.org

You can also view our First Experience airing Friday on WHYY TV at 5:30 and 11pm, Saturday at 5pm, and Sunday at 2:30pm.


Terry Conway is a Delaware Arts and Culture writer.  You can view more of his work: www.terryconway.net.

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