- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

L is for lady slipper at the U.S. Botanic Garden, where orchids of every kind and color are showing how they gained their reputation as the world’s most exotic plants.

In “An Alphabet Garden of Orchids,” an exhibit running through April 13, oversized letters of the alphabet are interspersed among the flowers on the Garden Court, each one representing a different theme for orchids.

There are orchids with pouting lower lips, others that smell and taste like vanilla, some that seem to gape with open mouths like attacking sharks, and a variety from Florida that looks like “an octopus wearing a bonnet,” says Rob Pennington, the garden’s horticulture manager.

The lady slipper variety takes its name from an ancient Greek legend. Venus, the goddess of love, took shelter in a cave during a storm with her lover, Adonis, according to the legend. She left behind one of her slippers, which grew into cypripedium, a common variety of orchid.

“They’re a challenge; then they’re incredibly rewarding when they do bloom, with their beauty,” Mr. Pennington says.

B is for the big business orchids have become. Botanists who figured out how to harvest tissue cultures in 1960 can clone orchids in less than half the seven years normally required to grow the flowers from seed to bloom. As a result, prices dropped to as little as $10 a spike for common household varieties, such as moth orchids.

After tissue cultures became a mass-production industry in the late 1980s, orchids grew to a $127.6 million wholesale business by 2004, and sales still are climbing.

F is for the fragrance orchids produce. About half of the roughly 25,000 known species of orchids are fragrant. Perfume manufacturers catalog their scents to replicate them in commercial fragrances.

W is for the remarkable way orchids have evolved to capture and store water. Some varieties close their leaf pores, or stomates, during the day and open them at night, when cooler temperatures prevail, thereby reducing water loss.

Their adaptations have enabled the flowers to thrive and spread around the world. One variety, Bulbophyllum orthosepalum, smells like rotting flesh to attract flies and other scavenger insects to pollinate them.

Orchids most commonly are found in tropical areas, but they also grow above the Arctic Circle. The kind that grow in arid, desertlike conditions are known as xerophytes, which are represented by the letter X at the orchid show.

North America has the fewest varieties, with as few as 20 genera, or major subdivisions of the families of orchid plants. South America has the most, with about 350 genera.

Z is for the zeal orchid lovers bring to their obsession, sometimes called “orchid fever.” Horticulturists have developed more than 100,000 hybrids of the flowers as they seek to bring out the best in colors and fragrances orchids can offer.

Cymbidiums, or boat orchids, are among the most popular varieties in the Washington region. They are known for their wide lips, many colors and relatively long blooming seasons, which can last as long as three months. They sell for about $30 at grocery stores and nurseries.

The National Capital Orchid Society claims 400 members throughout the Washington area. The 61-year-old club holds monthly meetings for members to show off their innovations in cultivating the flowers. The club’s annual orchid show at the U.S. National Arboretum attracts thousands of purchasers and curiosity seekers.

The zeal for orchids could be found among recent visitors to the U.S. Botanic Garden. The more experienced growers came looking for tips on how to get the best results with their flowers.

“The best thing to tell them is patience,” says Laura Shaw, a volunteer at the Botanic Garden who answers questions from visitors to the show.

The kinds of orchids sold commonly in the Washington area bloom an average of about two months each year, depending on watering and humidity. Other times, they look like sticks poking out of the ground.

“A lot of people have wondered if their drainage is OK,” Miss Shaw says.

A peril of orchid growing comes from trying to raise them indoors, away from the bees and other insects that carry pollen.

“Pollination needs to be taught,” Miss Shaw says. “Each orchid has an identified pollinator.”

Some visitors knew or cared little about the finer points of pollination. They merely wandered around, reading interpretive panels near the flowers or looking deep into their petals.

“We came here to learn about it,” says Annie Walsh, a 24-year-old biologist from the District who was looking at the flowers with her friends. “We know they’ve been gaining in popularity, and we wanted to know why.”

The orchids at the Botanic Garden show are drawn from around the world. There’s Phaius from the Himalayas and Dendrobium from the Philippines. Florida is well-represented with several small varieties.

“It’s interesting to see their living habitat,” says Joe Gerschutz, an engineer from Alexandria.


Location:The U.S. Botanic Garden is at 245 First St. SW

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Parking: Limited street parking is available. The nearest Metro stops are Union Station on the Red Line and Federal Center on the Blue and Orange lines.

More information: 202/225-8333 or www.usbg.gov.

Notes: During the exhibit, which runs through April 13, the Botanic Garden is hosting workshops on painting orchids in oil or watercolor, repotting orchids and photographing orchids. Although cameras are allowed, tripods are not allowed during weekends.

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