The beguiling beauty of orchids

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April 27, 2023

Burrageara Francine ‘Roseglow’ at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

With so many varieties of vivid blooms, the allure of orchids never fades.

by Sharon Smith  |  photographs by Peter Taylor

There’s just something about orchids — so delicate, dramatic and full of contradictions. They’re notoriously temperamental, yet ubiquitous at upscale grocers and garden centers for a take-home tryout. They look modern, yet orchids have populated Earth since the age of dinosaurs. To help demystify the flowering plants, we asked experts at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden and UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens to share their knowledge. 

“You can’t just wing it with orchids,” says Mary Duke, orchid curator at UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. But, we can all be successful orchid caretakers at home, if we follow the rules, Duke says.

“I always tell people, when you get an orchid, just research that one orchid and learn everything you can about that one orchid — and then it’s not so overwhelming,” Duke says. “You’re gonna be fine,” she adds with a reassuring smile.

Tiny purple and white flowers on an Encyclia, an epiphytic orchid, at UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens.
Encyclia, an epiphytic orchid, UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens

Duke, who is also a registered nurse, says she grew up close to nature in northern Virginia. When she needed a break from critical care, she found the plant and gardening worlds interesting and therapeutic. Fourteen years later, she’s a walking encyclopedia on orchids and has shared that knowledge the past six years with visitors to the McMillan Greenhouse.

As she walks among zones filled floor-to-ceiling with tropical orchids, Duke points out different features within the collection. “These are Phalaenopsis, or the moth orchid. These are the most common orchids that you’ll find … and they’re the easiest orchids for people to grow,” she says about a grouping of potted orchids near the entrance. They prefer filtered sunlight and might bloom for up to four months.

By sight and by the numbers, orchids are impressive. They are the largest family of plants, with more than 25,000 species and 100,000-plus hybrid varieties. Most are epiphytes, which means they grow on trees with exposed roots that reach out and cling to branches. Others are terrestrial and thrive along streams. Some bloom for many weeks. Then there’s the high-maintenance vanilla orchid, from which the sought-after bean used in flavorings and extracts is harvested. Each flower blooms for about eight hours. 

At Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont, it’s not unusual to find orchid enthusiasts roaming the Orchid Conservatory’s three greenhouses to take pictures and get inspiration. 

“I really love the idea of them being like natural pieces of art,” says Jessica Collins, manager of the conservatory. “I think that’s why they translate really well in photographs, because they have an ability to transcend nature. There’s almost a sculptural quality to them.”

Miltoniopsis Breathless ‘Brilliant’
Paphiopedilum Taylor Hershey, often called ‘Lady Slippers’

With a degree in environmental science and time spent studying tropical ecology in the Costa Rican rainforest, Collins says she enjoys the “hands-on” application of her education as curator of the collection. She’s drawn to the intense colors and shapes of cool-growing orchids. “They’re also known for being temperamental, but I’ve really liked working with them and taking on the challenge.”

But she’s not a home gardener.  “I think most of us with horticulture degrees, we work with plants all day and don’t have a lot of time for our own plants,” Collins laughs.

Duke is the same way. Instead, they pour their expertise into exotic gardens that delight and attract thousands of visitors every year.  SP

Click through the photo galleries below to view more of the orchid collections

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens

Understanding Orchids

The largest plant family, with 30,000+ species.
Most are epiphytes (they grow on trees).
They have a mirror image.
They’re fragrant with a range of scents, from coconut to decaying matter.
Moth orchids, or Phalaenopsis, are the most common houseplant orchids. They will rebloom from the old spike.
They symbolize love, beauty, refinement and fertility.

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

Jessica Collins, Orchid Conservatory manager, oversees and curates the collection of 2,500 orchids at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.
Jessica Collins, Orchid Conservatory manager, oversees and curates the collection of 2,500 orchids at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.

Caring for orchids

Do not water orchids with ice cubes, which can shock and damage the roots.
Research your orchid’s climate and light preferences.
Use fast-draining potting media, like a bark-based mixture.
Overwatering leads to root rot. 
Most orchids prefer indirect sunlight. Insufficient light is a common reason for failure to rebloom.

SEE FOR YOURSELF: Check hours before visiting Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden or UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens. With a wide variety of orchids, plants are in bloom throughout the year. Peak season is generally late winter through early spring.

Want more orchid inspiration? Duke recommends the American Orchid Society and N.C. Piedmont Orchid Society.

Lead image: Burrageara Francine ‘Roseglow’ at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

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