Archives For orchids

Our Scientist Takes on Thomas Jefferson

...his vanilla ice cream recipe, that is.

Karen Z. —  March 13, 2015 — Leave a comment

Hear “vanilla” and what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Ice cream, right?

While we were researching vanilla for this year’s Orchid Show (now in its final weekend), we kept discovering new scoops on vanilla ice cream.

PHOTO: Plain vanilla ice cream cone.First we learned that one-third of all the ice cream that Americans eat is vanilla.

Next, we learned about vanilla beans’ different flavors—at a tour of the Nielsen-Massey Vanillas facility in nearby Waukegan. (Who knew that vanilla extract was produced right here in Chicago?)

And then we came across Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream at the Library of Congress—such a beautiful document that we included a copy of it in the Orchid Show. (The knowledgeable staff at the Library of Congress pointed out that there’s a second recipe on the back of Thomas Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream notes—for the Savoy cookies to accompany it.)

All those moments dovetailed nicely when our own orchid expert, Pati Vitt, Ph.D., got inspired to make her own homemade vanilla ice cream. Naturally, as a scientist, she set herself a bigger challenge: to tackle Jefferson’s thorough (albeit old-fashioned) recipe, using three different types of vanilla beans kindly provided by Nielsen-Massey.

We had to document Dr. Vitt’s ice cream-making adventure: see how she interpreted Jefferson’s recipe—and what three guest chefs/tasters had to say about the flavor—in our video (view on YouTube).

PHOTO: Jefferson's vanilla ice cream recipe: Holograph, 1780s. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Holograph recipe, 1780s. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress Bookmark this item

Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream

(Jefferson’s lovely script can be hard to decipher, so here’s the recipe’s text in full.)

2 bottles of good cream
6 yolks of eggs
½ pound sugar

  • mix the yolks & sugar
  • put the cream on a fire in a casserole, first putting in a stick of vanilla.
  • when near boiling take it off & pour it gently into the mixture of eggs & sugar.
  • stir it well.
  • put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent it’s [sic] sticking to the casserole.
  • when near boiling take it off and strain it thro’ a towel.
  • put it in the sabottiere*
  • then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. put into the ice a handful of salt.
  • put salt on the coverlid of the Sabottiere & cover the whole with ice.
  • leave it still half a quarter of an hour.
  • then turn the Sabottiere in the ice 10 minutes
  • open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner sides of the Sabottiere.
  • shut it & replace it in the ice
  • open it from time to time to detach the ice from the sides
  • when well taken (prise) stir it well with the Spatula.
  • put it in moulds, justling it well down on the knee.
  • then put the mould into the same bucket of ice.
  • leave it there to the moment of serving it.
  • to withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, turning it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.

*Footnote from the Library of Congress: A “sabottiere” is an ice cream mold (“sorbetière” in modern French).

Vitt’s notes:

  • You can use the recipe without modification, just cooling the mixture in an ice bath and then in the refrigerator overnight.
  • Freeze according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.
  • One tablespoon of vanilla extract may substitute for the vanilla bean.
  • The recipe makes about 4 pints (2 quarts, or one ½ gallon).


Ice cream wasn’t the only vanilla treat on Vitt’s mind: she also canned a batch of vanilla spice apple butter (we shared it in a meeting—delicious!) and made her own vanilla sugar. Vitt agreed to share her recipe—and presented it all so charmingly, with handcrafted labels, trims, and tags, that we had to include a photo, too. 

Vanilla Spice Apple Butter

PHOTO: Pati Vitt's vanilla apple butter.

Vitt not only agreed to share her recipe for vanilla apple butter with us—but presented it all so charmingly, with handcrafted labels, trims, and tags.

Wash, core, and slice 8 to 12 apples (Granny Smiths, or a mix of varieties) to fill a 6-quart crockpot to about 1½ inches from the top; add ½ cup of apple cider. Cook until completely soft—about the consistency of apple sauce.

Using a food processor, sieve, or Foley mill, puree the sauce. Put the mixture back into the crockpot, along with half of a fresh vanilla bean. Cook several hours on the “low” setting of your crockpot until the extra liquid cooks off and the mixture begins to thicken. (Place the lid of your crockpot slightly off kilter to allow steam to escape. This will speed up the evaporation and thickening of the mixture.)

After the apple butter begins to thicken, add ½ cup sugar and the juice of one lemon. Cook an additional 30 minutes. Stir in cinnamon to taste, plus a pinch each of ground cardamom and cloves. 

Pour into hot, sterilized jars and place in a canning bath according to your canner’s recommendations for applesauce—usually about 10 minutes.

For more ideas—sweet and savory—for cooking with vanilla, check out our February issue of the Smart Gardener.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

A Sip of Salep

Karen Z. —  March 4, 2015 — Leave a comment

We gathered around a table at the Garden View Café the other day to taste something that only one of us had ever tasted before: powdered orchid roots.

A traditional winter drink in the cafés and restaurants of Turkey, salep is made from the tuberous roots of orchids—specifically, terrestrial orchids in the genus Orchis. Dried and powdered, the resulting flour is combined in a drink mix with other ingredients, much as hot chocolate or chai spices would be: sugar, cornstarch, powdered milk, cinnamon, and vanillin (the main flavor component in vanilla) are added.

PHOTO: Salep and dendrobium orchids.

A warm cup of salep is perfect on a wintry day.

The instructions are hot-chocolate simple, too: mix 1½ tablespoons of powdered salep into 6 ounces of steamed or boiling milk. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Serve in small cups.

Our lesson in salep came from the one person who had not only tasted salep before but had grown up drinking it—horticulturist Ayse Pogue, who hails from Istanbul.

PHOTO: Horticulturist Ayse Pogue

Horticulturist Ayse Pogue

Salep is not readily available in America; it arrived here courtesy of Ayse’s mother, Figen Ormancioglu, who kindly brought it with her on a recent visit. (The family surname translates as “son of the forester”—Ayse’s love of botany is in her blood.)

What does salep taste like? “Chai,” “junipers,” and “I’ll have another glass,” were three answers; the flavor is hard for American taste buds to define. Sweet and savory and spicy all at once, there’s a note of bark or tree in it—Ayse explains that gum arabic, made from the sap of the acacia tree, is also an ingredient, one more familiar to eastern palates than western.

And what is served with salep? “Good conversation,” Ayse says, as is true of all café drink orders. Heading to Istanbul? You’ll spend $4 to $5 on a cup of salep in a city café.

Edible Orchids

We’ve been talking a lot about edible orchids recently, especially with vanilla as a prominent part of this year’s Orchid Show. While vanilla is, by far, the most well-known food produced from orchids (it’s the bean-like fruit of the vining orchid Vanilla planifolia), other orchids are eaten in different ways around the world.

  • Chikanda is a Zambian food made from pounded orchid tubers and thickened to the consistency of jelly, then served in slices.
  • Olatshe is a daily dish in Bhutan, where Cymbidium orchids are cooked with spices and cheese.
  • Some Dendrobium flowers are edible, and the bamboo-like canes are ingredients in Asian stir-fries and sauces.
  • Turkish ice cream, or dondurma, is also made from salep; some dondurma is so chewy and elastic that it can be sliced and eaten with a knife and fork.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Garden has a bright and cheery answer for overcoming classroom winter doldrums: take a field trip to see the Orchid Show

PHOTO: Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment -- they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

Students observe how orchids are adapted to the wet environment—they grow aerial roots that can absorb water from the humid air.

At a time when schools are tightening budgets and limiting field trips, you might think that an Outrageous Orchids experience is a frivolous excursion—but, in fact, this is a luxurious way to learn life science principles. Our programs are grounded in fundamental science concepts outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards. From Valentine’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day, students get meaningful science lessons as they enjoy the sensational display of colors and aromas in our Greenhouses. 

Field trips are tailored to suit different grade levels. Younger students study the variety of color and shapes found in the exhibition to identify patterns. Early elementary level students examine the structures of orchids to understand their functions. Upper elementary students recognize how tropical orchids have adaptations for survival in a rainforest. These core ideas about orchids apply to all plants and are essential for understanding ecosystems. There isn’t a more beautiful way to study plant science anywhere else in the Chicago region.

PHOTO: It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

It is easy for students to see how this flashy orchid attracts pollinators as well as people.

As if being surrounded by gorgeous flowers in the dead of winter weren’t enough to engage a person’s brain, each student also gets to transplant and take a tropical plant to continue the learning after the visit. 

The Baggie Terrarium is a mini-ecosystem that reminds students of the water cycle and enables them to observe plant growth. 

Make a Baggie Terrarium

PHOTO: Baggie terrarium.

We call this a “baggie terrarium.”


  • 1 zip-top bag (quart-size or larger)
  • Potting soil, moistened
  • A small plant or plant cutting (during Outrageous Orchids classes, we let students take a spider plant “pup” from a very large spider plant)
  1. Pour soil into the bag to fill about 2-3 inches deep. Use a finger to create a hole in the soil for the plant.
  2. Bury the roots of the plant in the hole and gently tap the soil around the base of the plant. If you are planting a stem cutting, place the stem in the soil and tamp around the base. If you have a larger bag, you can add more than one plant. Three different plants in a gallon size bag can make an attractive terrarium.
  3. Seal the bag, leaving about a 1-inch opening. Blow into the bag to inflate it and quickly seal the last inch tight so the air doesn’t all escape. The carbon dioxide in your breath is good for the plant, and will give the bag enough substance to stand up.
  4. Place the terrarium in a bright location, but not in direct sunlight. Remember that most tropical plants grow under the canopy of taller trees and do not need full sun. In fact, too much direct sun makes their leaves fade!
  5. Watch for tiny water droplets forming on the sides of the bag. These will gradually roll down the sides of the bag and re-water the soil. As long as the bag is completely sealed, it will stay moist and you will never have to open the bag or add more water. But if it dries out, you will need to water the plants.

You can leave your terrarium alone for a long time and not do anything but watch the plants grow. Eventually, they will outgrow the bag. Then you can transplant them to a pot if you like, or take cuttings and start another baggie terrarium.

Like all of our programs, Orchid Show field trips inspire young people to learn more about plants! Visit our website at for more information about these programs. 

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Victorians had it, and so do we, right here at the Lenhardt Library! A new rare book library exhibition has just opened as part of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s 2015 Orchid Show: Orchidelirium: Illustrated Orchidaceae.

ILLUSTRATION: Oncidium papilio

Oncidium papilio from A Century of Orchidaceous Plants Selected from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine: Consisting of a Hundred of the Most Worthy of Cultivations by William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865). London: Reeve and Benthem, 1851

No matter what you call it, the Victorians were mad for the sensational new plants arriving in England from every exotic location on Earth. The race was on, as botanical explorations took orchid collectors from one end of the globe to another in search of the most beautiful, rare, vibrantly colored, sensuously shaped orchids to be found. Orchid fever flared again and again, from the first time the Victorians saw a Cattleya labiata from South America (it bloomed after arriving as packing material in 1818), to the orchid display of the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, designed by gardener, architect, and member of Parliament Sir Joseph Paxton (1803–65).

And if that wasn’t enough, books, articles, and botanical journals were also devoted to the orchid.

No photography? No Internet? No matter! Botanical illustrators captured orchids in all their thought-provoking beauty, one engraving and lithograph at a time. These trained illustrators caught the clinical and technical aspects of the plants with sheer precision. After Cattleya labiata, the next Victorian orchid-on-demand was Oncidium papilio, the butterfly orchid, which is one of the most dazzling illustrations in Orchidelirium: Illustrated Orchidaceae.

ILLUSTRATION: Vanilla planifolia.

Vanilla planifolia from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine: Comprising the Plants of the Royal Gardens of Kew by Joseph Dalton Hooker (1785–1865). London: L. Reeve & Co., 1891

This year we celebrate Vanilla planifolia, an edible orchid that produces the second most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron. An entire case is devoted to the vanilla orchid—look for Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker’s Curtis’s Botanical Magazine: Comprising the Plants of the Royal Gardens of Kew, London: L. Reeve & Co., 1891.

Chocolate and vanilla lovers: don’t miss the rare plate from Zippel and Bollmann’s Ausländische Culturpflanzen in Bunten Wand-Tafeln  (Foreign Cultivated Plants in Colored Wall Panels with Explanatory Text) that was used as a tool for teaching plant anatomy. Like many of our rare orchid books and journals, this fragile plate was in much need of conservation. It was conserved through a grant by the National Endowment for Humanities; the digitized plate can be accessed online at the Illinois Digitized Archives.

ILLUSTRATION: A match made in Heaven—vanilla and chocolate together!

A match made in Heaven! Vanilla and chocolate illustrated together in this plate from Ausländische Culturpflanzen in Bunten Wand-Tafeln by Hermann Zippel and Karl Bollmann. Braunschweig: Druck und Verlag von Fredrich und Sohn, 1880–81

Orchidelirium: Illustrated Orchidaceae is open daily until April 19, 2015, with extended weekend hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) during The Orchid ShowJoin us for free library talks on Tuesday, February 24, or Sunday, March 1, at 2 p.m.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Photographing Orchids

Carol Freeman —  February 18, 2015 — 2 Comments

Compared to photographing flowers outside, photographing in the Greenhouses will be much more challenging and darker than you think.

Photograph the Orchid Show through March 15.
Tripods and monopods are allowed in the Orchid Show on Wednesdays during public exhibition hours. Enter your photos in our digital photo contest here.

It may be bright outside, but the light in the greenhouses is being filtered through glass and other plant material; be aware that it will be even darker on overcast days. Most people will be hand-holding cameras, so getting shots that are sharp will take some adjustments. Here are a few things you can try:

Use a shorter lens.

This will be a bit of a compromise, as many of the orchids are up high or hard to reach. It would be nice to use a longer lens to get photographic access to more of the flowers in the Greenhouses. However, a shorter lens—100mm or less—is easier to hand-hold, and has a better chance of capturing sharp images at a slower shutter speed. (Typically, you want to have at least 1/400th of a second for a 400mm lens, or 1/100th of a second for a 100mm lens, etc., so the shorter lens will gain you two stops in this example—a significant benefit when taking hand-held shots.)

PHOTO: Orchid.

With a limited depth of field, I chose to focus on the “face” I saw in this orchid. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Watch for what is in the background.

It is easy to be distracted by the beauty of the orchids and then get home and realize there are many unwanted elements in your photos. One easy option is to move in closer. When you get closer to the flower, you will get less background around the flower. Find flowers that are near the edge of an aisle—you will then be able to move your camera slightly up or down, or left to right, to get a pleasing background. Sometimes just an inch of movement can make all the difference.

PHOTO: Orchid.

Note the distracting window in the background. Photo ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Orchid.

By moving just a few inches to my left, I was able to get a more pleasing background for this orchid. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Increase your ISO.

Many of the newer cameras have improved sensors that let you increase the ISO and still get clean images with little noise. I like to do an ISO test before going out to shoot to see just how far I can push the ISO and still get images I find pleasing. It’s best to do this before you are on site so you will be able to review the images on a large screen and know what will be acceptable to you on the day of your visit. Every camera is different, and what may work for me may be too grainy for you. Most cameras will provide nice images in the 400 to 800 ISO range, and some can go much higher.

PHOTO: Orchids.

I was able to get a nice shot of these orchids—in a dark area—by upping my ISO to 1000. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Use your flash.

I much prefer natural lighting, but in the Greenhouses on a cloudy day, there may be no other option for getting that shot of “the most beautiful orchid you have ever seen” that is hiding in the shadows.

PHOTO: Orchids.

When using my flash, I can add some extra depth of field. Here I was able to get most of the flower sharp. Photo ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Orchids.

Sometimes using a flash is the only way to get a shot. Here I found orchids that were away from other elements, limiting the distracting effects of the flash. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Increase your depth of field.

Orchids are tricky to photograph, even in ideal conditions. Many of them are deep flowers and require a large depth of field to get a pleasing amount of the flower in focus. Increasing the depth of field, however, comes with a price, as the increased depth will often allow much of the background to be in focus as well. And in the Greenhouses, you may not want what is in the background to be in focus, especially windows, people, or other parts of the building. Hand-in-hand with depth of field is plane of focus. Many orchids have very interesting centers, almost like faces. Be sure to get those features in focus to make the whole photo look sharper.

PHOTO: Orchids.

By moving closer, you can eliminate the distracting elements from your shot. Photo ©Carol Freeman

PHOTO: Orchids.

Here I moved in even closer. I love capturing the intricate details of the orchids. Photo ©Carol Freeman

Have fun, experiment with different apertures, and get creative with composition! There is no right or wrong way to photograph these amazing flowers. They are here for your enjoyment and all that is needed is your appreciation.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and