Take a sneak peek behind-the-scenes at the Orchid Show, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s biggest flower show of the year. Buy tickets here.
We’ve rolled out the tall ladders, prepped hanging baskets with Spanish moss, and worked hard to keep 10,000 warmth-loving tropical orchids happy (including an orchid that is rarely shown in the United States, Phalaenopsis Sogo Yukidian ‘V3’; be sure to check out the unusual number of big blooms on each spike).
It’s all hands on deck for the Show, which runs February 11 to March 26, following the Members’ Preview night on Friday, February 10. Volunteers across the Garden and beyond have pitched in to help from departments including Education, Model Railroad, and Horticultural Therapy Services, along with our Woman’s Board.
It all starts with ideas from our creative team, which starts brainstorming shortly after the end of the previous year’s Orchid Show.
In the completed archway, supporting vines are woven together and attached to a hidden framework. Notice the dangling aerial roots from orchids that are epiphytes—plants that grow on trees, with above-ground rather than in-ground roots.
Sometimes, things don’t always go as planned. Work on the 13-foot high orchid “wind chime” got delayed while we waited and waited for a delivery of bamboo supports from Colombia… Luckily, the shipment arrived before the Show.
When you walk into Nichols Hall, don’t forget to look for the dozens of blooms overhead.
This year’s theme is Orchids in Vogue, a playful look at the influence of orchids in popular culture, including fashion. Last summer, senior horticulturist Salina Wunderle came up with an idea for an orchid “dress.” Now we have three design teams working on orchid dresses; come see the final result.
Think you can tell the difference between an orchid and a praying mantis? Or an orchid and a sugar flower?
See for yourself, and get ready to view 10,000 orchids in bloom at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Orchid Show, February 11 to March 26. This year’s theme, Orchids in Vogue, looks at the influence of orchids in popular culture.
Here are six fun facts on Orchidaceae—one of the largest, most diverse, and most beloved of all plant families.
Why, yes, that’s an orchid in my cocktail
Noted French chef Daniel Boulud paired with a mixologist to come up with a white cosmopolitan recipe that calls for elderflower liqueur and a frozen orchid sphere.
File this under “orchids are clever”
Researchers have discovered that a bog orchid (Platanthera obtusata) lures its pollinator—tiger mosquitoes—by giving off a smell similar to human body odor.
Have your orchid and eat it, too
London-based sugar artist Robert Haynes specializes in creating, and teaching others how to make, “botanically correct sugar flowers.”
Entomologists are studying the evolution of a praying mantis that looks like an orchid. The female Malaysian orchid mantis (Hymenopus coronatus) attracts orchid pollinators such as bees—and then eats them.
(Your name here) orchid
A Virginia orchid grower will register a new orchid hybrid in your name with the Royal Horticultural Society (the official international register) for $1,500.
Orchid boarding school
Some nurseries will care for your orchids if you’re busy or on vacation, or simply prefer to have experts raise them until the plants are ready to bloom. “As your orchid begins to send up a bloom spike, it is tenderly staked and tied, ready to return to you as it comes into bloom,” says Hamilton Orchids & Plantscapes in Sonoma, California.
Just like magic, a ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) appears overhead in a Florida swamp. Its pale roots extend like gloved fingers across the bark of a pond apple tree (Annona glabra), while its graceful flower reflects onto the shadowed water below.
Doctoral student Lynnaun Johnson wades over for a closer look. Habitat is shrinking for this reclusive orchid, and he is using a unique approach to better understand the species’ uncommon lifestyle.
During March 2016 fieldwork in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Johnson went deeper every day—even when it meant paddling his canoe within 10 feet of a sunstruck alligator to reach the widely dispersed plants. Each time he located an orchid, he looked past the plant and took a sample from the bark of its host tree.
“What I’m interested in primarily is identifying the fungi within the habitat of these particular orchids,” said Johnson. “If you are going to place a ghost orchid out in nature and it can’t acquire nutrients or it doesn’t form the right associations with mycorrhizal fungi, it’s not going to survive,” he explained. “If these trees have a particular suite of fungi, that might be something that we need to consider in terms of a healthy population.”
Species within the orchid family are generally known to depend on fungi to help them through key stages of life, such as growing from a seed into a seedling. But there are differences in how those partnerships work. When an orchid lives in soil, the fungi help move water and nutrients to and from the roots. But when the orchid lives on a tree, scientists are less certain of what occurs.
Until recently, they believed that orchids growing on trees were less likely to depend on fungi long term. This belief was encouraged by the discovery that the prominent roots of plants like the ghost orchid actually conduct photosynthesis—a process in which sunlight becomes sugar. That process is managed by leaves in many other orchid species. If the roots are so full of nutrients, do they really need any help from fungi?
They sure do, said Johnson and his collaborators, who examined the roots of another tree-bound orchid species, the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia). Using modern technology called high-throughput sequencing that can produce more detailed results than ever before, they found that epiphytic orchids—those that grow on trees—also rely on fungi to carry out essential functions. “We know the importance of photosynthesis, but that doesn’t mean if a plant is photosynthesizing it’s healthy. It means it will continue to rely on fungi to grow and develop,” said Johnson. He recently documented the presence of fungi in the roots of ghost orchid root samples from his field work.
Back in the field, Johnson wondered if the type of fungi present on certain tree species is what led the ghost orchids to select them as their home over other trees. In the Florida refuge, the orchids are found only on pond apple and pop ash trees (Fraxinus caroliniana). So during his fieldwork, he sampled both types of trees, some with and some without orchids. As a point of comparison, he also sampled the bark of bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum). He plans to conduct more fieldwork this spring before examining the bark for fungi.
The number of ghost orchids in Florida has dwindled as more and more swamps have been drained to build new housing complexes to accommodate a growing population. There have also been times when the trees in the swamps were logged.
Johnson will later examine the roots of other orchid species that neighbor the ghost orchids on trees. This will further clarify the importance of fungi to the ghost orchid, which he suspects relies on the fungi more than neighboring orchid species. He also has his eye on a population of orchids growing naturally in Cuba on a larger number of trees that he hopes to study as well.
Johnson aims to help people understand that there is more than a one-to-one relationship in nature, and that multiple partnerships contribute to the health of each species and system. For example, “if we understand the significance of host trees, then we can preserve both the host trees and epiphytic orchids at the same time,” he said.
Orchids may become a lifelong pursuit for Johnson, who moved to Illinois from his childhood home on the island of St. Lucia to pursue his studies. He hopes to specialize in the study of fungi as it relates to plants and the conservation of wild lands and waters.
There’s only one reason orchid flowers look so beautiful and smell so good: to attract a pollinator. Some orchids engage in mimicry, evolving to look like the pollinator they’re trying to lure. Other orchids look familiar to humans, even though there is no connection for the flower. There’s a word for the phenomenon, pareidolia.
Roll over each orchid to reveal its look-alike. See an array of beautiful orchids at the Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden, through March 13.
Known as the bee orchid, this species not only looks like a female bee, but it smells like one, too. Male bees land, hoping to mate, only to be fooled into transporting pollen from one flower to another.
Animals as large as a duck are too big to pollinate an orchid…but when the sawflies that are the right size land on the “beak” or labellum of the flower, their weight springs them downward into contact with the pollen.
Looks like a butterfly, is named for the butterfly (papilio is the Latin word), and flutters like a butterfly at the top of its long, delicate step. Yes, it’s pollinated by butterflies.
Orchids in the genus Dracula are called monkey orchids, but their charmingly face-like flowers are calling out to fruit fly pollinators, not to monkeys.
Spider orchids are wily—they developed the look of a spider in order to attract spider wasps as pollinators. The wasp lands on the labellum, tries to sting it, gets covered in pollen instead, and flies off to its next prey.
Look deep into the center of a dove orchid to see the tiny bird with widespread wings. When a Euglossine bee lands on the flower’s hinged lip, it trips a hinge that throws the bee against the pollen-bearing column (the head of the dove). The national flower of Panama, the dove orchid is increasingly rare.
The first time you walk under a big, lush tangle of orchid roots at the Orchid Show can be quite disconcerting—what are those big white things dangling in the air, you wonder, and how do they work?
Let’s look at those roots from a different angle, so that the next time you walk under them, you’ll know more about what you’re seeing.
They’re Called Aerial Roots
Of the 27,000-plus species of orchids on the planet, about 70 percent are epiphytes—plants that grow on trees, with above-ground rather than in-ground roots. Known as aerial roots, they act as anchors and supports as they wrap around branches and trunks, stabilizing the plant as it grows. Roots are an orchid’s lifeline, absorbing water and nutrients from the air and from the leaf litter in the tree niche it inhabits.
Orchid Roots Are Adventitious
That is, an orchid’s roots can grow along the stem of the plant, not just out of the bottom of it. The advantage of being adventitious? Plants can be propagated easily. Many orchids grow baby plantlets, called keikis, that can be removed from the mother plant along with their own set of adventitious roots.
The White Stuff Is Velamen
An aerial root should look fleshy and green; the white coating that covers it is called the velamen. Thin and rather papery, but spongy and protective, it’s a one-way water barrier that allows moisture to soak in—and keeps it from oozing out.
If the velamen appears dried or rotted, it should be stripped off up to where it’s healthy and white, leaving the wiry inner root to help stabilize the plant once it’s in the pot.
Roots Signal Plant Health
At the Orchid Show, you get to see lush, healthy roots close up. At home, your orchid’s roots will usually be contained in its pot. Roots growing out of and over the edge of a pot signal that it’s time for re-potting—which gives you the opportunity to examine your plant for overall root health. Plump, green roots look and are healthy; yellow, spotted, black, or dried out roots indicate that it’s time to re-think how you’re caring for your orchid.
Roots Can Rot
Overwatering is the number one threat to an orchid plant. Orchid roots rot easily if given too much water—with no switch to prevent roots from pulling in excess water, the plant can drown if left standing in a full saucer. That’s one reason why orchid pots typically have extra drainage holes.
To correctly water an orchid, remove the pot from its saucer to the sink. Run water gently but thoroughly through the plant for a minute or two. Then allow the plant to drain completely before returning it to its saucer; repeat weekly.
Orchid roots are awesome! Come see for yourself at the Orchid Show, running through March 13, 2016.