A World of Orchids at Selby Gardens

Nature

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY OCT 13, 2017

The Conservatory at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has reopened to the public with the debut of a new botanical exhibition, The Orchid Show: Earth, Air, Fire, Water. Though closed for only a brief period, the inside of the Conservatory appears transformed, showcasing the diversity and adaptability of the Orchidaceae family through distinct habitats created by Selby Gardens staff, including volcanic landscapes, misty pools and the mighty Mount Selby rising up in the middle, complete with cascading waterfall. Across the campus, inside Payne Mansion, the other side of The Orchid Show revels in both the science and art of botanical taxonomy through illustrations, pressed and preserved specimens and even an autographed work by Charles Darwin.

Entering the Conservatory, the eco-tour begins with Air. Around 70 percent of all orchids are epyphitic (air plants), meaning they cannot gather water and nutrients from the soil, and instead must adapt other methods of collection. To demonstrate this, Selby staff repurposed a tree set for removal, sawing it into pieces so that it could fit through the door and then reassembling it inside “like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Mike McLaughlin, director of horticulture at Selby Gardens. Epyphitic orchids teeming on the branches recreate the leaf effect, while great blowing fans emphasize the orchids’ scattershot method of reproduction—spewing countless tiny seeds into the air in the hope that a few will find a suitable landing. Turning to Mount Selby (Earth), lithophytic orchids (rock-growers) find their purchase along slick, rock faces.

Moving past Mount Selby, dangling orchids such as the rattlesnake orchid with its tiny blooms and long ropy inflorescence or the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis and its broad drooping leaves reveal the family’s variety—and sometimes devious nature. Pollenated by scavengers and carrion-feeders, the Bulbophyllum takes on a reddish appearance like an old carcass and emits a similar odor as well when blooming. “Plants are almost smart,” says McLaughlin, “and that’s a sneaky orchid.”

Though no orchid seems to enjoy a close encounter with an open flame, all owe quite a bit to the Sun, or, as McLaughlin puts it, “the big fire in the sky.” And some do thrive in volcanic terrain, reveling in the heat and deriving nutrient from ash. One particular Australian orchid even relies on smoke for germination. In an artful array of fiery red blooms, igneous rock and a dangling driftwood sun, The Orchid Show pays homage. And all along the northern wall, crawling mists sweep over orchids in what is the most reliable form of hydration many of them can ever expect.

On the other side of the grounds, the Payne Mansion houses the other half of the exhibition, where botanical illustrations joined pressed specimens, both framed on the wall as artistic and scientific counterpoints. Nearby, preserved specimens float like organic sculptures. It’s a blurring of lines, says curator Dr. David Berry, that presents the scientific in an artistic context and vice versa. “The change in context encourages people to look at them in a different way,” he says. Encased in glass, attendees can also view historical artifacts from pioneering taxonomists like Carl Linnaeus and Charles Darwin, and take a gander at a preserved moth much like the one that vindicated Darwin’s theories 16 years after his death.

The Orchid Show: Earth, Air, Fire, Water will be on display through Nov. 26, with “Orchid Evenings” every Wednesday, where guests can pay for an twilight experience with open bar and dinner and more orchids than they know what to do with.

Pictured: The majestic Mount Selby rises in the middle of the 2017 Orchid Show at Selby Gardens. Photo by Phil Lederer.

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