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Installing Longwood's Orchid Columns

By Karl Gercerns, on February 6, 2009

Longwood's Exhibition Hall during Orchid Extravaganza.Longwood's Exhibition Hall during Orchid Extravaganza.

 If you've been visiting Longwood over the years then you know that we like to try new things!  Orchid Extravaganza is one of the newest seasons we've adopted and it's been met with great excitement by those who've seen all the beautiful orchids.  The dates for the 2009 display run from the end of January through the end of March with the last weekend reserved for the International Orchid Show & Sale (I'll tell you more about that in a later post!)

Feeding the Tygon tubing through the concrete octagonal base and the column. Feeding the Tygon tubing through the concrete octagonal base and the column.

Today I wanted to share with you the 'secret' of how we made the 10 incredible columns of orchids you see on the Exhibition Hall floor.  We gets lots of questions about what they're made of, how much they weigh and where the idea originated.  Let's immerse ourselves in images to illustrate the process that occurred February 2-4, 2009.

All the columns are up! All the columns are up!

Orchid Extravaganza has been in existence since 2007 and the  columns are on their third and final year for display (don't worry, we have something big planned for 2010!)  The bases are poured concrete to match the octagonal bases of the existing conservatory columns.  The cylindrical portion is made of fiberglass (we discovered wood couldn't take the moisture) and the very top of the unit is a flat round pan where the orchids are placed.  A thick Tygon tube runs from a pump (hidden behind the tree fern boxes on the edges of the floor) through the fiberglass column and attaches to the bottom the round pan.  We've fabricated a ring of copper with tiny holes around the underside of the pan to allow a 'waterfall' to drip magically from underneath the ivy.  We chose ivy to conceal the mechanics of this display.  Atop the circular pan is placed a pre-soaked block of Oasis foam (the super-big designer blocks!) Around the block of Oasis we unpotted 10-12 green ivy plants which were placed on their side to drape over the edge.  Sphagnum moss acts like planting media for the ivy since there is no additional soil placed atop the column.

The orchids (200 purple hybrid Phalaenopsis total) were purchased from a commercial orchid grower in northern California that I visited when I lived out west.  The plants are un-named hybrids with only the parents listed on the tags.  All were produced in 4" plastic pots filled with sphagnum moss.  Each plant is slightly different from it's neighbor, but the overall effect is like watching a crowd in a football stadium.  From a distance they all look the same! 

Such beauty emerges from the cotton! Such beauty emerges from the cotton!

When the orchids arrived they were packed about 25/box.  Each pot was wrapped in a plastic bag to keep the moisture in, the stems were wrapped in white cotton to protect the open flowers, and each plant was wrapped in brown paper to ensure the trip across the continent would be safe.  Even though it was 10 degrees outside,  the boxes were about 60 degrees inside thanks to tiny heat-packs inserted during packing in California. Numerous volunteers assisted in unpacking the orchids which were double 'skewered' through the bottom of the pot with a bamboo stake.  The potted plant (yes, they are all still in their pots!) was placed against the Oasis so we could push the 'skewer' stakes into the Oasis to hold them in place. After all the orchids were placed (20 per column) we inserted curly willow (Salix matsudana 'Scarlet Curls') into the top to complete the arrangement.  Fresh green moss hides all the pots and Oasis from view.

Pre-soaked Oasis ready for orchid insertion. Pre-soaked Oasis ready for orchid insertion.

The pumps will be switched on once water fills the Exhibition hall floor. (we do drain the water for functions and for cleaning)  If you're lucky to be here late in the day or on when it's very cloudy then you'll get the added enjoyment of the LED lights which shine down the columns to illuminate the water that trickles down. I hope you enjoy this perennial  Orchid Extravaganza favorite  even more now that you know how we put them together! Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes about Longwood Gardens'  Orchid Extravaganza. 

The finished product--perfection!The finished product--perfection!




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