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Our Vital Volunteers

By Mary Jane Pahls, on February 14, 2017

Orchids are one of Longwood Gardens’ oldest and largest plant collections, with more than 2,200 different hybrids and species. On any given day, several hundred blooms are on display in the Orchid House in the Conservatory. For the past two years, this extensive and historic collection has been managed by Greg Griffis, Longwood’s orchid grower. As Greg acknowledges, a lot of work is required to keep all these orchids healthy and flourishing, and he relies on the help of a team of dedicated volunteers. I’m privileged to be one of them!

“My volunteers are an extension of my hands,” says Greg, “doing nearly everything I do: maintaining the display, keeping inventories, repotting and weeding, cleaning and organizing the greenhouses ... the list goes on. Certain tasks, such as grooming the orchids, are performed almost entirely by volunteers, which frees me up for other responsibilities, such as teaching and administrative duties! It would be impossible to get everything done without my wonderful volunteers.”

Greg thinks of his 13 volunteers in certain categories. Some work primarily with the orchid display and display changes, some work with specific genera of orchids (namely the Disa and Cattleya orchids), a few are “anything” people who can jump on any task, and one volunteer even comes in on weekends to clean and sterilize the display labels.

Here I am placing newly blooming orchids on display. Photo by volunteer photographer Heather Coletti.Here I am placing newly blooming orchids on display. Photo by volunteer photographer Heather Coletti.

Working on the display is my main job as an orchid volunteer. The display is refreshed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays by volunteers who have been trained by Greg in all the steps. We begin by surveying the five orchid greenhouses to select plants that are in full bloom and exemplify the best characteristics of that particular orchid type. Once the chosen plants are gathered, we label them and take them to the Potting Shed for “grooming.” We support the stems and blossoms with stakes, remove any brown or yellowing leaves, and clean up the orchid pots. Then we transport the orchids to the display area in the Orchid House, where we exchange plants whose blooms are past their prime with fresh ones. There is a certain amount of aesthetics involved in arranging the plants by color, size, and fullness to create a display that is pleasing to the eye. Once we feel that we’ve done our best, we take the orchids that have come off the display back to the Potting Shed and clean them up, removing the spent flowers and any debris that has collected in the pot. Finally, the orchids go back to their respective greenhouses to be nourished and cared for until their next flowering.

Disa hybrid. Photo by volunteer photographer Duane Erdmann.Disa hybrid. Photo by volunteer photographer Duane Erdmann.

If you happen by Longwood’s Potting Shed on a Tuesday, you might notice someone bent over a microscope wielding a pair of tweezers. This is Karin Congello, one of the orchid specialist volunteers, who germinates and replants Disa seedlings. Karin explains why she comes in every week to care for these uncommon and beautiful orchids. “The Disa is a rare orchid of South Africa, and Longwood Gardens is one of the few places in the US that have been able to grow and reproduce the genus. It brings me great satisfaction and pleasure to grow the Disa from its dust-like seed to a blooming plant in just 2 to 3 years.” As you can imagine, this work takes great patience as well as skill!

Jane tending to the orchids on display in the Orchid House. Photo by volunteer photographer Laura Richardson.Jane tending to the orchids on display in the Orchid House. Photo by volunteer photographer Laura Richardson.

On Thursdays the orchids are cared for by Jane Yeksigian, who waters and cleans up the display in addition to helping Greg with ongoing chores such as repotting orchids, sorting and filing labels, and keeping order in the greenhouses. Taking part in all the behind-the-scenes activity offers many intangible benefits, says Jane. “Working with orchids provides a sense of peace and tranquility. I have the pleasure of watching thousands of plants of diverse species mature and blossom.”

Marie Viallet is one of Greg’s “anything” people and one of Longwood’s longest-serving and most experienced orchid volunteers. “Orchids have always been my passion, and Longwood has allowed me to enrich my knowledge,” says Marie. “Most important, I’m able to transmit my enthusiasm to students (the future generation of growers), guests, other volunteers, and staff.

“Weeding, staking flowers, tying pseudobulbs, watering, and more weeding—such is the life of an orchid volunteer. It’s all worthwhile when I see well-groomed, blooming orchids. No one can walk through Longwood’s orchid display without breaking into a smile.”