It’s the time of year that I anticipate more than any other at Longwood Gardens—Orchid Extravaganza is back for a triumphant expression of beauty through March 25, 2018. Our Conservatory is always filled with color, texture, form, and surprise, but when dozens of Longwood horticulturists are invited to express their passion for orchids (combined with an incomparable level of dedication and creativity), you have something that truly transcends description. Under the sparkling glass ceiling of the historic Orangery are a half-dozen opulent orbs boasting a bounty of blooms in the purest white. Chartreuse Cymbidium orchids sprout from an orange carpet of Seemannia to create a moment that will take your breath away.
As you gaze upon orchids above you and glance at those near your feet, it’s no surprise to find hundreds right beside you as well. The stately columns that provide so much architectural strength to the Conservatory are draped in a vertical tapestry of diverse hybrids in almost every color imaginable. You’ll soon find a favorite—whether it’s a solid pink one or a spotted white orchid—the choices and colors are so great, it’s enough to put you in a daze! In the distance you’ll spot our iconic Orchid Curtain which is composed of so many moth orchids that I simply lost count as I inspected its titian glow surrounding the Music Room doors.
As I saunter down the elegant Acacia Passage, I’m reminded of the gift of Longwood given to us all by our founder, Pierre S. du Pont. Both he and his wife, Alice, were founding members of the American Orchid Society in the 1920s, a legacy we celebrate today. Purple and white Cattleya orchids were a big part of their original collection and we emblazon this narrow hallway with dozens of specimens for appreciation and reflection along the way.
In the surrounds of the Palm House I’m reminded of the naturalistic growth habit of the tropical species of orchids in our displays. Wild orchids have roots that cling tightly to trunks of trees, but it’s the contrasting leaves and flowers that arch so very far out that get all the attention! The floral display’s purpose? To attract pollinators in the jungle and delight guests in the garden.
Our orchid collection consists of more than 6,000 individual plants that rotate through our displays all year long. It’s only in the winter months that you’ll be able to experience one of the most intriguing orchids in cultivation, × Fredclarkeara After Dark ‘SVO Black Pearl’. This near-black enigma sheds its foliage in autumn and then erupts with the most seductive show of sepals and petals on short, arched stems. It’s a stunner and one you won’t soon forget!
Longwood is more than just a collection of plants. We’re extremely proud of our collection of great designs by some of the world’s best garden designers. The Cascade Garden was conceived from the imagination of Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. His use of water, stone, hardscape, and lush plantings has created a space like no other. With our embellishment of golden tinted Oncidium orchids, you’re sure to find yourself slowing down a bit to take in the sights and sounds of this gem of a garden.
Almost equal in size to the Cascade Garden is the Tropical Terrace. This garden is closely representative of a warm and moist rainforest with fantastic foliage filling the spaces. Shade is in abundance on the floor of the rainforest, and we’ve picked up on that dim light with shades of burgundy, merlot, and carmine in the tropical lady’s slipper orchids displayed here. This might be one of the most striking displays in which the orchids and accompanying tropical plants play so perfectly off one another. Stop by and take a look for yourself. You won’t be disappointed at the level of detail in both the flower and foliage combinations here.
One of the joys of conservatory gardening is the pure fantasy that you can live out under the protection of a garden roof. The Silver Garden is one of the most sophisticated designs we curate, and it’s only during this time of year that we layer onto the original plan an additional “roof” of Vanda orchids. The silvery roots that hang freely from fans of foliage are the perfect complement for this arid landscape. The light, open, and airy appearance of the orchids fits the look of the garden, while the care of the orchids is completely opposite that of the desert plants underneath. This combination can only happen at a place like Longwood.
As I wander along the walkways in the Conservatory, a number of pop-up orchid inspirations come into view. The Garden Path is very near the indoor Children’s Garden and sometimes gets overlooked by those seeking the fountain-filled excitement of its neighboring space. For those that truly want a taste of subtle sophistication, the container combinations in this space are for you. Color and contrast are met with floral form and flair in an enchanting expression of horticultural prowess. This is one of the gardens where I draw my greatest inspirations for future displays. The fearless use of color in this space can open your mind to the limitless possibilities that await!
As I leave the expressive Garden Path and make my way to the grandeur of the East Conservatory, it’s most impressive to find our orchid arch framing one of the most important plants in our collection, Encephalartos woodii. The lonely King of Our Conservatory, this impressive plant comes with a story that reminds us of the importance of conservation around the world.
The distant view through our arch offers a glimpse of the largest orchid orbs we have on display this year. A plethora of purple Phalaenopsis draws your eye to the Patio of Oranges where you can sit and reflect on the countless orchid colors and shapes you discovered during your visit.
Be sure to engage with Longwood staff members and volunteers—we’re here to make your visit as enjoyable and informative as we can. There are stories to share about where many of our orchids come from, including giant cascade Phalaenopsis Sogo Yukidian ‘V3’, direct from Taiwan. Individual flowers span more than 6 inches across on a single spike that measures almost 3 feet from end to end. You won’t be seeing blooms like this on the orchids you pick up at the local stores!
Come to enjoy, relax, and learn about the beauty of the orchids on display during Orchid Extravaganza. It’s a time when you can feel the warm glow of the sun shining inside while it’s still cold outdoors. Refresh your spirit and revive your senses any day of the week. If you’re anything like me, once you experience Longwood you’ll keep coming back. I’ve been enjoying my daily visits for 20 years now.
Photos by Karl Gercens.