a zoomed in photograph of a vibrant purple orchid bloom

Specimens of Beauty

By Greg Griffis, on

With its fresh new perspective and design reminiscent of a tropical paradise, our spectacular Winter Wonder season transports guests to a warm and colorful world under glass. Here in our Conservatory, plants of varied color, texture, and fragrance nestled in our planting beds, artfully arranged in our containers, and soaring overhead in hanging baskets are creatively showcased in unique plant combinations. Among those vibrant plants and flowers are our fantastic specimen orchids featured in container plantings throughout the East Conservatory. This frequently-changing display of specimen orchids during Winter Wonder gives our guests the chance to see some of the most spectacular and unusual selections from our collection of approximately 5,500 orchids. As Longwood’s orchid grower, I’m so pleased to see these specimen orchids shine amid the surrounding beauty of the East Conservatory … and with a variety of specimen orchids now on view—with most on view for only the next two weeks—now is the time to see firsthand the beautiful complexities and intricacies of some of our most interesting orchids.

With more than 3,000 accessions, orchids comprise our largest single collection at Longwood. Our orchid collection dates back to our founders, Pierre S. and Alice du Pont, who from the 1920s to 1940s purchased orchids extensively from American growers, as well as growers in India, Thailand, the Caribbean, England, France, and Belgium. Today, approximately 225 plants remain from du Pont’s original orchid purchases.

Over the years, other orchid enthusiasts and organizations have given to Longwood’s collection. In the early 1950s, the estate of Ethel du Pont gave her personal collection of 2,314 plants, mainly from the Cattleya alliance of related botanical genera, to Longwood. Dr. Sam Breit of Australia gave 184 orchids in the mid-1980s, including a large Dendrobium speciosum var. grandiflora. In 2001, Mt. Cuba Center offered 274 orchids, a significant portion of Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland’s personal collection and a few years ago Longwood volunteer and orchid lover Duane Erdmann contributed 236 of his own species and selections. In 2017, Longwood was offered the award-winning, diverse plant collection from the estate of Dorrance ‘Dodo’ Hamilton, a longtime and avid supporter of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society. As a result of this incredibly generous gesture, Longwood acquired more than 100 specimen conservatory plants and 50 orchids.

Grown and nurtured throughout the years, our vast orchid collection includes a wide range of tropical and hardy species, cultivars, and hybrid selections of orchids. Most orchids only flower once a year, but when they do, many stay in flower for two to six weeks or more. Now on view in our rotating specimen orchid display are some fantastic examples that beautifully illustrate the depth and variety of our collection.

Here are the specimen orchids that should be on view through the next two weeks:

Dendrobium kingianumJane Pepper

Native to eastern Australia, our Dendrobium kingianum ‘Jane Pepper’ was given a clonal name to honor President of the Longwood Gardens Board of Trustees Jane Pepper.  This orchid endures hot summers and cool winters and has a tendency to grow keikis (baby plants) from the tops of the pseudobulbs, which leads to a clumping, mounding plant that tends to grow rather large. Ours has formed a beautiful sphere, is incredibly floriferous, and features bright purple flowers that are a sight to behold.

Our Dendrobium kingianum ‘Jane Pepper’ was awarded by the American Orchid Society at the 2009 Philadelphia Flower Show for its size and floriferousness. Photo by Duane Erdmann.

Dendrobium x delicatum

This beautiful orchid happens to be a naturally occurring hybrid of Dendrobium kingianum and Dendrobium speciosum, even though it was once thought to be a unique species. This hybrid tends to resemble a very large Dendrobium kingianum in stature and flower shape and size, but the flower colors are intermediate between the two parents, ranging in color from white to magenta. This orchid is native to southeastern Australia where it grows naturally on rocks … here at Longwood, we feature three large pots of this orchid. 

In Dendrobium x delicatum, the purple color is retained by the backs of the flowers while the fronts of the petals are white. Photo by Duane Erdmann.

 Laelia undulata

Laelia undulata (syn. Schomburgkia undulata) is a large species that grows on trees in dry forests in Columbia, Trinidad, and Venezuela. This spectacular large-sized epiphyte (a plant that grows on another plant, but does not take nourishment from it) supports a cluster of medium sized flowers in a near spherical shape that challenges the photographer to get a picture of just one bloom. We acquired this amazing plant in 1956.

The name Laelia undulata refers to the undulating nature of its petals and sepals, which have waves along the edges. Photo by Fred Zwiebel.

Stenorrhychos speciosum

We acquired this South American native in 2017 as part of Ms. Hamilton’s gift to Longwood. This semi-deciduous plant has basal rosettes which die off over time as new ones emerge from the base. It is a slow grower, only doubling in size about once every year and a half, with “painted” leaves of silver-white spots or streaks, depending on the clone. The flowers themselves have red sepals with white petals and a white lip, creating a strongly contrasting flower.

A South American native, Stenorrhychos speciosum features small white splotches on its foliage, as well as a floral spike with red bracts. Photo by Duane Erdmann. 

Over the next two weeks, come see these beautiful specimen orchids for yourself to get just a glimpse at the depth and variety of our amazing orchid collection.

If you’d like to learn more about different types of orchids from Cattleya and Dendrobium to Oncidium and Paphiopedilum, delve into native orchid conservation and breeding at Longwood, and discover how you can grow and enjoy orchids in your own garden, register for our online, self-paced Everything About Orchids Essentials course.

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