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Moth orchid’s ascent overshadows alluring varieties

The moth orchid
The moth orchid MCT

It’s hard not to like beautiful moth orchids, even if they are cloned by the millions and are so ubiquitous that they don’t just decorate our lives, they infuse them.

They are named for the way their floral sprays suggest moths, though when I study them, I don’t see a winged insect but a (usually) white, crystalline shield around an intricate flower.

With every gaze, I also feel compelled to tell everyone that as lovely as a phalaenopsis is, to give it its botanic name, there are so many other pretty orchids out there worth getting to know. More than 10,000 species of birds inhabit the planet, but there are at least twice that many orchid species. So to think of the orchid world just in terms of phalaenopsis is akin to regarding the avian world solely in terms of ducks.

Consider the oncidium, whose delicate sideways sprays of vivid blooms suggest a model mobile by Alexander Calder. Or the ruffled trumpet of the corsage orchid, the cattleya. Among terrestrial orchids, none is more enticingly sinister than the bulbous, wine-colored slipper orchid. It’s the orchid Count Dracula would keep, if he weren’t sleeping all day.

The moth orchid has become predominant because growers have perfected its mass propagation and because it will endure more casual care than others. You may not need a fancy greenhouse to grow the other orchids, but you have to be more diligent about their watering and feeding, as well as temperature and light tolerances.

Maybe it’s time to venture beyond the world of moths. Or maybe you just want to get a sense of a broader orchid universe, in which case this is your moment.

Many tropical orchids are in peak bloom during our late winter, making February and March prime time for orchid shows. You can go to conservatories in most big cities at this time of year to get your orchid fix. These include the New York Botanical Garden, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Missouri Botanical Garden,the Phipps Conservatory and the Atlanta Botanical Garden, to name a few. In Washington, the annual orchid show organized jointly by the Smithsonian and the U.S. Botanic Garden opens at the botanic garden’s conservatory. “Orchid Spectrum” runs until April 8. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens holds Orchid Month in March, which features tours of the orchid collection in the greenhouse as well as workshops.

I did my orchid peeping in the capacious, ornate glasshouses of Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where “Orchid Extravaganza” runs until March 25. I asked my guide, Longwood’s orchid expert Greg Griffis, how can we break out of the phalaenopsis rut?

He took me to the Cascade Garden, a small gallery within the greenhouses marked by Amazonian rain forest plants. A cluster of creamy yellow blossoms hovered above a bed of red-tipped bromeliads. This is a variety named Lemon Drop, a type of oncidium orchid.

Oncidium orchids lend themselves to growing in the home because they fall into the middle of ranges for light, temperature and watering, he said. “Most orchids bloom on new growth, and one of the nice things about oncidiums is they produce multiple leaves so it’s easier to have multiple flowers,” he said.

Bill McLaughlin, plant curator at the U.S. Botanic Garden, said oncidiums have some of the most convoluted parentage in the whole byzantine orchid breeding world, but that genetic soup works for them in their ability to survive as a houseplant rather than pampered on the greenhouse bench.

But back to Dracula. I asked Griffis to show me some tropical slipper orchids, and he led me to the winding path in a small, lush jungle called the Tropical Terrace, where two great colonies of the orchids known as paphiopedilums were clustered. The first group was of the deep purple types -- collectors call them vinicolor -- near the top of the winding path. At the bottom, there were brighter white and light green versions veering toward yellow. This is a rarer group that includes blooms in red and honey colors. It has taken breeders more than half a century to produce these, Griffis said. “They can flower horribly deformed and the next year be perfect,” he said. It sounds like the purple ones are the slippers to wear at home. The culture is fairly easy, he said. They like it warm, shaded and on the humid side -- an east window would be a good bet. He recommends growing them in a soil mix of quarter-inch bark, perlite and fine charcoal. They like their roots moist but not soaking wet.

If you like cymbidiums -- I find the blooms lost in the thicket of their upright leaves -- they are happy to spend the summers outside in the shade. The trick is to leave them out in the fall, waiting until before the first frost to bring them in. They need that chilling to initiate their winter flowering, Griffis said.

The show in Washington is themed around color and the ecology of orchids in the wild. In a world of the moth orchid, “people are not grasping that the orchid family contains over 20,000 species and they grow everywhere, except in the Arctic,” McLaughlin said.

Part of the fun of going to a show is to see orchids that are fussy and need the right environments and skilled care. In other words, don’t try this at home. The cattleya, indescribably luxuriant in its color and display, needs bright light, high humidity and other special requirements. “They’re not great houseplants,” McLaughlin said. “I have to say, their colors are amazing.”

Although they are tree-dwellers, cattleyas are exquisitely presented in containers in the Acacia Passage at Longwood, a glass hallway also marked by flowering, scented acacias. In an adjoining gallery called the Silver Garden, vanda orchids are arranged almost as an art installation, more than 200 aloft on wires in a handful of intensely blue varieties. The roots hang down like Rapunzel’s hair.

Because vandas draw their moisture from the jungle fog, their roots need continual misting, as much as three times a day. That’s every day. Cancel your vacation.

But perhaps the greatest value of a show like this is to see how the gardeners and designers elevate the lowly moth orchid, which is done by planting them en masse -- 600 yellow and white flowering varieties alone on the 12-foot entrance arch in the East Conservatory. The show was designed by Longwood’s James Sutton.

In the Fern Passage, I find cascades of moth orchids unlike anything you will see at the grocery store -- the flower spikes are four feet or more and with 30 huge blooms on them. This is achieved by stopping them from flowering for as long as five years, Griffis said. When they are let off the leash, they go to town.

At the entrance to the conservatory’s Music Room, 350 moth orchids are planted in moss-draped gutters, 22 rows of them, to form a curtain. They are all the same, a delightfully patterned variety named Baldan’s Kaleidoscope. The bloom is golden with a tracery of magenta venation. The archways demonstrate once again that the moth orchid may be common, but it’s never vulgar.

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