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Orchids brighten winter's grays at Phipps exhibit, which also features tropical bonsai

| Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, 8:58 p.m.
At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, specimens of Frank Sarris orchids are on display in the Frank Sarris Orchid Room, Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. The Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show opens at the Oakland attraction on January 12th, and runs through February 24th. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Matt Urian checks over the bonsai inside the Serpentine Room, Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. The Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show opens at the Oakland attraction on January 12th, and runs through February 24th. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, specimens of the New Cinderella 'Fangtastic' orchids are on display in the Frank Sarris Orchid Room, Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. The Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show opens at the Oakland attraction on January 12th, and runs through February 24th. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, specimens of the Golden Beauty 'Fairy Tale,' orchids are on display in Palm Court, Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. The Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show opens at the Oakland attraction on January 12th, and runs through February 24th. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Amy Caplan, of Point Breeze, and her daughter, Ava Sophia, 1 1/2, take in the sights inside the Frank Sarris Orchid Room, Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. The Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show opens at the Oakland attraction on January 12th, and runs through February 24th. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Ben Dunigan, assistant curator of horticulture, arranges cymbidium orchids inside Palm Court, Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. The Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show opens at the Oakland attraction on January 12th, and runs through February 24th. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, specimens of the Golden Beauty 'Fairy Tale,' orchids are on display in Palm Court, Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. The Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show opens at the Oakland attraction on January 12th, and runs through February 24th. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, specimens of the Phalaenopsis orchids are on display in the Frank Sarris Orchid Room, Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. The Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show opens at the Oakland attraction on January 12th, and runs through February 24th. Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review

If you can't steal away to a warm and sunny clime, the next best escape may be an afternoon at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland, where the Orchids and Tropical Bonsai Show opens Saturday.

Slated to run through Feb. 24, the exhibit features hundreds of exotic plants to delight the senses and provide respite from the mid-winter blahs.

“Orchids inspire with their color and fragrance, and bonsai instill a sense of inner peace,” says Ben Dunigan, Phipps' assistant curator of horticulture. “We've combined them in a single show because they represent horticulture in some of its most highly evolved forms.

“We focused on the tropics because this is such a cold, gray time of year.”

Visitors will be treated to a profusion of orchids in baskets, beds and cascading tree forms that include Phipps' huge permanent collection and new plants brought in for the show.

“We've ‘souped up' our orchids room with 30 different types of lady slippers,” Dunigan says. “The Palm Court — our marquee room — will have vignettes and little sculptured trees created to showcase the more-exotic varieties.”

The Sunken Garden will feature baskets hanging at eye level, so showgoers can experience orchids as they might in a jungle in the wild, Dunigan says.

Unlike other plants, most orchids are epiphytes, meaning they grow not in soil but above-ground, often in the leaf matter and moss that collect in trees.

And while they proliferate naturally on just about every continent, growing them from seed in pots requires expert skill, Dunigan says. “It is incredibly difficult, because some seeds are so tiny it would take half a million to equate to the size of an aspirin tablet.”

Most orchids require a symbiotic relationship with fungi to germinate and specific insects for pollination. “Many orchids produce flowers that resemble the insects they need for propagation,” says Demetria Marsh of Sewickley, a past president of the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania, which helps Phipps maintain its orchid collection.

“The insects get fooled into thinking they're mating with another insect but, in fact, they are picking up pollen on one flower and taking it to the next.”

In addition to wild orchids — and there are nearly 30,000 known species — botanists have created more than 100,000 hybrids, making orchids the largest plant family in the world, Marsh says.

Among the more unusual are black orchids, such as Fdk. After Dark ‘SVO Black Peark' FCC/AOS, an award-winning hybrid now blooming at Phipps that took decades to develop.

Other show-stoppers include Phipps assortment of Vanda orchids, South Pacific natives known for their proficient jewel-toned blooms, Dunigan says. “They have these wild-looking root structures that hang down from trees and huge sprays of orange, purple and red flowers.

“What makes them interesting, besides their intense colors, is that very little bark goes with them,” says Dunigan, referring to the bark chips that are the growing medium for most orchids in pots.

While orchids are visual delights, many also are celebrated for their fragrance, including those that produce coconut and chocolate-scented blooms. They are part of the Phipps' exhibit, along with vanilla orchids, whose beans are used to flavor ice cream, baked goods and other products.

“The variety and amazing number of orchids make this a very special show,” says Marsh, who will present a series of informal weekend talks. “Flowers range from 116th of an inch — very tiny — to 5 inches across, and each one is a work of art. Altogether, they create a mass of color you won't see anywhere else.”

In contrast to orchids, bonsai are prized for their austerity, and Phipps' entire tropical collection is on display, offering an up-close encounter with this ancient art of growing trees and woody ornamentals in miniature form.

Bonsai originated in China at about 706 A.D. and was embraced by the Japanese, who perfected it.

“For the grower, bonsai is a meditative type of horticulture, a way to achieve a Zen-like state by focusing on replicating a plant as it appears in nature but in a size you can control,” Dunigan explains. “It requires constant tending and care.

“For the viewer, bonsai evokes quiet enjoyment … an opportunity to contemplate every detail of a woodland setting they might have experienced in a visit to a forest.”

Bonsai translates from the Japanese as basin (bon) planting (sai). Choosing the right tray is essential to cultivating tiny trees and shrubs, Dunigan says. “Most bonsai pots don't go deeper than 3 inches. Some are just an inch deep. And then you constantly prune both the roots and the shoots to confine growth to that small space.”

Bonsai have all the characteristics of their full-size counterparts, and everything in the setting is done to scale. “You want to create the illusion of age,” adds Pittsburgh Bonsai Society President David Metzgar, who will dispel some of the mysteries of bonsai in a series of talks at Phipps.

“You can grow bonsai from seed, although that takes a long time,” says Metzgar, of Murrysville. “Most growers start with small shoots commonly found at nurseries or harvested from their own yards.”

Many woody plants can be trained as bonsai, but varieties traditionally include Japanese hornbeams and maples, junipers, black and Scotch pines, boxwoods and other broadleaf evergreens, and ornamentals such as azaleas.

Phipps' tropical bonsai include Chinese banyan, cow okra, purple-flowering grewia, and a Calamondin orange, which yields fruit the size of cherry tomatoes.

One of the show's more prized specimens is a fig (Ficus benjamina) tree grown for the U.S. bicentennial of 1976 by the late John Naka, a bonsai master who is regarded as the father of American bonsai, Dunigan says. “Many of his bonsai are in the National Arboretum, so one of his pieces is something to treasure.”

Other specimens represent the work of the late Keith Scott, one of the principal early members of the Pittsburgh Bonsai Society, which was founded in 1957, soon after bonsai were being introduced to America by Japanese immigrants and U.S. military officers returning from Occupied Japan.

“The first ‘Karate Kid' movie turned people back onto bonsai in the 1980s, and they've been discovering it ever since,” says Metzger. “We're seeing interest among young gardeners.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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