Squirrel Hill orchid grower's collection celebrated at Phipps event

| Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Barbara Tisherman begins each day in the greenhouse of her Squirrel Hill home.

Built 42 years ago, the two light-filled rooms contain dozens of orchids, including some seldom seen outside mountain jungles and tropical rainforests.

Many have been used in prize-winning exhibits and have been photographed for magazines. Tisherman's skill in cultivating and showing these exotic plants has earned her an international reputation.

On Oct. 5, Tisherman will be feted at the Super Slipper Celebration at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland, an event that will mark the launch of the Barbara Tisherman Slipper Orchid Collection.

Proceeds from the all-day festivities and evening gala will help seed the collection, which is intended as a living museum of some of the world's rarest and most admired plants. They are expected to include a Paphiopedilum variety recently named for Tisherman and registered with the Royal Horticultural Society at Kew Gardens in London.

Although there are many kinds of slipper orchids, all have a distinct pouchlike bloom that resembles a lady's shoe.

Developing a collection is the most ambitious undertaking to date of the Phipps-Orchid Society Initiative, which represents a formal partnership between Phipps and the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania.

The goal is to acquire and show all species of slipper orchids, including important historical hybrids, for enjoyment, education and research, says Demetria Marsh, a past Orchid Society president and the visionary behind the endeavor.

“We're focusing on slipper orchids because they are popular with Pittsburgh growers, and because a slipper-orchid collection is doable. There are thousands of species of orchids in the world, but just several hundred slipper varieties,” says Marsh, who lives Downtown. “The other big reason is the Slipper Orchid Alliance is based here. Barbara founded it in 1999.”

The alliance, which now has an international membership, is just one of Tisherman's contributions to orchid-growing and conservation. She is a prize-winning exhibitor, board member and past president of the Orchid Society and a judge of shows on local, national and international levels.

Although Tisherman worked briefly as a commercial grower, all of her work to advance orchid awareness and preservation is as a volunteer.

Many successful growers credit Tisherman with helping them get started.

“Barbara has always been interested in people learning from her,” says Carolyn Bolton of Jefferson Hills, co-chairwoman of the Oct. 5 event. “It's how I began to learn when I joined OSWP many years ago. I'd go to her greenhouse a couple of days a week and help her repot. As we were working, she'd teach me about each plant.

“When I looked for orchids to purchase, she guided me,” Bolton says. “I remember buying an orchid she recommended — a Paphiopedilum tuxedo — that we used in exhibits that won awards. When you learn from Barbara, you learn from the best.”

Tisherman grew up in the state of Indiana and moved to Pittsburgh as a young girl. The first plants she ever grew were gladioli in the family garden, because her father gave her some corms.

She found she had a green thumb, but it wasn't until 1971, when she was a housewife raising three children, that she received her first two orchids and discovered her true passion.

“They were a gift, and I had no idea what to do with them,” she says. “I loved going to Phipps to look at orchids, but I'd never thought of owning one. You didn't see orchids in stores back then the way you do today.”

To learn how to care for them, Tisherman joined the Orchid Society and soon became active. “I wanted knowledge,” she says. “And I'm a joiner.”

Her greenhouse that was built for a variety of plants gradually became crowded with orchids.

Tisherman began designing exhibits — some as large as 150 square feet — that include waterfalls and other naturalistic elements.

“You prepare for weeks,” says Tisherman, who has won dozens of trophies over the years. “Because you're dealing with live plants, you're captive to when they bloom. You don't have as much freedom as you would with cut flowers.”

She rents a U-Haul to truck plants and other materials to exhibit halls and relies on help from a team of friends. “It's hard work, but it's also fun,” she says. “I tell my team, ‘If it isn't fun, we shouldn't be doing it.'”

As a judge, Tisherman is accredited by the American Orchid Society. She was chairwoman of the National Capitol Judging Center in Washington, D.C., for five years, and also has judged at six World Orchid Conferences, which are held every three years.

At the 20th world conference in Singapore in 2011, she organized and presided over a precedent-setting meeting of about 100 slipper enthusiasts.

“There's such a desire for education, a yearning for knowledge,” Tisherman says.

There also is a need for orchid conservation in the wild, since the world is losing many of its rainforests and other orchid habitat to development. “Jungles are being turned into croplands, and orchids are being lost in the process,” says Tisherman.

Smuggling of rare plants for sale on the black market is another big problem, she says.

Slippers are especially at risk because, unlike other kinds of orchids, they cannot be cloned in a lab. They can be reproduced only by seed or vegetative division, which are labor-intensive processes.

Having a home at Phipps will help preserve the genetic material of many varieties for propagation and research, Tisherman says.

Apart from the science of orchid cultivation, a public collection will inspire more people to try orchid-growing at home, she hopes.

“Slippers aren't found in stores as much as, say, phalaenopsis, but many can be grown on a window sill. You don't need a greenhouse to do it.”

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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