Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania show at Phipps Garden Center brings taste of spring

| Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 5:56 p.m.

A tropical retreat will be in bloom at the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania's annual show March 15 and 16 at Phipps Garden Center in Shadyside.

Free and open to the public, “Orchids, Gems of the Plant World” will feature a juried exhibit of hundreds of exotic plants, vendors from as far as Ecuador, informal lectures and special programs for photographers.

Visitors can learn from the region's top orchid growers and revel in flowers from warmer climes at a time of year when a colorful pick-me-up is most needed, says show chairwoman and orchid society past-President Carolyn Bolton of Jefferson Hills.

“After the kind of winter we've had, the show will be a nice respite,” she says. “You'll see some really unusual plants not found in the box stores, and you'll be able to buy almost any kind of orchid, as well as orchid supplies and orchid-related paraphernalia.”

Plant prices will start at about $10 and go up to $150 for rarer varieties, Bolton says.

Orchids constitute a global family of plants with about 25,000 species and 100,000 hybrids and cultivars, distinguished by their types of blooms and scents. They fall within more than 880 genera, such as Phalaenopsis, or moth orchids, and Cypripedium, which are known as lady-slipper orchids because their flowers are shaped like little shoes.

The vanilla extract used to flavor ice cream, cakes and candles is from a genus that represents more than 110 species.

Until recently, home growers found orchids hard to come by and expensive, but that has changed, with growers in Florida and Thailand now able to mass-produce clones, Bolton says. “You can find orchids in big-box stores and even supermarkets. The most cloned are Phalaenopsis, which are great for beginners because they're so easy to grow, and give you a lot of bang for your buck.

“You also see Cymbidium, which we think of as the Mother's Day corsage, and Cattleya, the old prom corsage.”

Scientists haven't yet found a way to clone lady slippers, which adds to their value and allure.

Because most orchids are epiphytes — meaning their roots grow above-ground and not in soil — caring for them in pots at home takes some getting used to. In the wild, orchids typically grow on bark or on moss and other matter that collects in the limbs of trees. Home-growers can replicate that habitat by using a soilless medium, such as sphagnum moss or bark chips.

And, orchid care needn't be complicated, says Demetria Marsh, a past society president who recently moved from a home in the suburbs to a condominium Downtown. “Orchids have been around for 90 million years, so they're not as delicate as you may think.”

When she downsized her residence, Marsh gave away or sold all but a dozen of the more than 300 orchid plants she had collected over the years, donating many to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland, which partners with the orchid society on various projects.

“I went from growing orchids under (artificial) lights to growing orchids on windowsills. It's a whole new world for me,” says Marsh, who will share her experiences at the show in a talk about windowsill gardening.

“Light needs vary among different kinds of orchids, so it's a matter of choosing the right variety for your home,” she says. “You can grow almost anything in a southern-facing window with a sheer curtain. In summer, you may even need to pull the plant back, because the light will be too much.”

Eastern and western-facing windows also can be orchid-friendly. “Northern windows can be a challenge in Pittsburgh,” she says. “Plants will grow, but you may not get blooms.”

Humidity is important, too, and can be enhanced by placing water-filled trays or tubs near plants, Marsh says. “As for watering orchids, it's a little different than with other plants. Because they're epiphytes, you want to take them to the sink once a week and water them like mad.”

Many orchids flower just once a year, but blooms can stay intact and vibrant for months, which is part of their appeal. “I bought an orchid plant in spike at one of our meetings in November, and it was still in full bloom on my coffee table in February,” Marsh says. “That's a long time.”

Because of their intricate flowers, orchids are a photographer's dream, Bolton says, which is why the society is introducing a juried photo exhibit in this year's show. Entries will be accepted as late as March 14 at Phipps Garden Center.

Also on tap is an informal lecture about photographing orchids, and a pre-show hour on Sunday morning when photographers can snap pictures before crowds arrive.

“Orchid blooms are like little works of art,” Bolton says. “You get dramatically different looks when you change perspectives on the same plant or take closeups that capture their incredibly complex structures and color patterns. And the colors are so vibrant. There's every color but true blue. Orchids even come in black, like the ‘After Dark‘ Catasetum.”

Judging of the plant exhibits and the photos will be done by accredited judges from the American Orchid Society. The society meets monthly at Phipps Garden Center.

Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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