Only orchids at this show

An exhibition of orchids by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Orchid Society at Longwood Gardens, which hosted the International Orchid Show for seven years, before its move to the Academy of Natural Sciences this year.
An exhibition of orchids by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Orchid Society at Longwood Gardens, which hosted the International Orchid Show for seven years, before its move to the Academy of Natural Sciences this year. (R.E. SPRAGUE)
Posted: April 06, 2013

Like orchid-lovers everywhere, Mary Ann Ullman started with just one and then another and another, until here she is today, just nine years later, with almost 900 of these exotic beauties filling three greenhouses at her West Chester home.

To an extent that may be unrivaled by collectors of any other plant - it's necessary to say may because who knows for sure - orchidists are obsessed. And they tell you so up front, freely making jokes about how great it is to have therapists in their orchid clubs.

"It's an addiction, but a wonderful one," says Ullman, a retired kindergarten teacher who favors epiphytic orchids, "air plants" that grow on trees, as opposed to soil-bound "terrestrials."

Collectors and the curious will see them all at the International Orchid Show, April 12-14, at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Organized by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Orchid Society, the 60-year-old event was staged for many years at the King of Prussia Mall, followed by seven years at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

The academy will be its new home, according to show cochair Robert Sprague of Douglassville, Berks County, who hopes the Center City venue "will draw a wider audience that has easier access."

Recent shows have attracted 11,500 visitors. "We have our fingers crossed this year," says Sprague, a retired businessman whose interest in bird-watching led to a fascination with plants in general, and then to orchids.

Like Ullman, Sprague has a greenhouse for his collection - about 250 cattleyas, prized for their large, colorful flowers and known for generations as "the corsage orchid."

Not everyone is as fortunate as this duo, what with their generous space and spare time. Others stockpile their prized Orchidaceae on window sills, in basements and bathtubs, or, as is the case with Ed Weber, in a garden shed inside the garage.

In that 6-by-8-foot shed, Weber, CEO of a software company in Boyertown, Berks County, built a simulated tropical "cloud forest" to support 500 of his favorite orchids - miniature twig epiphytes from the mountains of Ecuador that thrive in cool, damp temperatures, and bright light.

He's rigged up timed light, mist, and drainage systems; the temperature never goes above 75 degrees by day or below 57 at night.

"They think they're still in the cloud forest down in Ecuador. They love it," says Weber, president of the Greater Philadelphia Orchid Society, who inherited this horticultural habit from his grandmother.

How to explain orchidelirium?

Susan Gange, co-owner of Stony Brook Orchids in Pennington, N.J., does so this way: "There are over 30,000 species and hundreds of thousands of hybrids in existence and there's always something new to learn, which for me, makes it a fascinating hobby, as well as a business.

"They are beautiful plants, very sculptural, and it doesn't matter what you look like, how old you are or what your physical strength is, you can do this till you keel over," says Gange, who's been hooked on orchids since 1978 and selling them since 1996.

And there's more.

Did you know that the Greek word for orchid - orkhis - means testicle, for the shape of the tuberous root of a terrestrial species? Or that for centuries, across continents, orchids have been associated with fertility and sexuality, as an aphrodisiac, or an outright erotic representation of female genitalia?

In an oft-repeated passage of his 2000 book, Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy, author Eric Hansen describes the "blatant carnality" of Paphiopedilum Magic Lantern. He compares the "candy-apple-red staminode" covering its reproductive organs to the salacious Rolling Stones logo - and continues on in blushing detail.

Yes, orchids are seductive as all get-out.

Wealthy Victorians were so enamored, they risked life and limb - or, more accurately, hired people who would risk theirs - to find and claim ever more spectacular specimens from the Amazon.

Insects, too, are helpless. Orchids are capable of assuming the smells, shapes, and colors of their pollinators. Imagine such ingenuity.

Orchids are famous for their adaptability, as well. Though most are from the tropics, they grow on every continent but Antarctica. "So the idea that orchids are so delicate and have to be in this tropical rain forest is absolutely not the case at all. They grow all over the world," Sprague says, acknowledging the threats posed by habitat loss, changing climate, and poaching.

About 22 million potted orchids are purchased annually in this country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Add to that millions more already in residence on windowsills, in basements, bath tubs, garages, and greenhouses.

While we buy twice as many poinsettias, those go out with the trash in January. That's something no orchid-lover would dream of doing. Ever.


Orchid Show and Sale

The International Orchid Show & Sale, the nation's third-largest, will feature displays of exotic and common varieties by regional orchid societies and national groups, including the Native Orchid Conference and the Fukiran Society of America.

When: April 12-14. Friday, noon to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Show admission:

With regular museum admission, adults $15, children $13. Reduced price of $10 on Friday from 5 to 8 p.m.; includes food and cash bar.

Vendors from Brazil, Ecuador, Malaysia, and throughout the United States, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, will be selling plants, growing supplies and giftware.

Also offered: free talks about growing orchids and other topics; guided tours of the show and limited tours of the academy's botanical collection of about 1.4 million specimens, including about 9,000 orchids; outdoor tent with food and bar; activities for children.

 For more information: go to ansp.org/ orchidshow or call 215-299-1000.

To learn about orchids and how to care for them: try these websites: American Orchid Society, aos.org; Southeastern Pennsylvania Orchid Society, sepos.org.

- Virginia A. Smith


Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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