Preparing for Longwood Gardens’ annual Orchid Extravaganza is a bit like making a homecooked meal.
Timing is of the utmost importance in both arenas. If a chef wants all the elements of a meal to hit the table fresh and hot, he will have to do some detailed planning to get everything to coordinate just right.
The same goes for Longwood’s Orchid Extravaganza. The multicolored display includes 320 different types of orchids, which bloom for varying length of times. The most common and mass-produced variation, the phalaenopsis, blooms for a long time. Others have shorter lives, and employees swap them out for fresh plants halfway through the show’s nine-week duration.
See the fruits of Longwood’s labor when this year’s Orchid Extravaganza kicks off Saturday. The show runs through March 22. OrKID Days, the exhibit’s accompanying children’s programming, is included with admission.
Jim Sutton, a display designer at Longwood, is part of the team responsible for visually weaving over 7,000 orchids together into different “moments,” as he calls them.
Those include orchids lushly arranged in the East Conservatory’s oval basin, floating overhead and even wrapped around the columns.
“We try to give you an orchid experience in almost every house,” Sutton says.
Longwood has a rich history with orchids: The plants were one of the first collections the garden owned, and it remains one of the largest collections to this day. Some of those special orchids from the collection will be pulled out for Orchid Extravaganza.
“The collection gives us big specimen and varieties we can’t get commercially, and some of the plants have historical significance to us and it helps showcase the diversity of orchids,” Sutton says.
Longwood also purchases orchids from outside sources for the larger displays. Last spring, Sutton’s teammate, Lee Alyanakian, display project specialist, and Greg Griffis, senior horticulturist, attended the Taiwan International Orchid Show in Taipei to learn more about orchid breeding techniques and display trends.
Many orchids are bred in Taiwan or other overseas locations and then brought to the U.S. to finish growing, Sutton says.
“We met different generations of our family over there, so we understand the whole process of the orchids and it helps solidify our relationship with them when we go and place our orders,” Sutton says.
Deepening that connection will only strengthen the finished product of the orchid displays, Sutton says. Oftentimes, the display designers are exact about what shade of flower they want for a particular part of the exhibit. The clearer the communication between Longwood and its suppliers, the more the finished product matches the initial vision.
But of course, there are a lot of variables to account for when working with something as tenuous as a living plant.
“Because they are living things, there are always surprises: some pleasant, some not,” Sutton says. “When things arrive, or in some cases don’t arrive, you have to make adjustments.”
Sutton says orchids, once seen as elusive, have become more popular in recent years because of their increased accessibility. There are orchids on every continent except for Antarctica.
He thinks of them as the “diva of the plant world” because of their dramatic, beautiful blooms. They also make their audiences wait, flowering only once a year.
“You’ve got to tolerate these big flat green leaves for 10 months, 11 months out of the year,” Sutton says. “And all of a sudden this little spike comes on the side of it and there’s the flower that you’re looking for.”