Kathy Willens  /  AP
Orchids are suspended from the ceiling of a temporay roof atop the Rockefeller Center skating rink, home to the 25th New York International Orchid Show, Tuesday, April 12, 2005, at Rockefeller Center in New York.
updated 2/7/2006 3:10:11 PM ET 2006-02-07T20:10:11

It may be bone-chilling cold outside but in the coming days admirers of Cattleyas in Green Bay, Vandas in East Lansing and Dendrobiums in Toronto don’t have to travel far to be transported to the tropics.

A visit to the local orchid show, a winter tradition in northern climes, is like a getaway to a South American cloud forest, only a lot closer and a lot cheaper.

“What people are doing is escaping the winter grays,” says Paul Redman, executive director of the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio, whose orchid show runs through March 26. “They can take off their coats, walk into our rain forest and suddenly it is 85 degrees and you are surrounded by lush foliage.”

Enthusiasts say there are few things more comforting on a raw day in the dead of winter than stepping into a tropical garden and seeing displays of delicate lady’s slipper and moth orchids in shades of pure white, light purple, lemon-orange and magenta. Strolling through the exhibits, one can almost hear the distant sounds of tropical birds, and waves breaking on sugary-white beaches.

“Escape the freeze and enjoy the warmth of the tropics,” urges a promo for the Southern Ontario Orchid Society Show, Feb. 11-12 at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

In addition to coming in out of the cold, attendees can see lavish displays of some of the most delicate, colorful, sophisticated and highly evolved flowers on earth. (Indeed, orchid shows also draw crowds in a number of warmer states during the winter.)

And since many varieties of orchids — the largest plant family in nature with some 30,000 species worldwide — often choose the coldest months in North America to reach their peak blooms, the winter orchid show has become an annual Frost Belt celebration.

Specialty flowers draw crowds
Along with the classic and more common varieties of orchids on display, such as Phalaenopsis and Cattleyas, there are always a few species that draw the special attention of visitors — novice and expert.

Zygopetalums, Venezuela natives, were likely to draw a crowd this year at the Batavia Orchid Society Show on Feb. 18-19 in St. Charles, Ill. “They have some absolutely beautiful colors and they are very sweet smelling,” says Wilda Kintop, a society member who has grown orchids for 25 years.

Draculas, a bird-pollinated orchid, will get a lot of attention at the Northeastern Wisconsin Orchid Society Show in Green Bay on March 4-5, says orchid fancier Milt Wittmann.

“Instead of growing upwards, Draculas grow downwards,” Wittmann says. “So the plant is in a basket and the flowers come out of the basket and hang.”

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Dave Brigner, orchid specialist at the Franklin Park Conservatory, says that word of spotted Cymbidiums being raised in California has stirred excitement in the orchid world, and it is only a matter of time before they are seen on the winter show circuit.

“I have never seen one but they are hybridizing them and they are covered with spots,” he says. “They are just incredible.”

Veteran Connecticut orchid grower Jay Presbie says he may show an Ophrys orchid at the Connecticut Orchid Society Show set for March 18-19 in Hartford. Ophrys are most unusual, Presbie says, because the flower looks and smells like a female fly, and when the male fly tries to mate with it, the orchid is pollinated.

Orchid growers try to grow plants that everyone wants to see, says Pete Porciello, show manager for the Greater Lansing Orchid Society Show, Feb. 18-19 at the Michigan State University Plant and Soil Science Conservatory in East Lansing. One of the orchids that he would like to see at his show is the Phragmipedium kovachii, a new discovery from Peru, Porciello says.

“We would have 25,000 people here each day to see one because nobody has got them except in a bottle in little green specks right now,” he says.

Porciello says another orchid that would draw enormous interest from buyers at a show is the Phalaenopsis violacea “Gulfstream Blue” grown and exhibited by Kathryn Norten, a noted South Carolina grower. “That was the first dark Phalaenopsis that anyone had,” Porciello says. “If she had a hundred of them they would have been sold out in the first hour of the show.”

While pure white orchids are abundant, one sought-after variety not likely to be found at this season’s shows is the black orchid. Growers have been working for years to hybridize a black orchid through genetic manipulation.

So far it hasn’t worked.

“Black doesn’t exist normally in the orchid world,” notes Presbie. “There is really nothing that is all black.”

Instead of acquiring a black orchid, this season’s attendees might be willing to settle for a ghost orchid, an exotic and mysterious variety whose life story was dramatically depicted by Susan Orlean in the book “The Orchid Thief.”

Thanks to hybridization of the variety, one need not wade through the Fakahatchee swamp in Florida to see one. In fact, it is likely there will be some for sale at a winter orchid show.

“You can buy one for about $12, but keeping it alive is the problem,” Wittmann says.

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