Phipps Conservatory’s master gardener, Dave Buresch, talks about orchids as one would a lover. He speaks in complex soliloquies about their personalities, delicate beauty and the specific but simple ways to care for them. To make an orchid bloom is an art; to allow one to die is not simply stupid, but a sin, he said.
The room Buresch is in, the temporary home of more than 100 orchids, is curated and maintained with the help of the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania. Surrounded by the seductive plants and facing a small group of collectors on the opening weekend of Phipps’ orchid show, which runs until March 9, Buresch gave a lecture on the trickery involved in orchid reproduction and pollination.
The orchid’s beauty is elusive, both because it’s transient — in bloom for only two to three months — and because it’s difficult to characterize. The exhibit was undeniably stunning. The room was almost radiating with the saturation of color from gradations as subtle as white speckled with yellow and as bold as deep purple crawling with wisps of gold. But the flowers themselves were odd.
There was one orchid in particular at the exhibit that was at the crux of this unease, which began to creep up my spine — it was almost, excuse my blaspheming, ugly. It was a large Paphiopedilum, or “slipper,” orchid, which is many collectors’ favorite kind, according to Norma Raiff, president of the Orchid Society.
The large petal at the top of the flower was a deep, dull brown that dimmed into white at the furled edges. The sides were a reddish orange, and its edges looked like they were produced by the blade of a scissor in an almost successful attempt to produce curls. In the center, there was the hanging “slipper,” which looked less like a shoe than a gaping mouth with jowls, waxy and salivating. It was repulsively animate-looking, and I stared at it, not because I was ensnared, but because I was looking for the hidden detail of beauty that I was missing.
But in perfect juxtaposition to that ugly orange orchid was a group of simple white Phalaenopsis orchids. They looked like moths with two beautiful white wings, thick and soft enough to be felt — their bodies accentuated by a small dip of the purest yellow that resembled the stroke of a painter’s brush. That orchid shed a small light on the beauty that makes people like Buresch love these flowers with such deep passion.
He offered another reason for his love of orchids. According to Buresch, in the 18th century, kings and princes were the only ones who could afford orchids and would send their servants to retrieve them. The flowers were transported from continent to continent in the holds of ships and would die from light deprivation. So now, when they’re cheap and easy to care for, it makes us feel like we’ve conquered beauty. We can manufacture and manipulate this exotic and hidden secret of nature.
There’s a part of me, though, that thinks it’s perhaps not the exotic but rather the erotic that attracts people to orchids. The ancient Greek root of the word literally translates to “testicle,” and the flowers are called things such as “Lovely Ladies,” “Desert Dream” and “Tying Shin Cupid.” The orchid is notorious for its trickery in seducing bees, wasps and even birds to fertilize it.
Some species will exude the odor of a female bee in order to attract male bees and have them attempt to copulate with the flowers, guaranteeing pollen exportation. How can a flower that acts as nothing less than a temptress not fascinate us?
As Buresch warned, the bloom of an orchid is, for whatever reason, tantalizing. “Lord help you,” he said. “Orchids are the most addictive flower in the world. When you see it, you’re going to want more.”