Compared with some of the other creatures that arrived in Philadelphia in the last year — tarantulas at the Academy of Natural Sciences, a new Amur tiger at the Philadelphia Zoo — Longwood Gardens has something especially unusual. For its annual Orchid Extravaganza, running Saturday through March 31, Longwood will display the Phalaenopsis Sogo Yukidian "V3," a rare orchid hybrid that's prepared for viewing with the kind of dedication to craft that's usually put into high-end timepieces and painstakingly sculpted statues.
Expert growers in Taiwan tend the plants for more than three and a half years, growing them under specific environmental conditions. The plants grow best in high temperatures, and even the water and fertilizer their caretakers nourish them with are heated. Once the plants have reached the proper size, the growers change the fertilizer blend and bring down the growing temperatures. As the flowers develop, the plants are turned to face south, and the flower spikes are trained to curve around metal stakes to get the "draping" appearance of the final display.
That's a lot of love to put into a plant, but the appeal of the V3 is more than its intense growing regimen. The plants are stunning, and their extralong flower spikes are laden with up to 18 pink, white, and purple flowers (their "moth orchid" cousins typically produce just six to 10).
Wait until the end of the run, and you'll also get a glimpse of the extravaganza's other reclusive star: the blue poppy Meconopsis "Lingholm." Considered a myth by Western horticulturalists until they "discovered" it in China in the 19th century, the blue poppy is every bit as mesmerizing, and hard to grow, as the V3. Native to the cold-but-sunny higher elevations (1,000-plus feet) of the Himalayas, the plants are rarely cultivated elsewhere, but the Longwood staff has dialed in the greenhouse climate controls to meet the unique needs of the plants and to coax them into blooming in March. The result of their hard work is a rare glimpse at the poppy's open flowers, which "flutter out from among the sea-green leaves like blue and gold butterflies," says Frank Kingdon-Ward, the botanist who first brought them to the West.
The folks at Longwood have always been a little nuts for orchids. The conservatory's orchid collection started in 1922 with a dozen Cattleya orchids included in a gift of greenhouse plants to the du Pont family. Over the years, the collection has, er, blossomed to include 3,200 different species and hybrids, totaling about 9,000 plants. Most of these are kept in carefully regulated greenhouses, with a few choice specimens brought out each week to show in the Orchid House.
For the Orchid Extravaganza, though, Longwood is going all-out. About 4,500 orchids will be on display throughout the gardens. In addition to the V3, the extravaganza will feature Cattleya, Dendrobium, Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum, and Oncidium varieties.
And the plants won't be sitting in Home Depot pots like any old specimens, either. Longwood's exhibition designers will have them arranged on custom-made arches, on hanging orbs, in their award-winning "orchid curtain" — a 17-foot-high living tapestry of 600-plus flowers — and even on some of their other plants (some of the orchids are epiphytic, which means they grow on other plants' branches and trunks, with no need for soil, taking their nutrients right out of the air).