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Elegant orchids

From home collection to multimillion-dollar conservatory

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The $2.1 million orchid conservatory at Old Dominion University was the lifelong goal of the late Arthur Kaplan, a physician and avid orchid collector who also raised money for the facility in Norfolk, Va.

Caring for the 750 orchids that Kaplan personally donated is the dream-come-true for Steve Urick, a horticulturist who grew orchids at his home in Hampton, Va., for 26 years.

"I was intrigued by the seedling lady slipper orchids, so I bought one and the Sunset book 'How to Grow Orchids,'" he says of his first purchase in 1983. "I read the book from cover to cover that night and was fascinated, so I went back the next day and bought a second slipper seedling. Three months later I bought another orchid — a Dendrobium nobile (semi-evergreen) in bloom with about 30 flowers.

"By then, I was hooked. At one time I had more than 2,000 orchids growing in my own 14-by-14-foot greenhouse. Now, I have traded growing orchids at home for tending to nearly 2,000 of them at ODU."

Steve started at the Arthur and Phyllis Kaplan Orchid Conservatory in 2007, almost a year before it opened in April 2008. The complex consists of six individual, climate-controlled greenhouses. A state-of-the-art, computer-run environmental system coordinates with a roof-based weather station to monitor and maintain each greenhouse's temperature, humidity, light and carbon dioxide levels. Since opening, the conservatory has purchased and received additional orchid donations, giving it 400 species among more than 1,500 plants. The goal is eventually to spotlight 2,500 orchid species among 5,000 plants.

The conservatory is open to free public tours 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday. The main display greenhouse is the "heart of the jungle," a native habitat replica with splashes of color from corsage-like Cymbidium, garden-style Reed-stem epidendrum and showy lady slipper orchids. Some orchids grow on bark in tree trunks, some in pots sunk in native garden soil, some in the depressions of a man-made rock wall. Vegetation like bromeliads, ferns, palms and cinnamon, chocolate and coffee plants add more tropical touches.

Steve is always switching potted orchids in and out of the five growing greenhouses, ensuring the display area is full of color with at least 100 blooming orchids on any given day.

"Some of the flowers are big and showy, the size of your hand," he says. "Some are so small they are never seen by the casual visitor, revealing themselves only to the intent orchid hunter, or curious explorer."

If your eyes take in orchid colors and shapes, your nose takes its own tour. A sweet earthy smell rises from soil that's warm and moist, thanks to a cool mist that occasionally drifts across the plants.

There is also the sweet floral fragrance of a Cattleya in bloom or the hint of rotting meat on a Bulbophyllum.

In addition to looking pretty and smelling nice or bad, orchids are smart when it comes to attracting beneficial pollinators for reproductive purposes. They mimic other parts of nature, using motion, color, shape and sometimes scent to bring bees, butterflies, moths and flies to their pollen.

For instance, a green Cattleya uses a splash of purple on its labellum, or lip, as an enticing landing strip for a curious bee. The lip's large, flat surface gives the bee a good place to land, crawl in, roll around in pollen and emerge.

Cirrhopetalum annandalei gets pollinators like bees and butterflies with its half composite flower (some orchids have full composite flowers) because they tend to think it's a daisy. The flower also utilizes motion — bouncing lips on its flowers — to "rock" a pollinating fly onto its pollen.

The 50 to 100 flowers on each spike of the Bulbophyllum orchid feature a strong smell, like old grapes or souring grape jelly. Your nose may wrinkle at the unpleasant smell but some pollinators, especially flies, are drawn to it.

Then, there's the trap-them-quick orchid, or Coryanthes macrantha, that is nicknamed the "bucket orchid." It features flowers with a "bucket" that the plant keeps half filled with a liquid that drips from two faucets. The flowers are sweetly fragrant, which attracts male Euglossine bees, also called orchid bees, looking for perfume to attract female bees. When males start scratching the flowers to collect the perfume, they fall into the bucket of liquid and can only get out through a hidden trap door. When the bee makes its exit, the orchid puts its pollen on the back of its visitor, pollinating the flower to produce new bucket orchid seeds.

During your visit to the conservatory, you'll also see more common species like the Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, and Paphiopedilum, or lady slipper orchid, that are so-o-o easy to grow indoors at home.

For outdoor container gardening during summer, you'll see Reed-stem epidendrum, a "fireworks" orchid that grows nicely in a pot, giving you flowers spring to fall. During winter, put it indoors in a sunny window.

"Plant it in the middle of a pot and surround it with some filler annuals and you have a great container garden for deck or patio," says Steve.

Most likely, a tour of a conservatory will hurry you to the nearest garden center so you can take home the beginnings of your own orchid collection or entice you to expand the ones you have.

"Most people worry and fuss too much over their plants," says Steve. "Orchids are easy to grow, much easier than African violets and many other flowering houseplants."

See the orchids

See the greenhouse online at sci.odu.edu/biology/botany/greenhouse/

Growing orchids

Light needs:

Low light (east window): Phalaenopsis (moth orchids), Paphiopedilum (slipper orchids) and seedlings.

Medium light (south, east or west window): Cattleya, Dendrobium and Oncidium.

High light (south window): Cymbidium, Brassavola and Vanda.

Temperature needs:

Almost all orchids do well with daytime temperatures 65-85 degrees Fahrenheit but here's what different species need for nighttime temps during winter:

Warm (60-65 degrees): Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum with mottled leaves, Dendrobium phalaenopsis and seedings.

Intermediate (55-60 degrees): Cattleya, Oncidium and Paphiopedilum with solid green leaves.

Cool (50-55 degrees): Cymbidium, Dendrobium nobile and Dracula/Masdevallia.

Moisture: Let an orchid get almost dry before watering it thoroughly and then letting it drain completely. Sit pots on trays of pebbles/water to provide humidity during winter.

Fertilizer: Use a good orchid fertilizer according to directions.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.