Orchids 101 (For Beginners Only)

Paphiopedium orchid at Pennyslvania’s Longwood Gardens

Years ago I was touring the Filoli mansion in Woodside, California when I came across an unusual flowering plant. It was perched on a table in an upstairs hallway and sported tiny, reddish-brown blossoms. Plunging my nose into the petals, I discovered its flowers smelled exactly like chocolate.

Our guide explained that the plant was called ‘Sharry Baby,’ commonly known as Chocolate Oncidium; a member of a large family of orchids admired for their beautiful flower shape and dozens of blooms. This was news to me, because like many people, I was mainly acquainted with the common orchid Phalaenopsis, most notable for its large, flat-shaped blooms and attractive, low-maintenance qualities.

Chocolate oncidium, commonly known as Sharry Baby

Thus began my foray into the exotic world of these diverse and beautiful plants.

Branching out, I began looking for opportunities to expand my knowledge. So it happened that while in Mexico, I found myself touring an off-beat orchid garden called Lo de Perla located high on a mountainside in a tropical jungle. There, in the deep humid shade of giant ferns, tall palms and monster-like climbing vines, thousands of orchids known as epiphytes were growing wild on trees.

I learned that most orchids are epiphytes, meaning they grow on top of other plants, such as trees. For this reason, they are often referred to as ‘air plants.’ At Lo de Perla, there seemed to be an infinite number of varieties. The garden also had a small greenhouse in a clearing filled with hundreds of rare and unusual species.

One of the many beautiful orchids at Lo de Perla

Then last year, I heard about a spectacular orchid show being held at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. Located in the museum’s main lobby, it was curated by the Smithsonian Gardens and United States Botanic Garden and featured hundreds of orchids in a customized gallery created by the Hirshhorn’s own designers. The curved structure was constructed of random-shaped cubby holes, each featuring a single orchid species. My daughter and I were duly impressed.

2017 Hirshhorn Orchid Exhibit

But this year, I received my best education to date at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens.  Each year, from January through March, it hosts an orchid extravaganza. This was my first time visiting the show and as expected, the conservatory was brimming with jaw-dropping installations.

Orchid arch in East Conservatory at Longwood Gardens

There were huge spheres of Phalaenopsis orchids hanging throughout the conservatory.

And some unusual varieties like this Laelia undulata, that from afar looked more like an allium than an orchid. But close up, you could clearly see all of the little orchid flowers.

Laelia undulata

Close-up of Laelia undulata

Ample signage dispersed throughout the garden, confirmed that the orchid family, or Orchidaceae, is exceptionally diverse in terms of size, color, floral structure, fragrance and origin. One of the largest families of flowering plants, it is considered the most evolutionary advanced plant family due to its highly specialized floral structure.

An exhibition of Phalaenopsis hybrids from Taiwan rarely seen in the United States was on display in a hallway adjoining the conservatory. It demonstrated a specialized technique perfected by experts in Taiwan for growing these orchids. The plants are notable for the length of time they hold their flowers and for the number of flower-pairs blooming in perfect unison on each stalk, a quality that was instantly discernible.

Phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan

Close-up of white phalaenopsis orchids from Taiwan

The real education began, however, when winding our way through the labyrinth of greenhouses that adjoin the main conservatory, we spotted an exhibit focused mainly on instruction. In a long hallway adjacent to the bonsai exhibit, we discovered hundreds of colorful specimens from Longwood’s own orchid collection. Started in 1922, the collection contains over 2,000 types of showy and unusual varieties.

Attached to the wall behind the orchids were signs describing the main characteristics of the Cattleya, Miltoniopsis, Vanda, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Masdevallia,  Paphiopedium, Oncidium and Phalaenopsis varieties.

Here are some stand-outs and a little about each:

Cattleya orchids are exceptionally showy and often fragrant. Also known as corsage orchids, they were the most popular variety in the early 20th century.

Cattleya orchid

Miltoniopsis orchids, commonly known as pansy orchids, are native to Central and South America. They are most notable for their large flowers and long stems that can carry up to seven or more blooms at a time.

Miltoniopsis orchid

Vanda orchids are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia. They are known to be some of the bluest flowers in the orchid world. Almost always vibrantly colored, they can range in hue from dark purple to red, pink, yellow and white.

Vanda orchid

Unlike many other orchid varieties, cymbidium orchids, which are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia, need cool temperatures and bright light to flower. Most carry many flowers on a single stem. They are often used in cut flower arrangements.

Cymbidium orchid

Dendrobium orchids are native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Oceana. They are unusual in that they grow on rocks in addition to trees. A large genus with over 1,000 species, they are sometimes referred to as ‘rock orchids.’

Dendrobium orchid

Masdevallia orchids can bloom year round in the right conditions. Native to Mexico and Central and South America, they are sometimes referred to as ‘little flag orchids.’

Masdevallia orchid

Paphiopedium orchids, also known as slipper orchids, have a large pouch that resembles a shoe. Native to China and tropical Asia, they usually carry just one flower per stem.

Paphiopedium orchid

Oncidium orchids (of which the aforementioned chocolate-scented Sharry Baby is one) are a large genus of over around 300 species. (They also have hundreds of close relatives.) Commonly known as dancing ladies, they are native to South America.

Oncidium orchid

The most common orchid variety, Phalaenopsis orchids are the easiest to grow. Also known as moth orchids, they have large, flat blooms and thick green upright leaves. Native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Australia, they grow mainly as epiphyties.

Phalaenopsis orchid

Thinking of heading to the store? Many orchids are easier to care for than you might think. Just remember, since most of them are used to growing in air, they don’t like lots of water or heavy soil around their roots. Water once a week in the morning, allowing the plant to completely dry out between waterings. Never leave your orchid standing in water, which will quickly rot the roots.

True-Blue Flowers: A Dozen Of The Best And Brightest

Himalayan Blue Poppy at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens/Kari Wilner

Years ago, in an effort to distract my middle-school aged daughters, I dragged them to an avant-garde exhibit at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. The show was a one-color retrospective on the works of the French artist, Yves Klein (1928-1962) and it focused on the color blue; specifically, a supersaturated deep blue created by Klein that made you feel like you had been sucked out to sea and were drowning. Needless to say, it left an indelible impression on all of us.

The exhibit was accompanied by Klein’s commentaries on the role he believed blue played in our lives. He wrote:

“All colors are associated with concrete ideas whereas blue calls to mind first and foremost the sea and the sky, that which is the most abstract in tangible, visible Nature.”

Klein likened blue to an open window. He believed that the color blue defined the very edges of our visible reality. Think about it – do the sea and sky have any distinguishable boundaries? Maybe this is why what lies behind or beyond these two constants in our world has been the subject of speculation for centuries.

In Klein’s view, blue distinguished what was visible while expressing what was not. To illustrate this idea, he worked with a chemist to develop his own brand of blue. Introduced in Milan in 1957, the supersaturated ultramarine pigment took the world by storm. It came to be known as International Klein Blue (IKB).

Yves Klein Blue Monochrome 1961

The hardest to see

Due to its shorter wavelengths, blue is a harder color for the eye to see. This, coupled with the proximity of blue to the end of the visible spectrum, may explain why for centuries blue color has symbolized that which is mysterious or unknown.


So what role can blue play In the garden? Does it inject the same abstract note, evoking a sense of wonder and mystery? Or does our difficulty in discerning it add an important structural element to our compositions? The answer is all of the above.

Bigleaf hydrangea and Blue coleus, Plectranthus thyrsoideus

Blue and perspective

When it comes to perspective, ‘hot’ colors seem to move forward in space while ‘cool’ colors appear to recede. As a cool color, blue can add depth and volume to a composition where it often appears more as an ‘impression’ than as a discernible flower.

Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ appears as a blue ‘haze’ in this garden

Blue harmonies

Blue flowers form pleasing harmonies with pink, apricot, butter cream and violet blooms, where they help to add volume to a composition.

Blue and apricot make a pleasing harmony

Blue contrasts

On the other hand, when paired with yellows and whites, blue flowers provide contrast, helping to point up the brighter colors.

The blue hydrangeas make the white orchids ‘pop’

Blue/purple compositions

Many blue flowers tend toward a purple/lavender tint. Combining blue with purple blooms makes for a restful composition. I like to inject a note of bright green to liven up these peaceful garden spaces.

A blue and purple garden


Following are some outstanding blue flowers, all photographed at Longwood Gardens’ spectacular ‘Winter Blues’ exhibit on view now through the end of March. See if some of them don’t work in your own garden!

Himalayan blue poppy, Meconopsis ‘Lingholm’:  A hybrid perennial poppy that produces large, sky blue blooms in late spring. Likes partial shade and grows to a height of between 3 and 4 feet.

Himalayan blue poppy ‘Linghom’

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’ is a great shrub for the semi-shade border, big blue blooms in early summer. Blooms on old wood.

Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’

Blue Coleus, Plectranthus thyrsoideus, also known as Bush coleus, is a member of the mint family. Originally from Africa, it is grown primarily as an annual in our area.

Blue coleus

Blue Flax, Heliophila coronopifolia, is a delicate blue daisy grown as an annual in full sun.

Blue flax (a little more purple than blue)

Blue Daisy, Felicia amelloides ‘San Gabriel’ produces blue, daisy like flowers from summer to autumn. Grow in full sun.

Blue daisy

Muscari aucheri ‘Blue Magic’, also known as grape hyacinth produces fragrant, true-blue flowers in late spring. Best naturalized in large groups in full sun. Plant bulbs in fall.

Muscari ‘Blue Magic’

Portuguese squill ‘Sapphire Blue’ is a perennial bulb with large, conical racemes of star-shaped violet/blue flowers in early summer.

Portuguese squill

Pride-of-Madeira, Echium candicans ‘Select Blue’ is an evergreen shrub with gray-green leaves and long stalks of periwinkle flowers that bloom in late spring to early summer. Hardy to about 25° F.


Delphinium ‘Blue Jay’ bears tall spikes of deep blue flowers in early summer.

Delphinium ‘Blue Jay’

Ground-Ivy Sage, Salvia glechomifolia is a creeping perennial native to the highlands of Central Mexico. Bears light blue flowers atop scalloped, yellow-green leaves.

Ground-ivy sage paired with lilac pansies

Columbine, Aquilegia, ‘Bluebird’ produces large, 3″ light blue and white upward facing blossoms in late spring. Grows 12 to 24 inches.

Columbine ‘Bluebird’

Happy planting!


Snowdrops: A Surefire Cure For The Mid Winter Doldrums

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis

At first glance, it seems impossible. It’s the middle of February and small clusters of tiny white flowers are breaking through the frozen soil. Snowdrops, or Galanthus, are for many the harbingers of spring. To me, their yearly emergence mid winter is the perfect symbol for courage and resilience as, one by one, they infuse cold weather months with a new kind of meaning.

Snowdrops have an inspiring ability to survive and grow in the face of much weather adversity. It’s hard not to look at them and draw parallels with life. Louise Glück’s poem articulates this idea beautifully.

This poem always motivates me to go out and do something big. And it certainly makes a person look at snowdrops with a whole new level of appreciation.

About Snowdrops (Galanthus)

Snowdrop, Galanthus, is a small genus of bulbous herbaceous perennial plants that is part of the amaryllis family. The plant gets its name from the Greek gala meaning milk, and anthos meaning flower. Common snowdrop, or Galanthus nivalis, (nivalis is Latin for snowy) is the best known species of Galanthus. Native to large areas of Europe, it has been introduced and naturalized all over the world.

Diminutive in scale, but built like a warrior, Galanthus nivalis has narrow leaves and sturdy 6-inch stems that produce a single white, tear-shaped flower. The pendulous blooms are composed of six petal segments: three small petals surrounded by three larger ones. The inner three are notched at the tip and have U-shaped green markings.

Common snowdrop flower

In my area (Zone 7) common snowdrops typically flower in February/March. The large-flowered Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’, recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit, is one of the earliest blooming varieties. And the heirloom Galanthus ‘Flore Pleno’ is a beautiful, double-flowered cultivar if you’re looking for something a little different.

There’s also a larger variety of snowdrop called Giant Snowdrop, or Galanthus elwesii. It has 6 to 12 inch stems and much larger flowers. It blooms later than Galanthus nivalis, usually in March.

How do they grow in such a cold world?

According to Cambridge University, snowdrops have built-in anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) that allow them to survive in subzero weather. AFPs bind to small ice crystals and inhibit them from growing in plant cells (which causes death in the tissue). This protects the plants from severe-weather stresses and also some diseases.

Occasionally, very harsh cold can cause snowdrops to fall over. But not to worry, thanks to AFPs, they’ll perk up again as soon as temperatures rise.

Anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) help snowdrops survive harsh weather

How not to confuse snowdrops with snowflakes (of the botanical kind)

A few years ago, I started renovating a garden on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the spring, hundreds of bluebells and what I thought were snowdrops starting appearing in the woodland. The flowers looked slightly different, though. They were bell shaped. And all of the petals, not just the inner ones, had green markings at the tips.

Leucojum vernum

I had confused snowdrops with another species, Leucojum, with which they are closely related. Leucojum aestivum  (also known as Giant Snowflake) has pendulous flowers as well, but with a couple key differences. The flower is bell-shaped and all six petals are the same size, with green markings at the tips. Snowflakes look a lot like giant lilies-of-the valley.

Leucojum vernum flower/each petal has green markings

Snowflakes bloom much later than snowdrops, depending on your location anytime between April and very early May. Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is a popular cultivar.

How to grow snowdrops

Common snowdrops prefer partial shade, but will take full sun. They are deer resistant! Plant clusters of 20-25 bulbs in fall a few inches apart for maximum impact. This is a flower that looks great as a ‘carpet’ under bare trees.

Snowdrops look best planted as a mass

Once they’re done flowering, leave the foliage on the plant until it turns yellow to allow the plant to store nutrients for next year’s blooms.

Snowdrops multiply easily by themselves; however, they can also be propagated by division. The best time to lift and divide snowdrops is when they have just finished flowering.


Snowdrops contain the alkaloid galantamine, which according to the National Institutes of Health, has shown mild cognitive and global benefits for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. However, it can also cause gastrointestinal distress if consumed in large quantities. Some sites list galanthus as poisonous for humans and animals. For more information on signs of snowdrop poisoning in dogs, click here for wagwalking.com signs and symptoms in dogs. And wear garden gloves when handling the bulbs.

Snowdrop bulbs can be toxic to humans and pets

Only a couple weeks now until the snowdrops will be blooming in my area. I already feel spring around the corner…

Photos courtesy/Shutterstock


Bamboo Gets A Makeover Thanks To A California Garden

The Bamboo Garden at Northern California’s Foothill College

I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of bamboo, especially the kind whose roots advance a foot a day and need to be dug out with a crane. But, I was pleasantly surprised this week to have my views on the plant suddenly upended. It all started with a spectacular variety featuring aqua stems I spied growing in my sister-in-law’s garden. Continue reading

Camellias Take Center Stage At California’s Filoli Gardens

Camellia japonica ‘Cheryl Lynn’

Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the winter-blooming camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful shrubs wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular lush-petaled blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli Gardens in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading

Longwood Gardens’ 10 Best Christmas Trees of 2017

Orchid Tree/A Longwood Christmas

The Orchid Tree at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens

OK, so maybe you won’t be copying the orchid tree above, but this time of year Longwood Gardens is teeming with ideas, especially when it comes to Christmas trees.  Located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (an easy two-hour drive from Washington, DC), Longwood is resplendent this December as it pays homage to France. And the eye-popping horticultural displays are nothing short of ooh-la-la. Continue reading

Top Holiday Plants And How To Keep Them Blooming

Soon, many of us will be receiving gifts of holiday plants with no clue what to do with them. Sure, the seasonal blooms look great in their decorative wrappings, but too often, just one week later they’re already showing signs of distress. Why toss these beauties in the trash when there’s still so much floral potential? Here’s how to keep your holiday plants looking their best and blooming well past the holiday season. Continue reading

Spring Bulbs: Still Time To Plant Some Of These 10 Great Varieties

Spring bulbs in a formal garden setting

Yesterday I directed the planting of two thousand spring bulbs. We placed them individually in patterns and our very capable team dug them one-by-one into the ground. When they were finished, we dressed the bulbs with a thick layer of mulch and all stepped back to admire our handiwork. The garden felt as if it were bursting with energy with so much spring promise nestled snuggly underground. Continue reading

Five Reasons Your Trees Are Failing: A Bartlett Tree Expert Speaks Out

Trees are generally admired for their surface beauty, but their health and vigor springs from what’s underground. That’s according to Dr. Kelby Fite, Director of Research for Bartlett Tree Research Lab in Charlotte, North Carolina, who spoke to Maryland’s master gardeners last week. His lecture entitled ‘Managing the Landscape Below Ground’ provided a wealth of information about how to improve the life of the trees in our landscape. According to Fite, it all starts with the soil. Continue reading

Tree ID: How To Be Your Own Best Detective

Giant tulip poplar in Orange, Virginia

I remember the first time I recognized the value of knowing a tree’s name. I was walking with a friend along the C & O canal in Great Falls, Maryland when she began identifying the trees around us. As we passed, she stopped to observe different species, remarking on their visible characteristics and quality of growth. Suddenly, the woods took on an entirely new dimension for me. Continue reading