Orchids in focus

January 09, 2020

Longtime volunteer and orchid expert Chas Huston explains why these beloved plants offer an excellent opportunity for outreach.


One goal of a live botanical collection is public outreach and education. I have taken orchids from the Conservatory to the Winter Carnival Orchid Show at Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in Como Park for many years. The show draws over 5,000 people. I take every opportunity to tell them about the Conservatory and share information about these amazing plants.   

While the visitors admire the flowers, we can talk about how they grow in nature, and how they evolved to thrive in specific environments. Growing species in a collection can allow us to learn how that species grows and thrives, and perhaps to propagate plants for eventual reintroduction to nature. Many are epiphytes. Those growing near the tops of trees need very high light, and those growing on lower branches, need lower, filtered light. It’s a great chance to promote conservation and share the primary importance of habitat and preservation of complete ecosystems given some orchids have evolved complicated pollination mechanisms with specific birds or insects. If the pollinator goes extinct, the orchid is doomed in the wild.   

One benefit of taking plants to the Orchid Show has been winning three awards from the American Orchid Society [AOS] for Cultural Excellence. Of the many thousands of orchids the AOS judges each year, only about two dozen receive this award. The awards were given to CBS for growing a specimen plant exceptionally well; each plant for more than a decade. The first award was a surprise, as I was not trying for awards. We grow the orchids for teaching and research. Some are now specimen plants after 12 or more years. Each has evolved at least one interesting adaptation to thrive in unusual conditions, which can be used as an example in teaching evolution. These awards bring prestige to the CBS Conservatory, and show other University and botanical collections that we can grow difficult species well, which may help persuade them to share rare plants with us. We also propagate and share material with them.   

The Orchid Show is coming up January 25-26 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. I will be on the floor with a handful of orchids from the Conservatory much of that time.  Stop by and visit if you like. There will be over 400 orchids in bloom in the show, and many for sale.  - Chas Huston