Fantastic Flowers

One of the South's finest collections of beautiful orchids awaits at this Florida garden.
Steve Bender

Before fans howled for Elvis, the Stones, Shania Twain, and Jimmy Buffett, fan clubs drooled over orchids. Today, orchid enthusiasts still stalk their quarry with a fervor unmatched by the most devout of Jimmy's Parrot Heads. But you don't have to study botany or learn an orchid society secret handshake to marvel at these amazing flowers close-up. Just visit Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, home of one of the South's foremost orchid collections.

Located along Florida's Sarasota Bay south of Tampa Bay, 8.5 acres of gardens occupy the former estate of William and Marie Selby. Although William, an oil magnate, amassed enormous wealth, he and his wife enjoyed a modest, unassuming life in their 1920s Spanish-style house surrounded by gardens that Marie designed. The trappings of fortune didn't interest them. Preserving Sarasota's natural beauty did.

Finding a Niche
William passed away in 1956. When Marie joined him 15 years later, her will established the estate as a botanical garden. "But it didn't specify much more than that," explains Mike McLaughlin, director of horticulture. "So a group of advisors was assembled and asked, 'What can we do with this small garden to make it stand out?' And the one thing no other public garden was focusing on was epiphytes."

"Epi-WHAT?" you ask. "Isn't that something they administer for pain during childbirth?" Actually, an epiphyte is a plant that supports itself on tree branches while gathering water and nutrients from the air. Orchids and bromeliads are epiphytes you've likely seen. Nowhere in the South will you find a more varied display of either group than at Selby Gardens.

 

One Big Family
If you think you're overrun with cousins, be thankful you're not an orchid. The orchid family is probably the largest in the plant kingdom, boasting nearly 30,000 species and 10 times as many hybrids. Selby Gardens houses more than 6,000 different orchids, representing a wide range of species found throughout the world. "We have a lot of orchids that people have only read about," says Harry Luther, curator of living collections.

Why do humans obsess over orchids? "It's the flowers," states Mike. "They're sexy, flamboyant, colorful, and mysterious. People have always been drawn to them."

The dazzling array of flower shapes, sizes, and colors is mind-blowing. Orchid flowers can look like butterflies, squid, bonnets, headdresses, or some alien from the sci-fi channel. Common to all is a central petal called a "lip," which may be spotted, fringed, cupped, or drawn into a pouch. Pollinating insects often use this lip for a landing pad. Pollination is the whole purpose of the flower. Many orchids tailor their shapes, sizes, colors, and fragrances to attract specific insects.

Enjoying Your Visit
Start with the glass-covered Tropical Display House. Winding paths lead you through a lush, multicolored tangle of tropical trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, and epiphytes. Although you'll find some orchids flowering just about anytime, peak bloom occurs from March through April and again from October through November.

Don't stop there. Outside, you'll encounter a series of well-executed themed gardens. Collections of palms, cycads, ferns, hibiscus, succulents, bromeliads, wildflowers, and tropical food plants will occupy you for hours. Also check out the raised walkway providing a higher perspective of the gardens. You're sure to see some orchid fanatics. Heck, you may even spot Elvis.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens: 811 South Palm Avenue, Saras ta, FL 34236; www.selby.org or (941) 366-5731. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission: $12 adults, $6 ages 6-11.

Three Easy orchids
Although many orchids are difficult for beginners, some do quite well in homes. You can grow them in pots instead of trees. Harry Luther recommends the following.
  • Moth orchids (Phalaenopsis): With spectacular flowers in many colors, these plants prefer bright, indirect light and well-drained soil consisting of 4 parts pine bark and 1 part pumice. "If you have luck with African violets, you can grow these," says Harry.
  • Nun's orchids (Phaius): These plants have handsome pleated leaves and showy spikes of flowers up to 4 feet tall. Plant them in regular potting soil. Give them bright, indirect light.
  • Tropical lady's slippers (Paphiopedilum): The bizarre, exotic flowers come in many colors and have lips shaped like pouches or slippers. Grow them in fine bark with bright, indirect light. "They're no more difficult than your run-of-the-mill houseplant," says Harry.

"Fantastic Flowers" is from the February 2008 issue of Southern Living.