Cattleya orchid

Cattleya orchids, beloved for their use in corsages, can be rewarding houseplants.

Escape the cold, hard winter with a leisurely stroll in a lush, tropical garden! This year’s Missouri Botanical Garden Orchid Show is inspired by the creative and vibrant Brazilian gardens designed by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.

The Modernist Landscape

Burle Marx was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and moved to Rio de Janiero as a child. In the 1920s, he studied art in Germany at a time when the rush to Modernism was in full swing. As his artistic side was being polished, Burle Marx also was inspired by the Brazilian plant collections at the Berlin Botanical Garden. He continued his art training at the prestigious National School of Fine Arts in Rio. Burle Marx was influenced by Modernism, Cubism and abstract art, which could be seen in his paintings, drawings, sculptures, jewelry and theater set design.

Burle Marx’s love affair with Brazilian plants blossomed over time. He became an avid amateur botanist and plant explorer, and built a private plant collection with more than 3,500 species in his own garden near Rio. He effectively married his artistic abilities with his passion for native plants. His parks and gardens were influenced by Cubism, resulting in stunning and novel arrangements of shapes and layers. He also used free-form water features and dramatic pebble-mosaic-paved walkways and plaza spaces as part of his outdoor masterpieces. With avant-garde flair, Burle Marx had a dramatic and lasting impact on tropical garden design, creating a newfound sense of luxuriousness through voluptuous color masses and strong graphic shapes.

Burle Marx was awarded the Missouri Botanical Garden’s prestigious Greensfelder Award in 1983 for his lifetime contributions to Brazilian botany, tropical horticulture and landscape design. He would have known and loved the Cattleya, Oncidium, Phragmipedium, Miltonia and Epidendrum orchids—used in this year’s show—as his own country’s native plants. In fact, the very first orchids in the Garden’s permanent collection came from Brazil. The Garden’s collection has now grown to more than 7,000 plants, many of which may be enjoyed in the Burle Marx-inspired display.

Growing Orchids at Home

Potted orchids have become readily available and less expensive in the last 10 years. Tissue culture propagation and hybridization programs have yielded a much wider range of choices for home-growers. Many of the ‘grocery store’ orchids are flown in from Taiwan. Part of our local supply comes from local growers in nearby Illinois. Babs Wagner, the Garden’s chief orchid grower, suggests trying several orchids at one time in different locations in your house. Compare the performance in different spots to find your best growing place. Plants in bloom may be moved temporarily to different display locations for maximum enjoyment.

If your orchids do not flourish or re-bloom, location, access to light, watering and fertilization all can be factors. If the leaves are bleaching, there is too much sun. If the leaves are very dark green, there is not enough light. Watch closely for suddenly yellowed leaves—a sure sign of over-watering. With orchids, err to the dry side in the pot, and position plants on gravel-filled humidity trays. Fill the tray with water just up to the top of the rocks, but not so much that the pot sits in water. Orchids love high humidity, so grouping plants together and using a portable humidifier will help raise winter moisture to more satisfactory levels. Frequent misting of the roots, leaves and the air around plants also is beneficial.

Orchid-Growing Dos and Don’ts:


• Visit the American Orchid Society web site ( for a wonderful free primer, Orchids 101.

• Mist roots, leaves and flowers as often as you like. Many orchids come from high-altitude rainforests, so most love cool temperatures and very high humidity.

• Start small. Hone your growing skills before taking on too many.

• Try again. If your first attempts fail, keep trying. Finding the right location in your home is vital.

• Use your automatic home thermostat to give a wider daily temperature swing. Dropping my nighttime low at 60 has improved my flower set and saves energy.

• Attend a meeting or show of the Orchid Society of Greater St. Louis to learn more about this beautiful plant family.


• Use ice cubes to water your plants. These are tropical plants and do not appreciate icy plunges.

• Over-fertilize. Use a quarter or half the rate recommended for other houseplants.

• Forget to repot. Medium breaks down over time and will become soggy, drowning tender, fleshy roots.

• Grow orchids near unvented gas logs. The off-gassing vapors are toxic to them.

• Dig wild orchids. It is illegal and usually unsuccessful. Buy only commercially propagated plants.

• Ever buy orchids while traveling outside the US. It is illegal to import them without special permits.

Sometimes it just takes trial and error to find the perfect spot for growing orchids. Observe carefully and the plants will show you where they like to be. Often, kitchens and bathrooms are great because of their higher humidity levels. The Orchid Society of Greater St. Louis meets once a month at the Missouri Botanical Garden and can be a great resource. View its complete calendar at

Top Choices for Beginning Home Orchidists

Moth Orchids. Traditional Phalaenopsis, with their long, slender stems, are difficult to transport and too tall for many home settings. To address these concerns, the new trend for orchid breeders is to select more compact plants, with extra branching for more blooms and less stem. With better form and lower prices, moth orchids are now the No. 1 houseplant in America.

Designer Cattleyas. These large orchids have fragrant blossoms on manageable pot plants and yield an extravagant, long-lasting home show. Cattleyas are true epiphytes and grow with no soil contact. They require frequent watering and regular fertilizer as there is no soil to hold nutrients.

Slipper Orchids. Paphiopedilum species, lovingly nicknamed ‘Paphs,’ are most often semi-terrestrials and require slightly different growing techniques than the true epiphytes. They are not outdoor winter-hardy.

Nuns Orchid. This magnificent terrestrial orchid makes a fine terrace foliage plant in the summer, sporting long, crisply-creased leaves.


Missouri Botanical Garden Orchid Show

Feb. 1 to March 23

9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

$5.00 per person (ages 3 and older) + regular Garden admission

Free for Garden members and their children

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