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The Modern Art of Orchids

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Orchids meet Jackson Pollock in “The Modern Art of Orchids,” a new exhibit featuring hundreds of nature’s living masterpieces, orchids, on view November 4, 2005 through February 26, 2006. With a stylish and contemporary flair, this exhibition immerses you in the abstract beauty of the world’s most diverse group of flowering plants.

Glowing twelve-foot-high images of colorful and rare flowers greet you as you enter the all-white interior and make your way through this gallery of blooms. Alluring arrangements of metallic bamboo hold living orchid specimens in glass test tubes. Contemporary sculptural displays overflow with plants, and the exhibit’s hip Orchid Lounge is the perfect place to marvel at the riot of colorful blooms and innovative floral displays around you.

Throughout history, orchids have been seen as profoundly beautiful works of art and have inspired others. Over 2,000 years ago, Confucius himself waxed poetic about the graceful leaves and delicate fragrance of orchids. Later in China’s Northern Sung period (960-1279) the cymbidium particularly became a very popular subject for painters with its grassy, tapered leaves and the dynamic structure of its flower.

Orchids have also driven many a collector mad with desire. When British horticulturists first brought these spectacular plants to Europe in the early 19th century, many a flower aficionado became so obsessed that a new popular term was coined to describe their passion, “orchidelirium.” Growers today remain just as fascinated.

There is good reason for this enduring orchid fever. The variety and range of these plants is unmatched. Orchids are one of the largest and most diverse family of flowering plants with an estimated 25,000-35,000 species and more than 110,000 human-produced hybrids. Orchids account for 10% of all flowering plant species.

Orchids have adapted to almost every environment on earth and can be found from the dry scrub of Western Australia to the snow-covered Swiss Alps. Even Death Valley with two inches of annual rainfall is home to orchids. In the state of California you can find 32 different species (San Francisco was thought to have had six native orchid species two of which—Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana) and Green Rein-orchis (Piperia elegans)—can still be found).

The flowers exhibit an almost endless variety from spotted to striped, to robust and rounded forms to sleek, starry shapes. The flowers can grow in massive clusters or as single, long-lived beauties. Some of their distinctive petals are large, bulbous affairs like the pahpiopedilums, while others like the pansy orchids, Miltonia, can be quite discrete.

Orchids’ blooms are real lookers, and that is no mistake. Their flowers are sophisticated and intricate reproductive structures designed to get the attention of the insects they rely on for pollination. In many cases this involves trickery. Plants in the genus Ophrys are particularly effective at fooling male wasps and flies by mimicking exactly the fragrance and appearance of a female insect. When the male attempts to mate with the flower, clumps of pollen stick to its body. The confused male moves on without so much as a complimentary drink of nectar. But soon he has spied another “potential mate” and moves in to try again, depositing the first plant’s pollen onto the other.

“The Modern Art of Orchids” will highlight many of these interesting facts for visitors while treating them to a gorgeous spectacle of botanical beauty. And in conjunction with the exhibition, the Conservatory is hosting a series of “how-to” weekend workshops for orchid aficionados and amateurs alike. And families can pick up a free exhibit activity guide for children.

Design Within Reach is proud to support the Conservatory of Flowers