The Orchid Show at the Missouri Botanical Garden had been an annual tropical respite from winter, and St. Louisans have waited a little longer than usual for its return.
It was last presented in person in 2020, when it closed a few days early because of the start of the pandemic. This year, the show runs Jan. 28-Feb. 26. Its new setting is the Emerson Conservatory, part of the garden’s Jack C. Taylor Visitor Center, which opened in August.
The duration is a couple of weeks shorter than it had been in the garden’s former Orthwein Floral Display Hall. The new conservatory space is climate-controlled year-round to house a permanent collection of Mediterranean plants, which aren’t as tolerant of the higher temperatures and humidity that orchids require.
The orchids in the show come from the garden’s collection of more than 6,000, something that makes this display unique among orchid shows at other gardens, which might buy orchids for their shows and then sell them to the public afterward.
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Of course, the conservatory can’t handle all 6,000 orchids at once, so staff members will bring in new blooming orchids from greenhouses next door each morning. With the rotation, visitors can see hundreds at once.
There is no general theme to the show this year — past shows highlighted orchids from a certain part of the world, for example — but organizers are playing up the angular aspects of the new space.
“This space — there’s not a curve in it,” says floral display supervisor Pat Scace, referring to the angular permanent planter boxes and the glass panels of the walls and ceiling. Gold-colored rectangular screens with geometric sections of colorful moss will stand throughout the orchid show. “This will pick up on the lines of the building,” Scace says.
Moss-covered pots of orchids will hang from moss- and cork-covered treelike structures. Staff members become masters of disguise, using fresh Spanish moss to cover the zinc acquisition tags connected to each pot. They’ll fluff fern fronds to conceal the edges of orchid pots placed in the ground-level planters.
Some orchids are epiphytic, which means they get nutrients from the air and grow on other plants, like trees, which prop them up. Many orchids are terrestrial, which means they grow in the ground. Garden staff members will try to keep terrestrial orchids closer to the ground and epiphytic orchids up higher; if an orchid is in the wrong spot, purists may notice, Scace says, laughing.
The history of orchids at the Missouri Botanical Garden goes back to the early 1870s, when founder Henry Shaw received specimens from Brazil as a gift. The garden has about 700 orchid varieties in its collection and has displayed them at its shows for more than a century.
The orchids live in greenhouses at the garden, but in 1926 they were moved to greenhouses at Shaw Arboretum in Gray Summit in order to escape the city’s smoke and smog. The air quality improved enough that the orchids could return in the late 1950s.
The difference in their environment then and now is striking: Two huge control panels monitor the temperature and humidity of the space. Industrial fans circulate air, shades move automatically to keep warm air inside on cool nights, and sensors monitor what does and doesn’t need automatic watering.
The garden’s team hasn’t had much time to get used to the new conservatory space. In the fall, builders used the workshop area for cutting stone for the visitor center facade, and the holiday flower show was set up around the same time the permanent Mediterranean plants moved in.
The miniature train display, an annual holiday attraction that was last presented in 2019, should return this year to the conservatory, Scace says. She looks forward to new plantings outside the conservatory this spring and tweaking future shows inside.
“It’s a brand-new job for me,” she whispers, then bursts into laughter. “It’s a whole new space.”
But over and over again, conservatory visitors tell her how much they look forward to the break from the cold.
“The explosion of flowers will be really cool in the middle of winter,” she says. “People will love seeing the orchids back.”
What Orchid Show • When 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Jan. 28-Feb. 26; Orchid Nights are Feb. 9 and Feb. 23 (21 and up) • Where Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Boulevard • How much Free with admission; $20 for Orchid Nights • More info mobot.org/orchidshow