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Desperately Seeking Springtime? Try Biltmore’s Conservatory!

In Our Gardens 02/23/17

Written By Jean Sexton

Each spring, we welcome the return of the season with our annual Biltmore Blooms celebration. In the midst of winter, however, Biltmore’s Conservatory offers an indoor tropical oasis that’s as welcome as a breath of spring. The colorful blooms and sheer number of different plants are amazing inside this indoor garden that anchors the Walled Garden.

The Conservatory in the Walled Garden at BiltmoreA passion for horticulture

Completed in 1895, the Conservatory embodies the late 19th-century passion for horticulture. It was a collaboration between George Vanderbilt, Frederick Law Olmsted, the estate’s landscape architect, and Richard Morris Hunt, who designed Biltmore House. Hunt designed the structure while Olmsted weighed in on the location.

“Olmsted wrote to Hunt in March 1889, discussing several landscape considerations including positioning the Conservatory out of view from the house,” said Bill Alexander, Landscape and Forest Historian. “This was in keeping with Olmsted’s desire to create a natural landscape and uninterrupted view.”

Succulents growing in Biltmore's ConservatoryLike other conservatories in the early 1900s, Biltmore’s glass-enclosed building sheltered exotic and tropical plants from around the world. But this facility was much more than a pretty place to showcase rare plants; it also fulfilled Vanderbilt’s vision of Biltmore as a self sufficient, working estate. The structure nurtured tender young seedlings for transplanting outdoors and housed gardeners’ workspaces, tools and equipment.

It’s also unique from other circa 1900 conservatories. “Ours has a full basement underneath it; I don’t know of any other conservatory that has one,” Bill said. “Olmsted and Hunt used the lay of the land to create a functional work space.”

For a building made primarily of glass, it’s remarkable that the Conservatory’s design and construction stood the test of time for more than a century. In 1997, the structure received an extensive two-year renovation.

“We focused on much-needed repairs while restoring much of the floor plan to the original 1893 design,” said Bill. “I believe George Vanderbilt, who was fascinated with technology and innovations, would have been excited by everything we did to preserve this historic building.”

The Orchid Room in the Conservatory at BiltmoreOrchids on display

One of the highlights of the Conservatory is the Orchid Room, where Marc Burchette, orchid specialist, cares for more than 500 plants in the collection. Jordana Chalnik, Conservatory Horticulturist, and Kathryn Marsh, Conservatory Gardener, assist Marc as needed with care and displaying of plants.

“Our collection highlights five major groups of orchids,” said Marc, who also serves as vice president of the WNC Orchid Society. “A large portion is orchids people generally know, like corsage orchids which come in every color imaginable. We also have lady slipper orchids and small, yellow-flowered dancing lady orchids.”

Yellow orchids in Biltmore's ConservatoryMarc most admires the diversity of orchids, explaining that there are 25,000 to 30,000 species growing in every ecosystem except Antarctica.

“They are diverse in every respect, from the shape of their flowers to the way they trick pollinators like bees or humming birds, because there is rarely any nectar or pollen in the blooms,” said Marc. “They are fascinating.”

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like to explore Winter Warmer-Upper and Biltmore’s Hidden Garden.

Featured image: Peaceful seating area inside the Conservatory
First image: Conservatory in the Walled Garden
Second image: Succulents in a decorative urn
Third image: The Orchid Room in the Conservatory
Fourth image: Yellow orchids in the Orchid Room

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