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Exploring Biltmore’s Historic Orchid Collection

Written By Heather Angel

Posted 01/08/24

Updated 01/08/24

Estate History

Biltmore’s love affair with orchids goes back more than a century, when George Vanderbilt was first planning his grand estate in Asheville, NC.

With some 25,000 species and 100,000 cultivated varieties, orchids comprise one of the two largest families of flowering plants, growing in every ecosystem except Antarctica. Discover the colorful history behind Biltmore’s orchid collection and how our team cares for the alluring specimens year-round.

Paphiopedilum 'Rosey Dawn' orchid
Biltmore’s orchid collection highlights five major groups and includes slipper orchids, or Paphiopedilum, like the “Rosey Dawn” variety shown here

Orchid Mania in the Victorian Era

Though orchids have been a beloved flower since Roman times, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that the enchanting plants became extremely popular in Britain seemingly overnight. With elite Victorians seeking them out as status symbols, the demand grew and many people became obsessed with acquiring orchids for their collections, generating a fad known as “orchidelirium,” or orchid mania.

Private collectors and “orchid hunters” traveled far and wide, often under dangerous circumstances, to search for the finest exotic orchids on nearly every continent and ship them back to Europe at exorbitant prices.

Fortunately, by the late 1800s when George Vanderbilt was planning his grand estate in Asheville, orchids were more readily available from nurseries and no longer required sending collectors on arduous journeys.

Biltmore Conservatory ca. 1910
Biltmore’s historic Conservatory, pictured here in 1910, has an entire room dedicated to the display of eye-catching orchids.

Filling the “Orchid House”

Conservatories and glass-roofed garden rooms filled with private plant collections remained popular among wealthy estate owners in Europe and the United States throughout the late 19th century. Naturally, George Vanderbilt followed this trend with the construction of Biltmore’s Conservatory and the Winter Garden room of Biltmore House.

For Biltmore’s collection, landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, specified that 800 orchids, comprising more than 30 varieties, should be purchased for furnishing the Conservatory’s “orchid house.” In archival photographs, orchids can also be seen adorning tablescapes in the Winter Garden surrounded by palm trees, providing a lush and exotic space for the Vanderbilt family to relax and entertain guests.

Today, Biltmore’s orchid collection contains close to 1,000 plants. In the collection are award-winners recognized by the American Orchid Society and some of the very same varieties contained in Olmsted’s original list.

Assortment of orchids in bloom inside Biltmore's Conservatory
Biltmore’s orchid collection contains close to 1,000 plants.

Caring for the Orchid Collection

While much of the work to care for Biltmore’s orchids happens behind the scenes, the effort is always evident. No matter the time of year, our team rotates blooming plants onto display inside the Conservatory for guests to enjoy their irresistible beauty.

A typical week among the orchids includes fertilizing and watering the collection and then tending to the display areas in the Conservatory. If severe cold weather strikes during winter months, team members may have to take extra precautions to protect the plants, including running auxiliary heaters in all of the greenhouses and moving the plants into warmer spaces overnight.

Large, white Phalaenopsis (or
Large, white Phalaenopsis (or “moth orchids”) are some of the most recognizable orchids in Biltmore’s collection.

Quick Tips for Orchid Care at Home 

Of all the orchids in Biltmore’s Conservatory collection, you may be wondering which is the most popular with our guests. According to our garden team, guests are very drawn to Phalaenopsis, or “moth orchid,” likely because it is one of the more recognizable varieties that they may have at home.  

You don’t have to be a professional gardener to enjoy the beauty of orchids. Biltmore’s Orchid Horticulturist, Marc Burchette, shares these tips for successful orchid growth at home: 

G – Give your orchid a bright east or north-facing window with little to no direct sunlight.  

R – Regulate temperatures to avoid exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day or below 55 at night. 

O – Only water plants when they are completely dry to avoid overwatering.  

W – Maintain humidity levels between 50 to 80 percent. You can use a gravel-filled tray partially filled with water if needed.  Plants should not sit in water. 

T – Treat with a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 / 20-20-20) at 1/4 recommended strength weekly during the growing season.  

H – Handle repotting every 2 to 3 years or when new root growth is observed; use a well-draining mix. 

Cymbidium hybrid orchids
This Cymbidium hybrid orchid boasts striking purple, white, and yellow blooms.

A Fascination with Orchids Continues

Each winter season, Biltmore’s vast and vibrant orchid collection reaches peak bloom inside the Conservatory. And, while “orchid mania” may be a craze of the past, the fascination with Biltmore’s orchids continues to provide a feast for the senses year-round.

Be sure to spend time enjoying the beauty of Biltmore’s orchids during your next visit and consider joining our Passholder family to experience the ever-changing assortment of blooms inside the Conservatory throughout the year.