Orchids Reign at Biltmore
All Things Biltmore • 01/27/14
Written By Leeann Donnelly
Flower enthusiasts looking for hints of nature’s beauty can find the perfect escape in Biltmore’s Conservatory this winter. Now through March, Biltmore’s orchid collection is in its prime and on display for estate guests.
Biltmore’s love affair with orchids goes back more than a century, when George Vanderbilt was planning his estate in Asheville, NC. At the end of the 19th century, conservatories and private plant collections were popular among wealthy estate owners in Europe and the U.S. George Vanderbilt followed this trend with the construction of Biltmore’s Conservatory. He then created a wish list of plants to fill the building in 1894. An assortment of 800 orchids were on the list!
Today, Biltmore’s orchid collection contains approximately 600 plants. The staff has spent time carefully researching and procuring some of the same varieties contained on Vanderbilt’s original list. Marc Burchette, Biltmore’s Orchid Specialist, assisted his co-worker Jim Rogers with tracking down the heritage varieties and worked with a commercial grower to procure more than half of the plants contained on the archival list.
Because Biltmore has such an expansive collection, guests always see plants in bloom during their visit to the Conservatory. “Biltmore has an eclectic collection, and we have plants coming into flower continually during the year. We put plants in the Conservatory’s display area as they come into flower, and move them out after they’ve passed their prime bloom,” says Marc.
A typical week among the orchids includes a routine of fertilizing and watering the collection and then tending to the display areas in the Conservatory. However, January’s polar vortex caused quite a stir among those managing the plant collection. Devoted staff members worked in shifts overnight to run auxiliary heaters in all of the greenhouses. Saving the precious blooms was their top priority. Marc had to act quickly to save Biltmore’s priceless collection. “I made the decision to move the plants into an area that would best protect them from the extreme cold. It took several hours to carefully move the plants and then a few hours to put them back on display.”
While much of the work surrounding the orchids happens behind the scenes, the effort is always evident when guests enter the Conservatory. “Guests usually say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there were so many different varieties,'” said Marc. There is a wide selection of orchids continually on display. “Guests are very drawn to Phaleonopsis, and I think the main reason is because they are very familiar with it,” says Marc. “Those are the orchids people are used to seeing in a retail shop.”
Guests wanting to know more about the orchid collection can sign up for a 45-minute orchid talk offered in the Conservatory Monday-Friday, now through March 19. Talks are held at 11 a.m. and are complimentary with estate admission. Space is limited and guests can make reservations at any Guest Services location on the morning of their visit.