Painting with Plants in Biltmore’s Conservatory

From brilliant bromeliads to elegant orchids, painting with plants in Biltmore’s Conservatory is how Todd Roy, Conservatory Horticulturist, describes his work.

Painting with plants such as bromeliads and orchids in Biltmore's Conservatory
A breathtaking display of bromeliads and orchids in the Conservatory

Caring for Biltmore’s Plants

Todd Roy checks plantings behind the Conservatory
Todd Roy checks plantings behind the Conservatory

Caring for this glorious garden under glass—filled with tropical treasures from around the world—is no easy task, but Todd enjoys his work in such exotic surroundings.

“It takes a lot of effort to keep the Conservatory looking so lush and beautiful,” said Todd. “All these plant species have different moisture needs, so we spend the first several hours of each day watering everything by hand—it helps us keep a close eye on the thousands of plants in our care.” 

Tropical Plant Treasures

Pink anthurium in Biltmore's Conservatory
Pink anthurium thrive in the Conservatory

Todd has been part of Biltmore’s Conservatory staff for the more than four years. Prior to joining the estate, he worked as a horticulturalist for a historic estate in southwest Florida, which gave him an appreciation for tropical plantings.

“I focus on adding to the diversity of what we offer in the Conservatory,” Todd said. “We have some palms that are very old, and some Cycads that date back to the time of the Vanderbilts, but we’re always adding new things for guests to discover and enjoy.”

Painting with Plants

Painting with plants and colorful foliage in the Conservatory
Todd incorporates colorful foliage into his designs

Along with his horticultural skills, Todd has a background in fine art, including painting and photography. His work in the Conservatory gives him a living canvas for expressing his creativity.

Detailed drawing of Conservatory plantings
A hand-drawn sketch shows details of a planting in the Conservatory

“From flowers to foliage, there are so many colors and textures to work with that it really is like ‘painting with plants’. My designs often begin with the color and pattern of foliage and how I can best create multi-level displays that intrigue our guests and engage their imagination,” said Todd.

A special project in 2019

Biltmore Gardens Railway includes this replica of the Bass Pond spillway in the Conservatory
In 2019, Biltmore Gardens Railway included this replica of the Bass Pond spillway in the Conservatory

In addition to his regular responsibilities, Todd was instrumental in preparing the Conservatory to host Biltmore Gardens Railway in 2019.

The charming botanical model train display featured replicas of estate landmarks, handcrafted in meticulous detail from such all-natural elements as leaves, bark, and twigs.

“Once the structures and the trains were installed, we had to create displays around them that both complemented the exhibition and showcased the Conservatory itself as one of Biltmore’s historic gardens,” Todd said. “It was an enormous project, but our guests really enjoyed it!”

Biltmore Gardens Railway returns in 2020

Biltlmore Gardens Railway display
Biltmore Gardens Railway in Antler Hill Village

Biltmore Gardens Railway returns to Biltmore this summer; you can enjoy it in Antler Hill Village from July 7 through September 7, 2020.

This year, the botanical model train display will showcase iconic American railway stations, some of which have ties to the Vanderbilt family.

Featured blog image: Todd Roy displays a brilliantly-colored bromeliad in Biltmore’s Conservatory

Remembering our Christmas past

Christmas has always been celebrated in grand style at Biltmore, beginning with the opening of Biltmore House on Christmas Eve 1895 and continuing today with Christmas at Biltmore. The festivities have always included friends and family, plus a special party for employees of the estate.

Creating traditions

While George Vanderbilt was still a bachelor, he enlisted the help of Mrs. Charles McNamee, the wife of his friend who assisted in purchasing land for the estate, to provide Christmas gifts for 300–500 guests, including estate workers and their families. Mr. Vanderbilt greeted everyone in the Banquet Hall on Christmas afternoon, and members of his own family helped distribute the gifts which included Christmas trees and trimmings for estate employees to decorate their own homes.

In 1897, Biltmore’s Christmas celebration took place at All Souls Parish in Biltmore Village because George Vanderbilt was away from home. According to a report in the Semi-Weekly Citizen, there were “toys and candy and cakes and oranges for the little ones, and books and articles useful and ornamental, dress goods and jerseys, ties and gloves, for the older folk. As in previous and future celebrations, refreshments were served, including ice cream, cake, and bananas.”

Cornelia Vanderbilt and her cousin John Nicholas Brown in 1905

Cornelia Vanderbilt and her cousin John Nicholas Brown, 1905

Celebrating with friends and family

George Vanderbilt married Edith Dresser in 1898, and she took an immediate and active interest in the estate’s annual Christmas festivities. In 1905, when George and Edith Vanderbilt’s only child Cornelia would have been five years old, the New York Times reported the following details about the holiday cheer at Biltmore:

“Mr. and Mrs. George W. Vanderbilt this afternoon provided for nearly a thousand children of Biltmore estate employees a big tree in the banquet hall of the chateau. The little ones were loaded with useful gifts and toys…bought in Asheville in the last week…Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt welcomed each of the little guests, many of whom came twenty miles from the coves and mountain tops of the Vanderbilt forest domain, some walking, some by ox team and some mule back…. Mr. and Mrs. Vanderbilt…personally distributed all the gifts, aided by Mrs. Edith Wharton, Mr. Wharton, and Mrs. Ernesto G. Fabbri (George Vanderbilt’s niece].”

In her oral history, Edith Cauble, whose parents worked on the estate, recalls:

“Christmas parties where Mr. Vanderbilt stood on one side of the front door of the House in tails, and Edith stood on the other side wearing a long velvet dress giving out oranges and candy. In the Banquet Hall there was music and Cornelia would run around with the other children.”
 
Biltmore Employee Christmas party in 1916Employee Christmas party at Antler Hall, ca. 1916

Edith and Cornelia Vanderbilt continued the employee Christmas parties even after George Vanderbilt passed away in 1914. In 1916, the event took place outdoors at Antler Hall—a large home originally located where The Inn on Biltmore Estate™ now sits. In the archival photograph featured here, you can see Edith Vanderbilt just to the right of center wearing a dark hat, and Cornelia to her left in a white hat.

Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus at the entrance to Biltmore HouseSanta and Mrs. Claus welcome guests to Biltmore

The tradition continues

Today, more than a century after the first holiday festivities at Biltmore, we continue to host our annual Christmas party for employees. It is still a grand occasion with gifts for the children, visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and delicious refreshments—and a wonderful opportunity to see America’s Largest Home® lit by the glow of candles and firelight during Candlelight Christmas Evenings.

Featured blog image: Photographs of George Vanderbilt’s parents (William Henry Vanderbilt and Maria Louisa Kissam Vanderbilt)