Thousands of Orchids on View at US Botanic Garden
Thousands of Orchids on View at US Botanic Garden

For centuries, orchids have cast a quiet spell. They have been hunted and collected on every continent - except Antarctica.  Books, movies, paintings, and photographs document one of the most sophisticated flower markets.  Every year the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC assemble an orchid exhibit that attracts collectors and fans from all over.  This year it runs for three months until April.

Clive Atyeo has been breeding orchids for 48 years. Over the last 17,  he's been taking care of the orchid collection at the U.S. Botanic Garden.  "And I am still in love with my wife and the orchids, the orchids are part of my family," he says.

The orchids in the Botanic Garden's greenhouse belong to about 5,000 species and there are more than 8,000 plants. It's the Botanic Garden's largest collection. "I think when most people come in contact with orchids, I think the orchids take hold of them, it's like you get hooked on them. How can you not like that?"

Atyeo moves through the greenhouse like it's his own house. "This one has been blooming for awhile, beautiful," he says.

He knows every plant, its health, awards and history.  He also has tricks up his sleeve: how to care for each, especially when when it comes to re-potting them. "Orchids are prone to virus and what I am going to do is sterilize the cutters, so I use a flame, to sterilize the tool," he says.

And so, with tender, loving care, hundreds of orchids are groomed for the Garden's annual exhibit. "We have a lot of orchids set aside for the show," he says.

From the greenhouse, these orchids are carefully transported to the Botanic Garden, at the base of the U.S. Capitol.     

About two thousand plants in bloom are being shown there.

Eric Leavitt supervises the operation.  He explains how the orchids are made to bloom in time for the show. "We run temperatures according to what helps them initiate flower buds.  Last fall we turned down temperatures, down into the 50s in this greenhouse, which initiates flower buds," he says.

Leavitt says some flowers can last several months and that vanilla comes from an orchid. "It's a family that is comprised of more than 20,000 species, all of them are blooming plants," he says.

Leavitt says some collectors will pay thousands of dollars for a rare orchid. "You are probably going to see several hundred species at one time at the exhibit. Some of those is hard to put a price on, but I would say through the entire show we got to have $50,000, $60,000 worth of orchids sitting in the show at one time. That would be a conservative estimate I think."

After months of preparation. the show is open to the public. Cam Rankin came from New Hampshire and has spent the morning admiring the flowers. "They almost seem like they are reaching out wanting to kiss you.  I love them all. They  are fantastic," he says.

Monica Jimenez and her daughters came from Colombia, a country that has a large  number of orchid species. "This is a beautiful exhibit. Everybody should come see it," she says.

University of Maryland professor Frank Stevens came to spend a day at the Botanic Garden.  He says it's an oasis in the city.  "It's a place where you can come and relax and soothe yourself and work on mental health," he says.

And so, for beauty, for mental health, great photographs or collecting, orchids seem to please us all.