Photographs by Eric Eakin

One of the rare orchids in this year’s show, the Darwin orchid, is a moth-pollinated orchid native to Madagascar.

You don’t have to buy a plane ticket to escape the icy grip of our Northeast Ohio winter. The beautiful flowers and enchanting fragrances of “Orchids Forever” at the Cleveland Botanical Garden will transport you to the tropics.
There is nothing like the wonder and beauty of orchids and the botanical garden shines a spotlight on their grandeur at the sixteenth annual orchid show running through March 13. The show features nearly 3,000 orchids, plant displays and stunning artwork located throughout the interior garden spaces, including the glasshouses. “The mystique and elegance of orchids highlights the wonder and beauty found in nature, and experiencing these plants up close showcases the importance of protecting them from the increasing threats of climate change,” Jill Koski, president and CEO of Holden Forests and Gardens said. “I encourage you to escape the grey, cold winter weather and find joy in a visit to ‘Orchids Forever’.”
The theme of this year’s show is Synergy and Survival, focusing on the special relationship between orchids and their pollinators and why this relationship is vital for survival and longevity.
Many orchids require the help of an animal, insect, moth or bird to pollinate. Many grow in hard to access places, such as high up in trees, or have very specialized flowers. Pollinators need to fit into the unique flower forms to spread pollen to other orchids. Some orchids offer rewards to pollinators. Stanhopea orchids, for example, mimic a pheromone-matching fragrance of Euglossine bees. The male bees collect the fragrance from the flower to attract females, picking up pollen along the way.
The vanilla orchid, a Central American native, is a popular agricultural product and the only orchid that produces an edible fruit. Today, most vanilla plants are pollinated by hand. In its home ecosystem, vanilla flowers are pollinated by one type of bee, the Melipona bee, only native to Central America.
One of the stars of this year’s show is the Darwin orchid, a moth-pollinated orchid native to Madagascar. Charles Darwin was the first to surmise the purpose of the long spur at the base of the flowerhead. The spur contains a very small amount of nectar at its base and the flower is especially fragrant at night. Darwin guessed that the pollinator for this flower had to be an insect that was either small enough to slide down the spur or had a mouthpart long enough to reach the nectar at the bottom. Pollination of this orchid was not observed in action until 21 years after Darwin’s death, but he was right. A moth with a long tubular mouthpart was discovered effortlessly extracting nectar from the spur, simultaneously releasing the orchid’s pollen packet.
Some of the other rare orchids in the show include: Miltoniopsis Lemon Drop ‘Bright Eyes, Dendrobium Fancy Angel Lychee, and Cattlianthe Gold Digger ‘Orglades Mandarin.’
In addition to orchids, the show features thousands of other tropical plants, Andrew Pratt, director of gardens and greenhouses noted. “The plants have a very narrow bloom window and everything in the show has to be timed so that there is an in-spike and in-bloom mix,” he said. Pratt added that the 10 flower towers in the show took horticulturists two weeks to assemble.
Orchids are part of one of the largest families of flowering plants on earth. They live on every continent and in most ecosystems including rainforests, grasslands, bogs and even in our own front yards. Orchid survival is connected to the success of other living things in their ecosystem, such as trees, fungi and animal pollinators. To help conserve wild orchids so that we can enjoy them for years to come, scientists and plant lovers must learn all they can about orchid species and the special relationships they have with their ecosystem. There are about 30 different orchids that are native to Northeast Ohio, Pratt said, and they flower at different times of the year.
Many of the flowers in this year’s show are from Hawaii and Florida. Singapore is the capital of orchid production, noted Caroline Tait, vice president of horticulture and collections at the botanical garden. “Try sourcing orchids during a pandemic,” she said. “A lot of the Southeast Asia vendors have shut down. The pandemic has caused plant lovers to rediscover orchids. But when you purchase a plant, you should be aware of its provenance. Orchids are a threatened species because of illegal trafficking and habitat loss.”
Just Add Ice, the sponsor of “Orchids Forever,” is part of Green Circle Growers in Oberlin, OH, one of the largest orchid growers in the United States, with 33 acres of orchid production.
The main lobby of the botanical garden is filled with vertical flower installations and artist renderings of pollinators suspended from the ceiling and flying around the orchids. The glasshouses feature horticultural vignettes and graphic panels that tell the story of how the pollinator and orchid relationship supports the function of the ecosystem. Large graphics in the Eppig Gallery featuring pollinators and plant displays explain the concept of pollination. Silk paintings by artist Gunter Schwegler are featured throughout the exhibit. Show attendees can visit the Eleanor Squire Library to see books about orchids. The Garden Store is brimming with orchids, including some exotic varieties, along with orchid soil, fertilizer and pots available for purchase.
An orchid photography workshop is planned for Feb. 27, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. A free orchid clinic, “Ask the Orchid Doctor,” takes place on select Saturdays throughout the show. A class on orchid growing and care is also planned. Visit for event times and dates.
“Orchids Forever” hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $16 for adults, and $12 for children ages three to 12. Admission is free for Holden Forests and Gardens members. The Cleveland Botanical Garden is at 11030 East Blvd. Paid indoor parking is available.