Plant lovers descend on Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in search of orchids

Plant lovers descend on Kanapaha Botanical Gardens in search of orchids

A colorful orchid from a plant seller. (Spencer Ballard/WUFT News)

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens hosted its fall open house and plant sale last week, in collaboration with the Gainesville Orchid Society.

Visitors wandered past carefully designed orchid displays in the entrance building on Saturday, then made their way outside to more than 50 booths of vendors looking to display and sell their plants. As the event continued, carts filled with plants ranging from cacti to trees moved back and forth from the vendor tents to the parking lot.

Orchid enthusiasts and plant breeders came from all over Florida for this weekend’s event.

The second day of the event on Sunday featured guest speaker and judge Dr. Jason Downing, orchid biologist and president of the Million Orchid Project, a native orchid reintroduction program in South Florida. The project was established in 2012 by the Fairchild Botanical Garden located in Miami. It is now half way complete.

“We now have just over 600,000 orchids,” Downing said.

South Florida has been home to all kinds of orchids. But in the late 19th century, as the railroad extended southward along Florida’s east coast, orchids were among the first natural resources exploited for their ornamental uses. The orchid population declined as the settlement expanded. Now, thanks to the Million Orchid Project, cities like Miami are bursting with colorful orchids.

According to the Fairchild Garden’s official website, more than 20 community partners and more than 100 schools have been enlisted to plant orchids in their classrooms and surrounding neighborhoods.

“With the help of these students and volunteers, we are now propagating 10 species of rare native orchids from seed using micropropagation,” according to the website.

For the project, school and hospital landscaping and urban tree planting were the main beneficiaries of the reintroduction initiatives. Downing said he hopes to keep the orchid environment alive, especially through schools.

Downing’s background is in ecology, he worked in marine science and aspired to become a marine biologist, but that eventually changed.

“I like to joke that I traveled on a research ship for six weeks and realized… I’m a wildlife biologist… (marine science) is not my thing,” Downing says.

Downing said he then began learning about rare plants in Florida, which introduced him to him and got him working in orchards. Through a Ph.D. While working, Downing continued his research on the ecology and conservation of orchids in Florida as well as China. He and his team worked directly with the Chinese government to rescue and salvage orchid species that were in danger of being wiped out by floods.

“But that’s the fun thing about doing field ecology. You get to go into these uncharted territories,” Downing said.

This is what built his position in the orchid world.

Guests watch the American Orchid Society’s display of award-winning orchids at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. (Spencer Ballard/WUFT News)

Philip Hamilton, 47, is the owner of Bredren Orchids and was another guest speaker at the event. He has been growing plants for more than 40 years since he was introduced to the family business. He originally took an interest in the phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, and has kept it as his specialty ever since. Some of his orchids have received awards from the American Orchid Society, including several first places.

“The orchid is all I mess with…there are enough of them to keep me busy,” Hamilton said.

The orchid family is the second largest family of flowering plants.

Originally from Jamaica, Hamilton moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida, where he studied environmental horticulture. He graduated in 1999 and completed his graduate studies through UF in 2002. After working in orchards for a few years, he eventually took over Bredren Orchids about seven years ago.

Hamilton set up his own vendor tent, covered from head to toe in a variety of colorful orchid clusters.

“A lot of what we have here is my hybrid,” Hamilton said.

But what makes the orchid especially valuable? Well, it depends on your preference. Hamilton said there were so many of these races, he couldn’t pick a favourite. Besides the diverse shapes and colors, orchids can also come in a range of scents. A single orchid is said to smell like chocolate when it blooms.

“Some of them are beautiful…and some of them are not so beautiful,” Hamilton says.

Ron McHatton, director of education and regional operations for the American Orchid Society, said he fell in love with the look of orchids very early in his life.

“You either get the bug or you don’t. I’ve had the bug since I was probably 10 years old,” McShatton said.

As he grew older, McShaton and his brother started a leaf business together, but eventually, his brother left so McShaton bought him out and his personal journey began. He says he now has between 600 and 1,000 orchids on his five-acre property.

He said he keeps his orchids in pristine growing conditions, with a greenhouse, an automatic watering and humidification system and even a backup generator in case of emergencies.

“People usually have problems with greenhouses, they will implode because of an imbalance in air pressure,” McHatton said.

To combat this problem, McHatton put up curtains on his greenhouse so he could prevent a blowout during a storm, but he would still experience the loss of some pots and plants. Growing orchids is so wonderful because you can do it anywhere, from inside your kitchen window to the entire garden, he said.

McHatton is working with Jason Downing, who is scheduled to go out into his greenhouse and select the orchids that will be pollinated and make copies of them. This is part of a direct effort to help the Million Orchid Project.

“We want every part of the United States to do this program,” Downing says.

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