“It’s about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It’s a kind of direction.” –Susan Orlean
Even the most loyal prairie lovers may find themselves hungry for a little bright color in February. Sure, there are the russets and silks, still out there until the first licks of flame from a prescribed burn turn them to memories.
But don’t we always long for that which we don’t have?
If you want a jolt of bright colors in winter, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Orchid Show is a pretty good bet. Wander through the greenhouses, and you’re immersed in pink, purple, and orange.
And ohhh! That smell of humidity and moist earth! If I close my eyes and inhale, I can imagine I’m on the prairie after a July thunderstorm.
Here, at the Chicago Botanic, I learn a few things about the cultural and social significance of the flowers. Orchids, I find, are often a symbol of wealth. Turns out Beyoncé had 10,000 of them flown in for her wedding. On a lesser scale for us mere mortals, perhaps you had an orchid corsage for your high school prom or an Easter outing. The Orchid Show may prompt a flood of these types of orchid-related memories.
But not all blooms are of the corsage type. There are orchids in simple, clear lemon-colored zen forms…
…orchids in every possible combination of colors…
…and many crazy patterns.
The white orchids are stunningly elegant in their simplicity.
Beautiful, yes? Yet, they still fail to delight me like the orchids on the prairie.
Orchids on the prairie? What’s that, you say?
Illinois has 45 different species of native orchids, I learn at the show, including the small white lady’s slipper in the photo above. They come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, as their exotic cousins do.
But perhaps the native orchids are prettiest in bright white. Like these nodding ladies’ tresses in the autumn tallgrass.
Mmmm– that scent! Light and vanilla-ish.
Some of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s exotic orchids are scented, as well. This orchid smells like chocolate.
There are spectacular non-native pink orchids on display at the Orchid Show.
Although they are beautiful, I still prefer the pink lady’s slipper orchids, like this one I found up north, around Lake Superior.
I admire the blooms at the Chicago Botanic’s Orchid Show. They bring sunshine and a touch of the exotic to my Midwestern winter.
But, attending a flower show is a different experience than the joy I feel when I find an native wildflower, like this eastern prairie fringed orchid, while out for a hike on the prairie. That feeling can’t be replicated in any hothouse, no matter how beautiful the display.
Once you know the location of a particular orchid, you follow its existence with a bit of parental anxiety. Sort of like a mom waiting up for her teenager when curfew is long past. Will the orchid bloom again this season? When? Will the weather conditions favor it? What about trampling animals; lack of pollinators? Will the orchids show up?
Blink–and you’ll miss them.
Which makes finding native orchids each season a treasured moment. Imagine the happiness I felt when the little patch of lady’s slipper orchids I’ve watched over like a mother had twelve blooms this spring, instead of six, as they did the year before.
No floral display –not even one with 10,000 orchids–can replicate the tallgrass prairie landscape with its native orchids, and its attendant serendipities and disappointments from year to year.
But until spring comes to the prairie, the exotics will stand in. And they are welcome for their color, variety, and scent, just as the natives will be as the weather warms up.
Soon. Very soon.
Susan Orlean (1955-, whose quote opens this essay, is the author of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (1998), based on an article she wrote for the New Yorker about Florida orchid growers and poachers. Her book was later made into the movie, Adaptation. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from University of Michigan. Orlean was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Gardens, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum) with tiny green pollinator (likely metallic green sweat bee, genus Agapostemon), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) with yellow blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis) and Canadian bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) , Isle Royale National Park, Michigan; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Burlington Prairie, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois DNR, Burlington, IL.