In the far reaches of western North Carolina on 8,000 acres, sits the largest dwelling in the United States, the Biltmore House. George Vanderbilt II modeled his 1895 country retreat after a chateaux in France’s Loire Valley. He also specified an extensive orchid collection to provide fresh flowers throughout the home.
A Victorian conservatory was built on the property which had a central palm house and three wings – one of which was devoted exclusively to orchids. The species were to come from all over the world - dendrobiums and lady slippers from the Himalayas, oncidiums and cattleyas from South America, and laelias from Mexico. Each week, the staff was to carry the newly flowering orchids nearly ¼ mile uphill from the conservatory to the house.
With 250 lavish rooms and extensive gardens, Biltmore was designed for entertaining and hosting overnight guests. One room was called the Winter Garden with a glass roof, a center fountain, and myriad of tropical plants. This is where the most of the blooming orchids would reside.
In 1914, Mr. Vanderbilt died unexpectedly and his wife and daughter were left to run the operation. Not long after, the estate was opened to the public. Today, Biltmore remains privately held with 4th and 5th generation Vanderbilt descendents overseeing the tourist attraction that draws 1.4 million visitors yearly.
While the main house captivates the masses, orchid fanciers will make their way through the rose garden to the 7500 square foot conservatory. The distinctive architecture of the structure features five enormous arched windows which allow approaching visitors a preview of the lush greenery inside. Vanderbilt’s original orchid plans are on full display as Orchid Specialist Mark Burchette and his staff have painstakingly recreated much of the collection to 1895 specifications.
August is traditionally a low production month for orchid growers but Burchette has plenty of blooms to share. He has cultivated overgrown multi-spiked vandas, a rarity in these parts of the country, as well as large baskets of traditional cattleya hybrids, and plenty of fragrant summer-blooming art shade phalaenopsis. There are also examples of lesser known genera such as bulbophyllum, epidendrum, and catasetum with their unusual and often muted colors.
The plants on display are regularly rotated out so that the public only sees fresh blossoms. Visitors are hard pressed to find even small blemishes on the orchids, let alone yellow leaves or insects. When not working with the collection directly, Mr. Burchette can be found giving orchid lectures or personalized tours.
Springtime is advertised as peak orchid season at Biltmore when they kick off their Biltmore Blooms campaign and bring in hundreds of extra orchids. However, the permanent orchid collection that was envisioned by Vanderbilt more than a century ago, has been not only recreated but also upgraded, and welcomes tourists with a spectacular display of color year round.