Movie buffs and film critics alike are revisiting the 1967 Academy award-winning motion picture, In the Heat of the Night, which recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its release. The plot touches on a number of social issues that are still relevant today but plant enthusiasts have another reason to be interested. The most important scene took place in an orchid greenhouse.
Much of the movie was filmed in Illinois but the main actors were dispatched to a cotton plantation in northwest Tennessee for the pivotal sequence. On the property was a grand mansion with an attached plant room that housed over a hundred large cattleya plants, many of which were in bloom. There were big whites and pinks - well grown, with 3-4 flowers on a spray, along with a smattering of smaller yellows and oranges. There were other genera mixed in as well, and wispy cymbidium foliage can be seen in the corners. It was reported that the orchids cost $15,000.
The inside of the greenhouse, an attractive wooden design, was ornately constructed with large glass panes on three sides and perimeter benching. There was wall shelving and hangers to hold additional plants. Across the back were bottles of various sizes that might hold fertilizers, pesticides, and chemicals for propagation, as well as empty flasks for growing seeds. There were even latex gloves to prevent the spread of orchid viruses. Everything was as it should be in a circa 1960’s orchid greenhouse.
The key piece of evidence in this crime movie is osmunda fiber, a now obsolete orchid potting media that was found in the victim’s car. The northern detective, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and the southern sheriff, Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) visit the plantation and question the owner, Eric Endicott (Larry Gates) who is potting orchids in his greenhouse.
Tibbs - “Is this what the epiphytics root in?”
Endicott – “That’s my point. They thrive in it. Take it away, they do poorly.”
Tibbs – “What do you call this material?”
Endicott – “That’s osmundine. Fern root.”
The potting media being discussed is osmunda fiber which is the mass of aerial roots of ferns in the Osmundaceae family. There are about half a dozen species that make up this genus and they can be found all over the world, often in swampy or marsh-like conditions.
For nearly 75 years, osmunda was the primary potting medium for both commercial and amateur growers in the United States. Over time, however, the fibrous material became scarce and expensive so other products such as fir bark, tree fern, coconut fiber (coir), and sphagnum moss became popular.
Old time growers describe osmunda as great for epiphytes but challenging to work with. A machete or large knife was required to physically cut the huge chunks of fiber into smaller ones suitable for packing into pots. And packing it was. Growers would use a “tamping stick” or screw driver to forcibly push osmunda into every nook and crevice. A correctly potted orchid could then be picked up by the leaves. Early propagation manuals devoted pages of advice and illustrations to this procedure.
It’s not surprising to see Endicott wearing an apron in his greenhouse since potting with osmunda is a messy job. Fragments of the material would likely fall to the ground and could be picked up on the soles of shoes – the plausible scenario that Director Norman Jewison needed to make this story.
For many viewers of In the Heat of the Night, the orchid footage provided the first glimpse of what cattleya plants looked like. The tough foliage, the big clay pots, the elaborate staking. Ladies had worn the flowers as corsages for decades but seeing the plants that produced such beauty must have been an eye opener. We can thank Virgil Tibbs for this.