The Orchid Collection of the Denver Botanic Gardens

Public gardens across the country are trying to safely accommodate visitors who have been cooped up at home for months and want to experience a little freedom. Admission rules have tightened and reserved entrance times, mask requirements, and social distancing are now the norm. Still, there is much to see and orchids are leading the way. 

The Denver Botanic Gardens has an innovative layout that allows attendees to peer into their fully stocked production greenhouses through the glass end walls and see the action. Six structures are open for viewing and, inside, workers can be seen potting, grooming, and watering a wide range of tropicals from pitcher plants and bromeliads to anthuriums and bananas. Of course, the orchids steal the show.   

The garden was opened in 1966 with a single greenhouse and a modest number of donated orchids. Today, the permanent orchid collection approaches 2500 plants and is supplemented with extras for special events. 

Hobbyists are immediately taken by the extremely broad diversity of orchids being represented with several hundred different genera in cultivation. Lesser known types such as Catasetum, Coelogyne, Dracula, Gongora, Lycaste, Masdevalia, Maxillaria, Renanthera, Sarcochilus, Schomburgkia, and Sobralia can all be found and mostly in abundance. The plants are generously labeled with their complete botanical names and the public can access the entire living collection database to view individual pictures and blooming times. 

It would take a master grower to keep up with the nuances of each orchid and Nick Snakenberg, Curator of Tropical Collections and Associate Director of Horticulture, is up to the task. “Many of the early plants in the collection were donations from local orchid enthusiasts – several of whom had a strong interest in orchids from Mexico and Central America. Those early plants were mostly Encyclia species and are still in the collection today.” Snakenburg has been tending to the epiphytes for 20 years. 

As the greenhouse plants begin to bloom, they are rotated into a display house adjacent to the conservatory. Here, they are nestled in and around a waterfall and stream in a naturalized setting. Guests can view these plants up close and take pictures. The conservatory, itself, has massive palm trees and greenery but just a few resident orchids such as Oncidium sphacelatum and Cattleya bowringiana. 

Hobbyists will notice not only the diversity of the orchids but also the size of the plants. These are not the shy first bloomers found in floral shops and nurseries, but rather sizable specimens boasting 10 or 20 pseudobulbs and multiple flower spikes. It takes years or even decades to develop good specimen plants. “I like to dispel the myth that all orchids fit on coffee tables” says Snakenberg. 

A fascinating aspect of the collection is that about a quarter of the plants are mounted rather than being grown in containers. This potting technique involves fastening the pseudobulbs to pieces of wood which more closely approximates how orchids actually exist in nature – with their roots interwoven on tree bark. Growers must water these attached orchids every day to compensate for the lack of moisture normally held in potting media but the public is treated to display plants that are both authentic looking and architecturally pleasing.

The orchid greenhouses are cleverly divided into three temperature zones – cool, intermediate, and warm – which allows for growing a wide range of genera. In the wild, orchids live at varying altitudes and require exact conditions to perform to their full potential. Thus, cool growing species like Draculas are found in the cool house while sultry Vandas thrive in the warm house. 

The Denver Botanic Gardens is located in the heart of the Mile High City and not far from the airport. It is a year-round treat for orchid lovers with several annual events of particular interest – a grand display in the orangery as well as a local society show and sale. Public interest in plants and flowers has never been higher and gardens like this make it worth the trip. 


Saturday, August 1, 2020 - 23:15