Artistry in bloom: Exhibit showcases orchids

By Ryan Trares

For The Republic

Even a little bit of color can go a long way toward breaking up the dull gray monotony of winter.

Among the potted plants and hanging baskets inside the Elder Greenhouse, explosive hues of pink, purple, white, yellow and other colors leap out from the dark green leaves.

Wide lavender blooms and tiny yellow flowers showcase the variety of the Cattleya orchid. Brown stripes on a neon yellow background captivate and draw onlookers to the orchid known as Grammatophyllum — the “Broga Tiger.”

Taking advantage of one of the world’s most vibrant flowers, the home of the Indianapolis Museum of Art has harnessed nature’s own works of art.

“Orchids” will feature hundreds of the namesake plants from around the world, displayed to accentuate the broad range of sizes, styles and technicolor hues that the flowers produce. The exhibition will bloom inside the Elder Greenhouse on the Newfields campus, which includes the museum and its famed gardens.

“A lot of people think, ‘Orchids at an art museum? That doesn’t make sense.’ But this is something very unique. It gives people an opportunity to see that orchids have inspired art for hundreds, if not thousands of years,” said Ian Wilhite, horticulturist for Newfields.

This will be the third year for the Newfields gardens to spotlight orchids. Officials wanted to come up with a display that drew attention to the greenhouse while also breaking up what can be a dreary time of year, Wilhite said.

Orchids are common all over the world, from Australia to South American to Greenland. Indiana has more than 40 varieties of the plant, though for the truly brilliant colors and shapes, people have to travel to the tropics.

Once you get into some of the weirder ones, they’re completely different than any other plant.

—Ian Wilhite, horticulturist for Newfields

The flowers enjoyed their greatest popularity in the Victorian era, when explorers brought back samples of the fantastical species from around the globe.

Besides being an attractive species to look at, orchids have an interwoven history with the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The father of J.K. Lilly, whose property and estate became the site of the museum, grew orchids.

Madeline Elder, a former trustee of the museum, was a champion of saving the Lilly’s greenhouses when the museum was being built on the property. The greenhouse is named after Elder today.

“She was an avid orchid collector, and founding member of the Central Indiana Orchid Society. She donated a big portion of her collection to us years ago,” Wilhite said. “So we’ve always kind of had this emphasis on orchids.”

Many of the featured plants come from the existing collection at the Elder Greenhouse. But others have been purchased from growers in the U.S. and exotic locales, such as Ecuador.

The result is a comprehensive look at the stunning, and the strange, world of orchids.

“We really make an effort to get the weirdest of the weird — the smallest orchids, the largest orchids. But our main emphasis is on color and size and fragrance,” Wilhite said. “We want them to be visually appealing, to be classic orchids with a twist.”

This year’s exhibition will feature the Scaphosepalum breve, also known as the “mustache orchid.” This smallish plant is always in bloom, distinguished by the appearance of facial-like hair uncurling across the flower.

Though they’ll be in baskets during the exhibition, Vanda orchids grow in the treetops of tropical forests, with an extensive root system attaching to the tree trunk and absorbing rain and dew to keep the plant alive.

Cattleya, or the corsage orchid, are ultra-fragrant and well-represented in the exhibition, Wilhite said.

“They’re the second-largest plant family on the planet, but at the same time, you only see a handful of them at stores,” he said. “Once you get into some of the weirder ones, they’re completely different than any other plant.”

Unlike curating an exhibition of paintings or sculpture, putting together the orchid event requires constant tweaking and management of the plants.

“This is a good time of year for most tropical orchids to be blooming,” Wilhite said. “For me, the trick is keeping track of which ones appear almost ready to bloom.”

Surrounding the orchid exhibition is a month-long slate of special activities and experiences centered around the museum. A pop-up shop located in one of the galleries will offer orchids for purchase, so people can take their own burst of color home with them.

Orchid-inspired refreshments, such as a mixed green salad with a vanilla citrus dressing and a blackberry vanilla prosecco cocktail, are available in the museum cafe.

The Lilly House, the restored residence on the Newfields campus, will be decorated in orchid themes to add a new dimension to its historic decor.

All of these events together will help showcase the totality of Newfields beyond just the museum. But at the center of the exhibition is a desire to help promote and educate about one of the world’s most stunning plants, Wilhite said.

“I hope people take away the beauty of the orchid,” he said.

About Orchids


What: A curated horticulture display featuring hundreds of different types of orchid plants.

Where: Newfields campus, 4000 N. Michigan Ave., Indianapolis. The exhibition will be featured in varying locations, including the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Madeline F. Elder Greenhouse and historic Lilly House

When: Through March 4

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $18 for adults, $10 for youth ages 6 to 17, ages 5 and under free.

Special events

  • Through March 4: “Orchid Stories in the Galleries” tour, daily at 2 p.m., explores stories of orchid collectors and orchid lore in the Indianapolis Museum of art galleries. Meet at the top of the escalators.
  • Feb. 23: Edible Orchids, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., Madeline F. Elder Greenhouse and Pop-Up Shop. Spend an evening surrounded by orchids while sampling tasty treats inspired by the exhibition; $65 for members, $75 for the public
  • March 1: Orchid discussion, 7 p.m., Lilly House. Stop by Newfields for an exclusive talk with resident orchid expert Ian Wilhite in this free event.
  • March 3: Orchid Basics, 10 a.m. to noon, Madeline F. Elder Greenhouse. Using plants from the greenhouse, staff will provide insights and insider tricks on watering, fertilization and re-blooming orchids for the next year during this workshop; $40 for members, $50 for the public.