Magenta flowers of a Dendrobium orchid surrounded by other tropical plants

Dendrobiums are among the thousands of orchids on display at the Garden’s annual orchid exhibition.

By Liz Nye, New England Botanic Garden Staff
February 2023

A snowstorm started to ramp up as the horticulturists and gardeners at New England Botanic Garden began a major undertaking—to unload and then unbox an assortment of 2,000 orchid plants that arrived at the receiving dock just that morning. Each tropical plant came wrapped in insulating newspaper and packed alongside dozens of others in large, flat cardboard boxes. With multiple staff on hand, radios at the ready, and dolly carts waiting, the race to get the orchid-filled boxes out of the cold took only minutes. Carefully unwrapping the noodle-like roots and delicate flower spikes of so many orchids—in such an array of shapes and sizes—would be another story. 

When sourcing orchids for New England Botanic Garden’s annual orchid exhibition, this year known as Allure, the Horticulture Team can make some requests of the nurseries that grow the plants, but the exact varieties that end up filling the order is always a bit of a surprise. As a result, opening each cardboard box during the unpacking process prompts oohs, ahhs, and often a question: “What orchid is that?” 

The answer can be complicated. The plant family Orchidaceae is one of the most numerous on the planet. 28,000 orchid species grow across six continents. So much natural diversity, paired with weak genetic barriers between orchid species makes opportunities for hybridizing this plant practically limitless. And over the last century, ever since a Cornell University botanist discovered a method for easier orchid propagation, commercial growers, scientists, and hobbyists have pushed the bounds, producing upwards of 100,000 hybrids, 61 of which are on display as part of Allure.  

With so much diversity, getting to know orchids—“wild” or cultivated—may seem like a daunting undertaking. Here are five “must-knows” that will make this fascinating family of plants a little less of a mystery.

Small light green flower of the Isotria verticillata orchid

Large whorled pogonia. Photo by Leslie Duthie.

#1: Orchids are everywhere (almost).
Roughly a third of all orchids originate in the tropics. The rest can be found across the globe with species ranging as far north as the Arctic Circle. Distinct adaptations allow different orchid species to thrive in extremely specific geographies, microclimates, and conditions. Orchids from