Milwaukee Orchid Show, Part 1

On September 13th, some friends and I went to the Milwaukee Orchid Society Show at the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, known locally as "The Domes", for obvious reasons. The conservatory consists of three huge glass beehive-shaped domes connected by a central hub. Each dome is 140 feet in diameter and 85 feet tall, with a full compliment of more traditional greenhouses to serve as production and backup houses. The Domes were only recently reopened in 2008. As you can see, there is still some construction going on. I just found out that my boss, in addition to being the former Director of Boerner Botanical Gardens, used to work at The Domes. Seems he's had a hand in every major horticultural venture in Milwaukee!

The beds surrounding the conservatory have a nice selection of hardy perennials, grasses, and a few choice shrubs and small trees.

One thing about gardening in zone 5b, you make full use of 1st-rate plants like this Heptacodium miconioides, or seven-sons flower. These gorgeous shrubs or small trees, in my opinion, are superior to crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia). The flowers are not as jarringly flashy as crepe myrtle, but more elegant, and are wonderfully fragrant, too! I admit I'm rather biased, never having been fond of fluff or ruffles. But wait! After the flowers fade, instead of blah seed capsules, the calyx of the seven-sons flower turns a ruddy pink and continues to provide color until frost!

The peeling bark, seen here on a young plant, is just as attractive as all but the most beautiful crepe myrtles, and seven-sons flower is much hardier and requires less heat than crepe myrtle, making it a much better choice for gardens in all of the northern states, even the Pacific Northwest, where only a few crepe myrtle cultivars succeed (and then typically only in warm microclimates or heat islands.

One thing I've noticed in my first few weeks of living in Wisconsin is the propensity for huge displays of tropicals and annuals. These people know how to make an impact during the warm season!

I love the lights  leading up to the domes. The shades are shaped like narrow leaves. In the background are two of the domes and the entrance. At the bottom right is the head of my goofy friend, Z. I'll cover more of The Domes in another post in this series. For now let's focus on the orchids!

Enter the orchid show! We decided to start with the vendors so that the selection wasn't picked over by the time we finished with the actual show portion. Of course when you unleash a group of plant geeks in a room full of plants for sale, you know what mayhem can ensue.

Dendrobium laevifolium is a darling little orchid only a few inches tall, but with relatively large flowers in a brilliant magenta pink.

Not a great picture to show off their beauty, but I love the spidery blooms of Brassia. They tend to be rather large plants, though, so the one time I grew one I decided to give it away during one of my periodic plant purges.

A yellow Miltoniopsis hybrid (left) next to a white Phalaenopsis hybrid (right). Common as dirt and available in grocery and big box stores everywhere, I happen to love white Phalaenopsis for their elegant simplicity. A white Phalaenopsis was also my first orchid ever, so I admit to being a touch biased for sentimental reasons. I still have that orchid, purchased when I was 15, and it is one of the most reliable and easy houseplants I have.

Cattleyas are perhaps the showiest, most flamboyant group within the orchid family. They are usually over-the-top with ruffles and frills, but the clean lines of this Brassolaeliocattleya (Blc. for short) Yen Corona 'Green Genie' and unique colors appeal to me. For those of you reeling at that mouthful of a name (you're not alone), the genus Brassolaeliocattleya is the result of crossing Brassavola, Laelia, and Cattleya and the result is named using a conglomeration of the three different genera. Crossing species from different genera produces an intergeneric hybrid and technically the intergeneric name, such as Brassolaeliocattleya, should be preceded by a multiplication sign, to denote its hybrid origin, but I think most people will forgive me for skipping this one step. The second part of the name (Yen Corona) is the grex name, which is a horticultural classification applied to few plants besides orchids. The grex name applies to all plants grown from seed resulting from crossing the same parents and is not written in single quotation marks as is the cultivar name. Because a grex is comprised of seed-grown plants, there is variation from one plant to the next. From this variation, cultivars are selected. The name in single quotations ('Green Genie') applies to a specific plant selected from the grex and all plants resulting from vegetative propagation (i.e. divisions, tissue culture, etc.). These plants should all be virtually identical, barring the event of a spontaneous mutation, which could result in a new cultivar being selected, but maybe we shouldn't get into that today. I have a lot of pictures to get through and they'll take up enough space and time as it is.

I enjoy seeing (and smelling) cattleyas and their myriad hybrids, but even the small plants tend to flop or grow awkwardly if not grown outdoors or in a greenhouse, making for unattractive plants when not in bloom. Just my opinion, and the popularity of these showy blooms displays the differing opinions of many others. I should also mention that orchids are commonly grouped into alliances, such as the cattleya alliance, which includes the genera Cattleya, Laelia, Brassavola, Epidendrum, Encyclia, and others. This is loosely based on taxonomy, but the taxonomic rank (orchid taxonomy includes ranks such as tribe and subtribe, look for a detailed list of taxonomic ranks, like this one on Wikipedia) on which the alliance is based varies somewhat depending on various, sometimes nebulous, factors.

Oncidium orchids are the best-known members of the oncidium alliance. This intergeneric hybrid is Gombrassiltonia Hilo Ablaze 'Hilo Gold'. It was formerly known under the intergeneric name Aliceara and is a cross between Gomesia, Brassia, and Miltonia. The label on this plant may have been somewhat misspelled (Hiko Ablaze 'Hlllo Gold') but it is a beautiful flower. The oncidium alliance is another group which usually doesn't have much to recommend itself as an attractive plant when not in bloom, but this particular cross is not an overtly ugly plant and those flowers are so spectacular that I'll be begging for a division of this plant, which one of my friends purchased) when it gets big enough to divide.

Now we're getting into a group of orchids that I really like: Paphiopedilum, or slipper orchids. This genus includes some of the easiest, and some of the hardest, orchids to grow in the home. The easy ones include the mottle-leaved maudiae hybrids, like the group below, and these happen to be some of my favorites because even when not in bloom, the leaves are attractive. They tolerate pretty low light and aren't especially sensitive to low humidity. Overall they are quite forgiving and dependable, and the flowers can last up to 9 months! While they usually grow on the ground, their roots stay in the upper layer of loose leaf litter, moss, and other organic matter that covers forest floors, rather than in the soil below. Therefore, they should not be planted in regular potting soil or garden soil, but they need a more moisture retentive mix than Phalaenopsis or Cattleya orchids. With a little research, you can find a mix that works for you, and besides that these orchids require fairly typical houseplant care. Watering paphiopedilums is not as different from watering the average houseplant as is it for most orchids, so there is less adjustment or re-learning to be done. In a cloudy PNW winter or a cold northern winter, these plants may only need water once every week or even every other week.

The unusual flowers come in a wide array of colors and shapes. Only the barest selection is shown here.


Another group of slipper orchids, Phragmipedium, has a similar pouch-shaped lip to Paphiopedilum, but differ in other ways. This is a hybrid between two species of Phragmipedium, known by the grex name Olaf Gruss. This particular plant was purchased by my friend, Z. I bought another plant of the same grex, but with a darker green, thicker leaf and more pleasing overall form to the plant. The first flower had yet to open when I purchased it, but you can see its flowers in my October Bloom Day post.

Another plant I purchased is Paphiopedilum Lynleigh Koopowitz. Below is an example, but not the exact plant I bought. This grex can have one to two flowers per stem, and I made sure to buy one with two flowers, because it will be more likely to produce two flowers per stem in the future.This hybrid is part of a group within the genus Paphiopedilum known as parvisepalums. Plants in this group have perhaps the most beautiful foliage in the entire genus, and some even have fragrant flowers! Fragrance is very rare in this genus, but Lynleigh Koopowitz has been known to carry a faint fragrance of raspberries from one of its parents, Paphiopedilum malipoense.

An entirely different example of a Phragmipedium. This one has long petals hanging several inches long. It looks like it has Phragmipedium pearcei in its background. You can see an example of that species here.

And that concludes the sales portion of the show! Actually, there was a lot more. Some things I didn't try to take pictures of because there were too many crazed orchid fans clustered around them to get a decent shot. Others had me drooling too much to pick up the camera. But you get the idea. Orchids everywhere! Next I'll cover the display portion of the show, where local orchid societies, vendors, and individuals can show off their plants, sometimes in simple displays, sometimes in elaborate dioramas.


  1. Looks like a fun show for you and I look forward to more coverage of the domes, that shot of the front entry with the lights makes them look like a mid-century marvel. Your comment about a plant purge made me remember I wanted to tell you the melianthus seedling I got from you looks fabulous!

    1. Actually they were indeed a bit of a mid-century marvel, and like so many fell a bit to ruin until fairly recently. I'm so happy your melianthus is doing well! That answers part of the email I just sent you. I hope it continues to look fabulous for you!

  2. Now I know where to go for orchid IDs. Orchid shows always overwhelm me - so much color, so many choices...

    1. If I can't ID it myself, I know people who can. I had the privilege to work one summer as the orchid collections intern for Smithsonian Gardens, which has a collection of around 10,000 orchids!

  3. That spectacular orang flower looks like a flame breathing dragon! Start practicing your begging now.
    The domes are beautiful; nice place for a stroll inside and out.

    1. There is a larger park outside the domes which I only showed a tiny bit of. A great place to visit if you can tolerate the city traffic on the way to and from.


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