Turn to greenhouses for year-round bloom

  • Camellia Japonica “Monjisu” grows at the Lyman Conservatory on the Smith College campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Camellia Japonica “Monjisu” grows at the Lyman Conservatory on the Smith College campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tulip bulbs grow at the Lyman Conservatory on the Smith College campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tulip bulbs grow at the Lyman Conservatory on the Smith College campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Camellia Japonica “Nuccio’s Cameo” grows at the Lyman Conservatory on the Smith College campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tulip bulbs grow at the Lyman Conservatory on the Smith College campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Anyone who’s looking for a green fix in the dead of winter should check out one a local botanical gardens. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hildebrandt’s Encephalartos grows at the Lyman Conservatory on the Smith College campus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Recorder
Published: 2/1/2019 4:34:47 PM

On a recent bitterly cold day, when the temperature hovered in the mid-teens, I stopped by the greenhouses at the Lyman Conservatory at Smith College to see what was happening inside those glass walls. A lot, as I was happy to discover.

The greenhouse has a terrific collection of orchids, and many of these are producing gorgeous flowers at this time of year. For me, orchids are probably the most challenging plants to write about because their peculiar forms, colors and scents defy description.

They often have astonishing color combinations and shapes. Some are striped, others are speckled. Some look like faces, others like anatomical oddities. I can understand why some artists, including the 19th-century American Martin Johnson Heade, loved to paint them. Seeing is not quite believing. My first thought when I see an orchid is, “How on earth did that plant come to look like that?”

The simple answer is this: While some plants are not choosy about the different pollinators they attract, orchids typically have exclusive relationships with their pollinators. These include hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, moths, wasps and flies. Orchids have co-evolved with their pollinators to facilitate pollination and thus maximize their rate of reproduction. Accordingly, their bloom time, scent, shape, color and other characteristics have developed specifically to attract a particular pollinator.

For example, orchids pollinated by hummingbirds have deep throats that are only accessible to a hummingbird’s long, needle-like beak. Insects and birds with less penetrating proboscises get no satisfaction in hanging out with such orchids. They seek out the orchid that’s designed to suit their own unique anatomy.

As I entered the first room of the greenhouse, I was greeted by a delicate Orchidaceae “vestita,” which has small white petals like tiny butterfly wings and a lip — the center, projecting element — of magenta that fades from saturated to pastel. In an adjacent room, the Orchidaceae tracyanum calls attention to itself with long spikes of chartreuse blooms dotted with crimson and highlighted by a startling white lip, also dotted with crimson.

Many orchids have no scent, but this one has an intriguing fragrance, subtle and fruity. These are just two of the many orchids on display, each weirdly wonderful in its own way.

The next room in the greenhouse is full of future promise. A large central table holds hundreds of pots of sprouting tulip bulbs. Their bunched greenish-yellow leaves tipped with rosy pink are just a few inches tall. These are being prepared for Smith’s annual bulb show, which takes place in early March. As Greenhouse Technician Steve Sojkowski explained, after the tulips are started, then come the narcissus and hyacinths. Along the sides of the room are pots of freesias with green, sword-like leaves. Sojkowski said these can’t be “pushed too fast,” or they will get too lanky, weak and susceptible to bugs.

But if weather and fortune permit, they’ll be filling the greenhouses with their intoxicating, citrusy scent in time for the throngs of visitors hungry for spring-blooming flowers.

This is the peak time of year for camellias, and the Camellia Corridor is full of flourishing specimens. The day I visited, a large camellia bush covered in shiny green leaves sported one perfect, and I mean perfect, pink blossom, about the size of my fist. This specimen, the “Nuccio’s cameo,” will soon be covered in flowers, but that single blossom allowed me to appreciate just how finely wrought, as if with a laser, these fragile beauties are.

The Cool Temperate room contains a collection of subtropical plants from all corners of the globe. These are plants that do not require the heat of the tropics but cannot stand freezing cold, either. They come from high deserts and cloud forests, as well as Mediterranean areas with hot dry summers and cool, rainy winters.

Along with coffee, tea and eucalyptus trees, a couple of endangered species caught my eye. One, Hildebrandt’s Encephalartos, is a cycad with a fern-like habit native to Kenya. Its numbers are dwindling and it could soon be at risk of extinction. Even more alarming is the looming fate of the Cupressus dupreziana (Saharan cypress) that grows on the Ajjer Plateau in the Central Sahara of southeastern Algeria. Only 153 of these remain in the world; some are as old as 3,000 years.

Anyone who’s looking for a green fix in the dead of winter should check out one of our local botanic gardens. We are fortunate to live near outstanding ones. Mount Holyoke College also has an excellent plant collection, which is housed in a spectacular, Victorian-style greenhouse originally built in 1896. Farther afield, of course, are Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston (outside Worcester) and the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge.


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