There is one special area at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens that lures many visitors to the back of the building during each of their visits.
The Orchid Room is spectacular any time of the year, but during the Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show, it seems even more wonderous.
There’s a certain horticultural mystery which goes along with orchids for most of us. How does one care for them and make them bloom year after year? Growers will tell you it’s not hard when you follow a few basic rules. The right light and temperature go a long way in getting them to rebloom. Many though, are killed by kindness — especially by novices. The worst thing to do is give them too much water.
During this year’s show, “A Splash of Brilliance,” I toured the display with Jordyn Melino, associate director of exhibits at Phipps for this video segment on Pittsburgh Today Live. She designs most of the seasonal shows at the conservatory.
After we parted ways, it was time to have some more fun. Exploring the flowers with a camera is joyful, especially since I was there before the conservatory opened.
The photos were posted on Facebook, and within a day, I received a message from my friend Carolyn Smith Bolton who thought she recognized one plant — a plant actually named after her.
A quick email to Melino and it was confirmed: ‘Carolyn Smith Bolton’ the orchid was blooming at Phipps.
Smith is a long-time member of the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania. She fell under the spell of orchids in the 1980s after buying her father a lady slipper.
“When he went to Florida, it died in my care,” she remembers. After searching for help, she eventually discovered the OSWP, and “the rest is history,” she says with a laugh.
Early on, she was asked by someone from the society if she could sing.
“What I lack in ability, she told him, I make up for in enthusiasm.”
Bolton participated in a series of shows over the years called the Phalaenopsis Follies, named for the plant commonly called the moth orchid.
As an officer in the organization, Bolton was often charged with bringing in speakers for the society’s events. A decade ago, she booked George Hatfield, an esteemed grower and breeder of cymbidium orchids from California. She showed him the wonders Pittsburgh has to offer, and the two hit it off.
Several years ago, Bolton picked Hatfield up at the airport for a return engagement with the orchid society.
“He brought me seven of the cross that he named after me. I knew nothing about it,” she said of the surprisingly named orchids.
The official name of the orchid, ‘Carolyn Smith Bolton’ comes from the full name she uses on Facebook, where she is friends with Hatfield.
“I was amazed and honored that he would name it after me,” she said proudly.
At this point, she had not seen them bloom yet.
“I gave two to Phipps, two to other growers and I kept three,” she added.
From his home in California, Hatfield explains what it was about Bolton that moved him to create the flower in her honor.
“The reason I named an orchid after Carolyn, is she was one of the kindest hosts I’ve ever had in my speaking tours around the United States,” he said.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that she knew the best place to show any visitor to the city.
“She took me to Primanti Brothers, and spent a lot of time making sure that I had a great time on my visit,” he added.
Hatfield had crisscrossed the country for nearly three decades, but ranks his time in Pittsburgh highly, due to the guidance of Bolton. “[It’s] probably the best I’ve ever had in all the years of speaking on orchids,” he says of the trip. “She’s just a genuine, nice person, which is a refreshing thing.”
Bolton has since has been out to California and visited Hatfield.
He crossed Cymbidium seidenfadenii with Cymbidium ‘Cindy Lou,’ to create the orchid. You can see them here.
After using pollen from one and applying it to another, the plant produces a small number of seeds. In turn, these seeds are planted to create seedlings. In time the new variety will bloom, and it’s anyone’s guess what the flowers will look like.
Not all of the flowers are the same on the different plants that bear her name. Both of the orchids at Phipps have creamy white petals set off by stunning pinkish, purple centers. But Bolton has one with yellow blooms and others with different characteristics. All are beautiful.
“It was a great surprise to see the picture of the orchid when it appeared in my Facebook feed,” she says. “I was shocked, to see it. I was just so pleased to see it was blooming again and that I recognized it right away.”
The orchid is labeled with her name, and occasionally she’ll hear about it when the plant is on display.
“I’ve had friends who have taken a picture of it at Phipps and saw the name and sent me a message saying, ‘You’re in Phipps,’ she says and messaged back, “Yes, I am!”
Bolton’s orchid room is filled with over 500 plants, she tells me. Then she begins to talk wattage and kelvins, explaining the lighting systems she’s using, moving towards LED lights for an obvious reason.
“I’m trying to reduce my electric bill. It’s astronomical,” she says laughing. “The electric company loves me. It just surprises me that nobody’s come knocking on my door, wanting to know why I’m using so much electricity.”
Bolton then reflects on the special legacy Hatfield has created for her. A plant shares her name and is available for orchid growers and for everyone to enjoy in the permanent orchid collection at Phipps.
“I was overwhelmed that he would think of me when he was thinking of naming this beautiful orchid.”
The Orchid and Tropical Bonsai Show, “A Splash of Brilliance,” runs through February 28, 2021. Timed tickets are required in advance of visiting Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.