In the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, the Biltmore Estate’s vast orchid collection begins its peak bloom this month, washing the Conservatory’s Orchid House in a welcome explosion of vibrant color that will last through March. But among the nearly 500 plants on display, one head-turner stands out not so much for its tropical beauty as for its warm, heady, and unexpectedly earthy aroma.
LeeAnn Donnelly, who works for the Biltmore, noticed the strong smell of figs and cinnamon wafting from the rare Stanhopea wardii orchid when she walked through the Conservatory last week. Found natively in South American cloud forests, this particular variety’s yellow flower grows upside down. Wrinkled and lemon-colored, she’s more complex than elegant. “She’s not the prettiest girl, but she’s charming in other ways,” Donnelly says. But catch a whiff quick. This plant has about a week left of bloom time, and is awaiting just a few more buds. Once fully open, the flowers last three days before their spicy aroma disappears.
The Biltmore’s Stanhopea has been producing flowers for more than 60 years. She once belonged to staffer and orchid specialist Jim Rogers’ brother. As a teenager, the brother worked for a florist who passed along the plant. It now resides among the orchids in the conservatory where high arched windows overlook the estate’s gardens.
Part of the original design for the Conservatory, the Orchid House was owner George Vanderbilt’s dream for housing the fashionable plant. In the homes of wealthy Brits and Americans, the flowers symbolized exoticism and status. Vanderbilt enlisted the services of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and together they made a list of 800 orchids to fill the room. At least 16 of the varieties from the original purchase list can still be found at the Biltmore.
Can’t make it up to the Biltmore before March? Don’t worry. Gardeners display plants as they bloom throughout the year, ensuring there will be something beautiful to see during all four seasons.