Orchids – A Diverse Family of Plants and People

February 6, 2023 Nick Snakenberg , Curator of Tropical Collections and Associate Director of Horticulture

The orchid family (Orchidaceae) is one of the largest and most diverse plant families on the planet. This diversity extends to the people who study, admire, and grow these fascinating plant treasures. Charles Darwin, Carl Linnaeus and William Cattley are names you may recognize but the history of orchid research and cultivation is far richer than these familiar names. This year’s Orchid Showcase shines a spotlight on some lesser-known champions of orchids. Their stories are as diverse as the orchid family itself.

Rebecca Tyson Northen (1910-2004) was an orchid advocate with a Colorado connection. She was a trained biologist with an M.A. from Mt. Holyoke College and along with her husband (a plant physiologist professor at the University of Wyoming) were members of the Denver Orchid Society who also traveled Central and South America studying orchids. Rebecca was also the author of numerous books on growing orchids. At a time when orchids were widely considered a hobby of the elite, her approachable writing style welcomed a new demographic to the orchid hobby. Decades after they were written, many of her books remain the go-to resource for beginning orchid growers. 

In 2012, I had the pleasure of traveling to Peru and meeting Carmen Soto. Carmen attended Cusco National San Antonio Abad University and quickly put her biology degree to work protecting and conserving Andean flora and fauna in her native home. She was the chief biologist for Inkaterra Asociacion at Machu Picchu where she created an extensive native orchid garden that has become a major tourist attraction and is a model for similar gardens around the world. With her passion for orchids, she mentored and inspired young biologists as well as tens of thousands of visitors to Inkaterra. 

The Dracula Youth Reserve (named for an orchid genus growing within its borders) in Ecuador is a 244-acre protected area of cloud forest and is in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Threatened by mining, the reserve is part of the larger 5,300 acres managed by partners EcoMinga, Rainforest Trust and Orchid Conservation Alliance. The reserve is home to hundreds of orchid species – many new to science.  The Dracula Youth Reserve is the first entirely youth-funded nature reserve in the world with all funds generated by people 26 years of age or younger.

You can learn more about the diverse people who have shaped the study and cultivation through history when you visit the Orchid Showcase at Denver Botanic Gardens. The exhibit is included in your general admission and runs through February 20.


This article was first published in the February issue of Life on Capitol Hill.


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