Collection of colors

Inside the Indianapolis Art Museum’s newest exhibition, bursts of magenta, white and violet create a disorienting swirl of color.

Delicate yellow is dappled with spots of fuchsia. Veins of pink creep along a pale background. Rosy red fades into brilliant orange.

But no one artist is responsible for these masterpieces. Each is a different type of orchid, shaped by nature and selective breeding.

“What’s spectacular is the shapes and the sizes, the colors and the scents,” said Sue Nord Peiffer, museum greenhouse manager and Johnson County resident. “The diversity is incredible.”

Peiffer has curated the first greenhouse-specific art exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “Color Me Orchid” will feature more than 500 examples of one of the largest flower groups in the world.

In the waning days of winter, organizers wanted a special event that would carry guests into springtime, while taking advantage of their little-known collection of plants.

“It’s still winter, even though it’s getting warmer. So we wanted to do a jump-start into spring,” said Stephanie Perry, spokeswoman for the museum. “We have great gardens here that are open year-round, but people don’t always think to go to the gardens in the winter. This is a cool way to highlight our greenhouse and get people thinking about spring.”

Orchids are common throughout the world, from Australia to South American to Greenland. Indiana has more than 40 varieties of the plant, though for the truly brilliant colors and shapes, people have to travel to the tropics.

The flowers enjoyed their greatest popularity in the Victorian era, when explorers brought back samples of the fantastical species from around the globe, Peiffer said.

Now, there are more species than science has cataloged.

“No one knows how many there really are, because it’s always changing,” Peiffer said. “There are hundreds of thousands of hybrids.”

Some, like the phalaenopsis, have flat rounded petals that look like the wings of a moth. Delicately folded flowers that look like a small shoe are aptly called slipper orchids.

Orchids grow in the ground, as well as clinging to and anchoring high up in the branches of trees.

Names such as the “Twinkle” and the “Mule Ear” speak to the descriptive way that horticulturists have seen these flowers.

“They’re so exotic, and still are treasured as rare even though advances in propagation have made them more common. There’s always going to be one that you don’t have,” Peiffer said. “For collectors who want something different, something their neighbors don’t have, there’s such a vast world of orchids.”

The Indianapolis Museum of Art has a history with the orchid. The father of J.K. Lilly, whose property and estate became the site of the museum, grew orchids.

Madeline Elder, a former trustee of the museum, was a champion of saving the Lilly’s greenhouses when the museum was being built on the property.

Today, the greenhouse is named after Elder.

“She rallied people, and got a lot of her friends to volunteer. They painted the glass houses and scrubbed everything, and started donating plants to be propagated inside it,” Peiffer said. “The orchid was her favorite flower, and she was known around the country for her orchids.”

As museum organizers have started looking for new programs and unique ways to attract visitors, the greenhouse has been an under-served area of the grounds they wanted to highlight.

Since many of the orchids in the museum’s collection happen to bloom in late February and early March, it seemed like an exciting exhibit for a typically slow time of year, Perry said.

“More than ever, we’re becoming more focused on our gardens. Charles (Venable), our CEO and director, really wants to elevate it to one of the top horticultural attractions,” she said. “We want to be like a botanical garden, where people come to see, along with having great art and galleries.”

In preparation of the exhibition, the greenhouse staff assembled their collection of plants into two main rooms. An atrium space ushers visitors into the greenhouse, where they can learn about the historical connection between the museum and its orchids.

Posters and labeling was added to teach people about the variety of orchids, and give tips about growing.

“We like to think of it as living art, because things are changing every day,” Perry said. “Sometimes, things can change hourly.”

While the bulk of the display is housed in the museum’s 68-year-old greenhouse, organizers have also created an orchid collection inside the main museum building as well. This pop-up store will offer visitors the chance to buy their own orchid plants to take home, with more than 100 different plants for people to purchase.

“It’s a completely different experience than what you’re going to get in the greenhouse,” Peiffer said. “We tried to find ones in here that the homeowner is typically going to do well with. They’re the easier ones to grow indoors, but not the standard ones they’ll find in a market.”

The vanilla plant is part of the orchid family, and museum organizers have played off that to create a special menu in its restaurant. People can get a salad with Bibb lettuce, grilled chicken, apricot puree, brie and champagne-vanilla, or pan-roasted sea scallops with a vanilla brown butter cream sauce.

“We’ve never done anything like this ever in the past,” Perry said. “This is a great opportunity to highlight one of our natural areas, and show how plants can be art. We’re more than just an art museum; we have these treasures and resources.”

Orchid types

Orchids can be found in nearly every environment on the planet, including more than 40 native to Indiana. The “Color Me Orchid” exhibition features the five most popular species among amateur growers.

Cattleya: Also known as the corsage orchid, the species range from tiny to very large with a sprawling habit. They are grown for their colorful, blousy, and often fragrant blooms. Cattleya orchids are from tropical Central and South America, and are grown in loose bark mix in medium light and humidity. Allow to dry between waterings.

Dendrobium: Tend to have long lasting colorful blooms. Their Greek meaning is “life in a tree” because many of these plants live upon trees and without soil. Native to tropical Asia and South Pacific islands, most orchids in this group require bright light, high humidity, and an evenly moist bark mix when actively growing.

Oncidium: The name comes from the Greek for “swelling” and refers to the bumps on the bloom’s lip. They are also known as the dancing ladies orchids. Besides the bumps on the lips, many oncidiums are known for the large sprays of small blossoms and fragrances that dance in the breeze. Native to tropical Central and South America.

Paphiopedilum and Phragmipedium: Also known as slipper orchids because of the large slipper shaped lip. Many of these plants are terrestrial and grow on the shady forest floor instead of in trees. Paphiopedilum are native to tropical Asia and Pacific islands; Phragmipedium are from tropical Central and South America.

Phalaenopsis: Comes from the Greek for “moth-like,” which refers to their wing-shaped blooms. Often multiple blooms appear on arching stems and may continue for many months. Both species are native to tropical Asia and Pacific islands.

— Information from the Indianapolis Museum of Art greenhouse

If you go

Color Me Orchid

What: An exhibit of more than 500 orchids inside the Elder Greenhouse at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

When: Through March 13

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Cost: $18 for adults, $10 youth ages 6 to 17, free for kids 5 and under.

Address: 4000 N. Michigan Road, Indianapolis


Orchid Care

Tropical orchids require warm temperatures: 68 to 80 degrees during the day and 5 to 10 degrees cooler at night, if possible.

Keep plants away from drafts, both hot and cold.

Bright, indirect light works well for most orchids.

Boost humidity around the plants by daily misting or with a pebble tray. Put pebbles in a tray and add enough water to nearly cover them. Set pot on pebbles making sure that the pot is above the water line and not standing in water.

Water your orchid only when the potting medium is dry. Resist the temptation to overwater; that kills more orchids than anything else. Many orchids go through a resting period and need less water in winter.

Lightly fertilize with orchid fertilizer per instructions on the package. This may vary by time of year.

If the soil is broken down or the plant has outgrown the pot, repot only when the plant is not blooming.

Give your orchid a summer vacation in a shady spot outdoors when temperatures are above 60 degrees.

— Information from the Indianapolis Museum of Art greenhouse

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.