News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Plant lovers descend on Kanapaha Botanical Gardens for the orchids

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens hosted its Fall Open House and Plant Sale last week, in conjunction with the Gainesville Orchid Society.

Visitors walked through the carefully constructed orchid displays in the entrance building on Saturday, then made their way outside to the more than 50 booths of vendors looking to showcase and sell their plants. As the event wore on, carts full of plants ranging from cacti to trees moved back and forth from vendor tents to the parking lot.

Orchid lovers and plant breeders came from all over Florida to attend this weekend's event.

The second day of the event on Sunday featured guest speaker and judge Dr. Jason Downing, an orchid biologist and head of the “Million Orchid Project,” a native orchid reintroduction program for South Florida. The project was established in 2012 by Fairchild Botanical Garden located in Miami. It is now over halfway complete.

“We’re now just over 600,000 [orchids],” said Downing.

South Florida used to be home to all types of orchids. But in the late 1800s as the Florida East Coast Railroad extended southward, orchids were among the first natural resources to be exploited for their decorative uses. The multitude of the orchid population fell as the settlement expanded. Now, thanks to the Million Orchid Project, cities like Miami are abundant with colorful orchids.

According to Fairchild Garden’s official website, over 20 community partners and more than 100 schools have been enlisted to grow orchids in their classrooms and surrounding neighborhoods.

“With the help of these students and volunteers, we are now propagating 10 species of rare, native orchids from seed using micro-propagation,” according to the website.

For the project, school landscapes, hospitals and urban tree plantings have been the primary recipients of the reintroduction initiatives. Downing said he hopes to keep orchid ecology alive, specifically through schools.

Downing’s background lies in ecology, and he worked in marine science and was looking to be a marine biologist, but that eventually changed.

“I like to joke that I went on the research vessel for six weeks and I realized … I’m a land biologist ... [marine science is] not my thing,” says Downing.

Downing said he then began learning about rare plants in Florida, which introduced him and got him working with orchids. Through his Ph.D. work, Downing continued his research of the ecology and conservation of orchids in Florida as well as China. He and his team worked directly with the Chinese government to rescue and save orchid species that were at risk of being wiped out by flooding.

“But that’s what the fun is about doing field ecology. ... You get to go to these uncharted areas,” said Downing.

This is what built his niche for the orchid world.

Philip Hamilton, 47, is the owner of Bredren Orchids and was another guest speaker at the event. He has been growing plants for over 40 years since he was introduced to the family business. He originally showed interest in the Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, and has kept that as his specialty since. Some of his orchids have even earned awards from the American Orchid Society, including multiple first-place positions.

“Orchids are all I mess with... there’s enough of them to keep me busy,” said Hamilton.

The orchid plant family is the second-largest family of flowering plants.

Originally from Jamaica, Hamilton moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida, where he studied environmental horticulture. He graduated in 1999 and finished graduate school through UF in 2002. After working with orchids for a few years, he eventually took over Bredren Orchids about seven years ago.

Hamilton had his vendor tent set up, covered head to toe with a variety of colorful orchid combinations.

“A lot of what we have here is my own hybrids,” said Hamilton.

But what makes an orchid particularly valuable? Well, it depends on what you prefer. Hamilton said there are so many he couldn’t choose a favorite one. Alongside the varying shapes and colors, orchids can also come in a handful of scents. One orchid is said to smell like chocolate when it blossoms.

“Some of them are lovely ... some of them are not so lovely,” says Hamilton.

Ron Mchatton, director of education and regional operations at the American Orchid Society, said he fell in love with the look of orchids very early in his life.

“You either get the bug or you don’t. And I've had the bug since I was probably 10 years old,” said Mchatton.

When he got older, Mchatton and his brother started a foliage business together, but eventually, his brother left so Mchatton bought him out and his personal journey began. He says he now has between 600 to 1,000 orchids on his five-acre property.

He said he keeps his orchids in pristine growing conditions, with a greenhouse, automatic watering and humidity system and even a backup generator in case of emergencies.

“Where people usually have problems with greenhouses is that it will explode from inside due to an imbalance in air pressure,” said Mchatton.

To combat this issue, Mchatton has drapes on his greenhouse so he can prevent an explosion during a storm, but will still suffer some lost pots and plants. He said orchids growing is so great because you can do it anywhere, from inside your kitchen window to a whole garden.

Mchatton works with Jason Downing, who is set to come out to his greenhouse and choose which orchids to pollinate and make copies of. This is in direct effort to help the Million Orchid Project.

“We want every part of the United States to do this program,” says Downing.

Spencer is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing