SARASOTA — Enter the Tropical Conservatory at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens and you’re immediately greeted by a living wall of purple, gold and white orchids set among lush greenery, while the twinkling notes of 1920s jazz music sets a celebratory mood.
It’s a fitting entrance for the “45th Anniversary Orchid Show: Women Breaking the Glasshouse Ceiling,” which celebrates a number of occasions.
This year is the 100th anniversary of William and Marie Selby’s purchase of the land where the gardens opened 45 years ago. It’s also the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
The living wall at the entrance is a nod to the women’s suffrage movement, using the colors of both the British and American groups — purple, gold, white and green.
The Tropical Conservatory was designed with the 1920s in mind and has been transformed into an Art Deco space, with orchids twirling from opulent mobiles, arranged into Dr. Seuss-like whirling trees and floating in vessels in water beneath a translucent bubbling orb. Throughout are varieties of bromeliads that range from yellow to magenta and verdant ferns with feathery tendrils.
The exhibition was made in partnership and was sponsored by Better Gro, a flower bulb business that was able to add more varieties of orchids in addition to the ones grown at Selby Gardens, which holds the best scientifically documented collection of orchids in the world.
A checkerboard dance floor with a red velvet fainting couch and gold beaded curtains create a speakeasy vibe. In another vignette, yellow velvet benches are inviting seats from which to observe orchids growing in trees.
Angel Lara, senior director of Glasshouse Collections at Selby Gardens, said he designed the exhibition knowing what kinds of orchids would be in bloom this time of the year.
“This is theatrical horticulture,” Lara said. “For us, this is set design.”
The show continues with orchid displays throughout the grounds and in the Museum of Botany and the Arts in the Payne Mansion.
It begins in the South Gallery with an informational display focusing on five female botanists who have contributed orchid specimens to the gardens’ collection. It showcases how the women — Dr. Sally Chambers, Elizabeth Gandy, Libby Besse, Piedad Dodson and Jane Luer — would travel to South America, rappelling into sinkholes and other crevices to gather the specimens.
Besse, who is a resident of Siesta Key, is credited with making one of the most important orchid discoveries of the 20th century. In Peru in 1981, she found out-of-bloom phragmipediums, known as “lady-slipper” orchids, that typically bloom with purple and white flowers. At the time, she thought she’d found the first recorded collection of phragmipedium climii east of the Andes Mountains and brought the specimen back to Selby Gardens.
But when the orchid flowered at the gardens some time later, it produced deep red blooms, which was regarded as highly unusual. It was included as a new species in the 1981 American Orchid Society bulletin by Selby Gardens' botanists, who named it phragmipedium besseae, after Besse.
Unfortunately, the orchid can’t thrive in Florida’s climate. But it’s commemorated in a watercolor on display in the exhibit.
The celebration of female botanists continues in the North Gallery with a display of botanical illustrations of orchids, drawn from the gardens' library. The illustrations range from the 19th century — a time when women were expected to focus on activities that didn’t include science — to a work completed this year.
“Botanical illustration was the first acceptable branch of the sciences for women to go into,” said Jeannie Perales, vice president of exhibits, learning and engagement. “They started by being flower painters. But they had to know the anatomy of the plant just like a botanist did so accuracy was of the utmost importance because it was used for education.”
The works were made into prints and bound into books to be used in the field for research, so they were used for botanical identification. Some have notes and corrections written on them.
One early illustrator was Sarah Drake, who was English. She worked for botanist John Lindley, who discovered her talent for drawing while she worked as a governess in his home. She became a prolific illustrator, especially of orchids. Her best-known work was for the book The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala by James Bateman, which is on display in the exhibition.
The exhibition also includes a work by Sarasota resident Olivia Marie Braida, who was trained in botanical illustration at the New York Botanical Gardens' academy in the tradition of the French Court botanical art masters of the 17th through 19th centuries. Braida is the founder and director of Selby Gardens’ Academy of Botanical Art.
When quarantine began, Braida was inspired to illustrate an orchid she’d photographed in 2005. It hangs in the gallery among works by the women who came before her, evidence of the tradition’s longevity.
If You Go
“45th Anniversary Orchid Show: Women Breaking the Glasshouse Ceiling” remains on display through Nov. 29 at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Downtown Sarasota campus. $20, $10 youth ages 4-17 and guests of members. The gardens are open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. The museum of Botany and the Arts is open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. 1534 Mound St., Sarasota. (941) 366-5731. selby.org.