Sensorial, sensual, delicate and rare, orchids are the celebrities of the plant world. But don’t just ogle at photos of them: get out and gaze upon their perfection in the flesh. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk the streets of São Paulo, and chances are you’ll soon stumble upon an orchid, improbably sprouting from a tree trunk. Look closer and you’ll see it’s been attached by wire – a gesture of civil kindness for the appreciation of all.
This neighbourly practice to brighten up the city’s streets and squares can be traced to a law passed in 2004, banning the sale of the endangered samambaia fern – known locally as ‘xaxim’ – which is used as mulch for orchids in vases. But if you're not feeling patient enough to scour the neighbourhood for random orchids, head straight to the source and do your gawking at these gorgeous orchidariums.
Orquidário Ruth Cardoso
Parque Villa-Lobos, Rua Professor Fonseca Rodrigues 2001, Alto de Pinheiros (3023 0316). Open 9am-5pm daily. Admission Free.
Start your orchid journey at the excellent Orquidário Ruth Cardoso, which opened in 2010, in Parque Villa-Lobos. The modern, translucent dome of the orchidarium that stands proud in a corner of the park contains a huge variety of more than 170 species from around the world – Brazil, India, Mexico and Thailand – so that there are always flowers in bloom.
Named in memory of the anthropologist and wife of ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the giant greenhouse was designed by the architect Décio Tozzi in a dome shape inspired by ocas – indigenous dwellings – with natural light and constant air circulation key elements of the design. Pride of place is given to Rhynchosophrocattleya Ruth Cardoso – an orchid that flowers in November and December and which, racily, is a part hybrid with Sophrocattleya Ayrton Senna.
At the centre of the dome are columns of rusting metal intended to give the look of wood, filled with a mosaic of multi-coloured blooms. ‘Have a smell of this one,’ encourages Geraldo Neto, known as Trisca, who has spent his life cultivating orchids, and is part of the team at Florestal Atlântica, the company which maintains the orchids in the park’s orchidarium.
|Orquidário Ruth Cardoso|
‘People say it’s just like white chocolate.’ And sure enough, Maxillaria rufescens (the light fox-red maxillaria), although not a spectacular flower, has a whiff of that sweet aroma. Another orchid, while smelling putrid, has fascinating intricate moving parts. ‘It all depends on the type of pollinator the orchid wants to attract,’ says Trisca, whose love of orchids started early.
‘When I was a child, there were orchids that left me enchanted,’ he says, ‘but they were so expensive that I’d be happy just to see them. Today, we have the bonus of being able to make hybrids, so from the same plant you can get an orchid that would cost R$500 for R$15.’
Regardless of selling price, orchids are a good investment if nurtured well: with an estimated 20,000 species, 70,000 if you count hybrids, they’re the most numerous family in the plant world for good reason. ‘An orchid is always reborn. If you look after it well, it can last your whole life and be passed from generation to generation’, says the biologist Alexandre Soares, of Florestal Atlântica.
And he should know. ‘A good part of this collection here is from my grandmother, Lavinha. She looked after them until her last days,’ he says. There are even orchids here that were rescued – some literally from bins – during the construction of São Paulo’s ring road, the Rodoanel.
‘There’s a legend that orchids are bad for the human spirit,’ says Trisca. ‘But it originated from the white man lying to indigenous people [in Brazil], telling them orchids would bring bad luck to the villages, and then stealing the plants for themselves.’ The legend clearly wasn’t much of a success, though, since Brazil boasts the richest biodiversity of orchids in the world.
Monthly workshops are held to teach the care of orchids: email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Avenida Miguel Stéfano 1331. Água Funda (5073 6300 / ibot.sp.gov.br). Open 9am-5pm Tue-Sun. Admission R$2.50-$5.
At this haven for nature and tranquility in the south of the city, you’ll find 1,159 species of plants, as well as dozens of fresh-water streams, in more than 36 acres of botanical gardens. Explore the museum, themed gardens and water-lily ponds and wander amongst beautiful landscaping. To head straight for the orchids, look out for the greenhouse – built in 1928 – which houses hundreds of the perfectly-petalled flowers.
Avenida Professor Vicente Rao 1513. Brooklin Paulista (5041 2391 / morumby.com.br). Open 9am-7pm Tue-Sat; 9am-5pm Sun. Admission Free.
This orchidarium, which sells a myriad of different orchid species, is also the place to take your ailing orchid if it’s in anything less than blooming health. At the orchid ‘ward’, the kindly staff will tell you everything you need to know about taking care of your plant. Enjoy a cup of coffee, or a spot of lunch while you’re there.