Climatron 60: The Talking Orchid

In celebration of its 60th anniversary in 2020, we’re sharing stories about the Climatron through the years. Visit our Climatron 60 page for historic photos, video, and more.

A school field trip weaves its way through the lush vegetation in the Climatron in 1994. The children are learning about tropical plants when suddenly a raspy voice calls out, “Hey, would you give me a drink? Please?”

Is some parched stranger crying out for help behind that palm tree? Not quite. That parched stranger is actually an animatronic orchid, perched about 8 feet in the air on a nearby moss-covered tree.

The effusive flower continues, providing the solution to its dehydration dilemma. Tiny hands crowd around a small pool, furiously cupping water to be sucked up by the “roots” hanging down below the bloom.

“Hey, would you give me a drink?”

Once quenched, the orchid proceeds in a more soothing tone—touching on topics ranging from epiphytic roots, to plant/pollinator interactions, and even a bit of orchid gossip.

“Now, what can I tell you about orchids?”

The field trip moves on, but something about the encounter sticks in the children’s memories. Years later they may find themselves back in the Climatron, but this time it’s strangely quiet save for the chirping of birds and gentle rush of falling water. The talking orchid is gone, but not forgotten.

A Technological Marvel

The talking orchid took up its Climatron residency after a massive renovation of the conservatory in 1989— and talking wasn’t even it’s most remarkable skill.

The more impressive feature was its ability to drink water straight from your cupped hands! Its secret, revealed now some 30 years later, was a water pump and special tubes used by dentists. These sucking “roots,” as fun as they were for kids, were specially designed to show how many tree-dwelling orchids get water and nutrients without being rooted in soil.

The “roots” would drink water from your cupped hands. Photo by Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson.

The voice track played from a compact disc triggered by a button on a nearby sign. It was chatty enough to catch the attention of reporters who turned out to cover the Climatron’s grand reopening.

Along the way a white orchid spoke to me. (No, I skipped the punch — it wasn’t that, the orchid spoke to practically everyone, indiscriminate as it was.) It said hello. Its lower lip-shaped petal moved — honest!

Later, I saw the orchid drinking wine from the clear plastic cup of a Zoo volunteer.
-Joan Dames, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. April 1, 1990.

“You want more orchid stories? Okay!”

But that wasn’t all. The orchid was also outfitted with a camera, linked to a video monitor and microphone in the Climatron offices. This setup allowed Garden staff to put their own playful spin on the orchid’s conversation with visitors.

Although a bit of a sideshow to the main attraction of real, living tropical plants en masse in the Midwest, the talking orchid was a valuable tool to engage both kids and adults alike to learn more about this beautiful and diverse plant family.

“I get a lot of delight in seeing a child interact with it,” says Climatron horticulturist Susan Ratcliff, “because their little faces just lit up. And they’re like, ‘wow, that was really cool!’ And some of them would come back repeatedly over the course of the day.”

“Some orchids I know, I won’t mention names, are cheaters!”

The Flower Fades

Like any plant, the talking orchid had to contend with the reality of its surrounding environs—overeager children tugging its roots, wear on its mechanical parts, and the need to constantly water its living neighbors. All of these factors made for a rough life in the Climatron.

Surviving in spite of the odds for more than a decade, the talking orchid was finally removed in the early 2000s. Almost like an herbarium specimen the orchid was packed up to sit on a shelf, awaiting a time when someone would find need of it again.

“All this talking is getting me thirsty. Can you give me another drink?”

They don’t talk, but the Climatron is still full of the talking orchid’s living relatives. Some have even found a home on the very same tree. The Climatron is the only place to see a rotating selection of the Garden’s world-class orchid collection year-round.

The Garden is also working to keep orchids on the cutting edge of technology, by submitting an official proposal to create an orchid emoji. If it gets approved, you’ll be able to add more orchids to your digital conversations—even if the flowers themselves can’t answer you back.

Photo by Trenton Almgren-Davis.

Cassidy Moody
Senior Digital Media Specialist

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