Introducing a remarkable OSWP asset
- Giovanny Giraldo
By: Norma Raiff
One of the advantages of OSWP membership is that we constantly learn from each other. Informal discussions, question-and-answer sessions, and sharing experiences, frustrations and joys with others helps us to grow. It’s a big reason why many join the society since it provides an interactive world of experience beyond Zoom and Facebook.
Giovanny Giraldo’s official title is Phipps’ “Orchid Display Horticulturist” and he’s responsible for overseeing the nurturing of its internationally recognized orchid collection. These senior functions include management of both the Conservatory’s public display rooms and the huge orchid collection that resides in the out-of-sight growing houses until specific plants are deemed ready for display.
And since there are about 3,000 orchids at Phipps, it’s a huge job. Giovanny’s roles include expanding the collection, making recommendations based on his assessment of specific plant features and ornamental value, the goodness of fit between their blooming cycles and the Conservatory’s rotating display needs, and filling gaps while also culling certain plants in the collection.
Giovanny is a recent newcomer to Pittsburgh. He moved to Wisconsin from his native Colombia in 2011 to pursue a Ph.D. in Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He relocated to work at Phipps in 2022. His personal and professional careers have been marked by extensive academic and related work assignments. Colombia is the leading country for native orchids. It includes 274 genera and 4,270 species – 1,572 are endemic to the country. (Source: Bogotá’s Botanical Garden rolls out the National Orchid Exhibition, September 23, 2022).
Giovanny’s undergraduate experiences at the National University of Colombia also shaped his career choices. Although his grandmother was a plant enthusiast, Giovanny was not interested in orchids until one of his undergraduate classes in plant morphology required that he dissect a Cattleya trianae flower whose anatomical features perplexed him. A semester later, he learned more about orchids during his plant systematics course and encountered his first orchid in the wild during a field trip for the course. He still recalls the beauty of that Habenaria subedentata growing by a creek, and to date, it remains his favorite Habenaria species. Before finishing his undergraduate degree, he worked as manager and curator of the University’s tropical greenhouse. His undergraduate thesis, “Orchids of Santa Maria (Boyaca, Colombia)”, was later published as a field guide manual.
Giovanny’s Ph.D. in Botany from the University of Wisconsin-Madison was also fieldwork-based. It involved studying several orchid species in their native habitats. His thesis focused on Epistephium and other genera closely related to Vanilla, the genus with the most significant agricultural value in the family.
When I first met Giovanny at the OSWP Picnic, his enthusiasm, personal warmth and willingness to talk about his role was palpable. Animated and friendly, his Instagram account describes his wide range of interests as “orchid and tropical plant lover/hoarder” and “aquarium enthusiast.” And yes, he moved to Pittsburgh with his cat Antoine, a rabbit (now sadly deceased), several fish, and many plants (most of them orchids). This parallel animal-related love has existed from childhood and included a crab (his first “pet”), plus a large variety of creatures that ranged from turtles, hamsters, a squirrel, cockatiels, frogs, anoles (a type of lizard) and exotic goldfish, among others.
Giovanny’s ties to OSWP center on his work with Phipps volunteers. “They do a great deal to help with the collection and are truly amazing. They help with repotting, updating the inventory, testing for viruses, and maintaining the collection and greenhouses. As an instructor at heart, I try to explain what needs to be done and why it’s important, and then I follow up with review and other suggestions when needed.”
“The OSWP Pfunsters have benefitted in many ways from working together with Giovanny,” reports Demetria Marsh who helps to coordinate the Pfunsters. “From his warm, sense of humor, the twinkle in his eyes, the depth of his orchid knowledge and passion, and how he patiently shares his growing techniques as many times as necessary, so they can all learn together and grow.”
Sheila Nathanson, an OSWP volunteer and one of our Show co-chair’s echoes the sentiment. “The pandemic shutdown was a lonely and difficult time for many reasons,” she recalls, “not the least of which was no Pfun. The Pfunsters were eager to get back to work, but Phipps remained in volunteer shutdown. We knew Phipps had hired a new orchid grower and wondered what the fate of Pfun would be.”
“Phipps decided our exile could end, as long as we wore masks and limited contact, which we were happy to do. And Giovanny was very enthusiastic about our return. He welcomed us back to work on and to delight in the extensive Phipps orchid collection. He is a very good teacher, with a wide depth of knowledge about all things orchids. He gives clear, detailed directions about how to pot many different orchids, and is also fun! He absolutely wowed us at the 2023 OSWP Show with a dendrobium kingianum that was the centerpiece of the Phipps exhibit and had to be seen to be believed! He is definitely a Gem!
Giovanny is also genuinely grateful for OSWP’s financial assistance in helping to fill needed supply gaps. Both the Society and specific OSWP members have pitched in to purchase 150 orchid test kits to winnow out diseased orchids that are not only disfigured but threaten the entire collection’s wellbeing. And it’s a fact that while Phipps is known for its many historic plants, many of these early acquisitions arrived before modern cultural care and breeding practices were in place, so the risk is real.
In addition to all the volunteer help and other contributions, Giovanny wishes to acknowledge the OSWP members whose expertise has been specifically helpful in promoting the Conservatory’s mission of being a center of orchid excellence. “Thanks to OSWP members’ expertise, I have developed my own group of in-house authorities who use their knowledge to lead the volunteer groups. Although getting to know others takes a lot of time, the benefits are almost immeasurable.”
Final Words: “The broader challenge is to set priorities and to focus on the timing and sequence of actions. Since you can’t do everything at once, be selective, especially in taking care of your collection. Plan and match the plant’s seasonal growth and repotting needs to the most appropriate time.”