Orchids. Flowers of mystery often associated with faraway exotic locations like the mountains of Asia or the steamy Amazon rainforests: plants that many consider esoteric, finicky or hard to come by. Why would ordinary Pittsburghers try to grow orchids? At the very least they must be a real challenge to grow here in Mt Lebanon.
“It’s easier than growing carrots,” said the late Grete Holst Evans, 1916-1998. Evans, a Mt. Lebanon resident, was an award-winning amateur artist, a gifted gardener and the founder of the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania, now celebrating its 60th anniversary and preparing for its annual show, March 21 and 22 at Phipps Garden Center in Shadyside.
The search for information about Grete Holst Evans began shortly after her daughter, Grete (Lindy) Evans Miller, died in 2012. Her husband, Chuck Miller, also formerly of Mt. Lebanon, contacted the OSWP because he wished to honor his late wife by finding a new home for the collection of more than 80 of her mother’s botanical drawings. Miller shared biographical information and reminiscences. Other research by the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon and the Sen. John Heinz History Center helped to create a portrait of an exceptional woman.
Evans was both a traditionalist and an innovator. She was a wife who followed her husband, Charles, from the University of Michigan to Mt. Lebanon; a stay-at-home mother of three—Charles III (Trip), Grete (Lindy) and Resa, and a member of garden clubs, the Woman’s Club of Mt. Lebanon and the South Hills Art League. She also was someone capable of larger visions.
Evans had an undergraduate degree in landscape architecture; however, since employment was not the norm for wives of her time and circumstances, she turned to other outlets, such as planting a front yard that was a neighborhood showpiece and designing the landscaping for Bower Hill Community Church. She collected antiques with such a good eye that an exhibition of “Pennsylvania Quilts from the Grete Holst Evans Collection” was featured in Pittsburgh by the Frick Fine Arts Library and at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington during the early 1970s.
Evans studied with well-known artist Samuel Rosenberg and worked in oil, watercolor and pastel. She was best known for her impressionistic landscapes. Accepted into the prestigious Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, she exhibited at their shows from 1956 to 1978, receiving two Jury Awards for Distinction and the Carnegie Institute Purchase Award.
Evans’ long romance with orchids is perhaps her most enduring legacy. She expressed her passion for these flowers on many fronts: as a hobby grower, through her art, and especially by her capstone accomplishment in forming a local study group dedicated to educating its members and the public about these floral beauties.
Evans’ lifelong fascination with orchids was sparked when she was 10 in 1926. She grew up in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands in a home built by General Santa Anna, a controversial military leader and multiterm president of Mexico who had been forced into exile. This home featured a formal garden with orchids. Evans supplemented the collection with other orchids she collected in the wild.
When she and Charles moved to Mt. Lebanon’s Colony Circle, she requested that their home include a small conservatory where she could grow orchids. Once settled, she wondered if there might be other local orchid enthusiasts, and asked the American Orchid Society for the names of Western Pennsylvania members. Then she contacted Frank Curto, chief horticulturist for the Pittsburgh Department of Parks and Recreation, and on February 21, 1954, hosted a meeting at her home to sketch out the framework of the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania.
A well-publicized organizational meeting held March 14 at Phipps Conservatory was a resounding success: 125 people attended and many joined. “Orchid Society Forms Here with 89 Hobbyists Already Members,” reported the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, following up with the promise “Big Program Ahead for Admirers of Flower.”
In a charming aside, it was noted that Evans was totally unprepared for the large attendance. “[I] …made some cookies and took along some bottles of pop for refreshments…enough for a dozen or so people and that was all we expected to attend…[But] I just forgot about the cookies and pop because I knew we’d need a miracle of loaves and fishes to go around that crowd.”
Evans was elected as the president of the Orchid Society at its first official meeting that May.
Perhaps the conjoining of Evans’ passions for art and orchids was inevitable. It was her husband who suggested she start drawing orchids. Intended to document various orchid varieties, her botanicals featured plants chosen for their unusual structural features. She drew these pastels over many years and in those days before PowerPoint used them to provide visual accompaniment to the talks about orchids she often presented.
Evans’ skill was showcased in two 1964 exhibits: “Orchid Pastels by Grete Holst Evans” at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, followed by a show featuring “60 botanical drawings” at Mellon Bank. Evans hoped her botanicals would be made into a portfolio, but the pictures dropped out of view after her death, only coming back to light in 2012 after her daughter Lindy’s passing.
Grete Evans’ community legacy, the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania, continues to flourish. Composed of 150 members of different ages, occupations, and orchid-related interests, its meetings are lively, typically featuring expert speakers, a chance to view wonderful plants in their glory on the “show and tell table,” plus many opportunities to seek advice.
And Evans’ expectation that Pittsburghers would benefit from this organized resource has morphed in unexpected ways. Over the past decade, society volunteers have helped to care for the collection of more than 1,300 orchids in Phipps Conservatory’s famed Orchid Room, ensuring that these plants are healthy and beautifully displayed.
A second thrust, the Phipps-Orchid Society Initiative, is a visionary agreement whereby orchid society members and Phipps staff collaborate to identify, locate, and solicit especially noteworthy orchids. Their goal is to develop a superior collection that will help to elevate Phipps’ stature to that of a national orchid lovers’ destination. The effort already has contributed to Phipps’ being accredited as the Slipper Orchid Repository by the North American Plant Collections Consortium.
Since Evans first requested help from the American Orchid Society 60 years ago, the relationship has come full circle. Last year the trustees of the national organization awarded the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania its Distinguished Affiliated Societies Service Award in recognition of “sustained, outstanding contributions in areas of service and support in the field of orchidology.”
From a chance inquiry to national honors, Grete Holst Evans started it all.
About the Author: Norma Raiff and her husband, Richard, joined the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania (OSWP) in 1979. They have taught “You Can Grow Orchids in Pittsburgh” at CMU’s OSHER program and will be presenting at this year’s OSWP show. Norma has enjoyed an extensive career in executive leadership and nonprofit management. Since her retirement as executive director of Sojourner House, she has been on the adjunct faculty of Chatham University’s Department of Business and Entrepreneurship.
Norma and her husband, Richard, joined the OSWP in 1979. They have taught “You can grow orchids in Pittsburgh” at CMU’s OSHER program and will be presenting at this year’s OSWP show.
Norma and Richard have two sons, Graham and Joshua, and four grandchildren.