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© RIA Novosti. Iliya Pitalev

Blooms and butterflies

by Joy Neumeyer at 23/01/2012 19:41

Third Annual Winter Orchid Festival

The orchid festival also has begonias, bromelaids and other flowers

© Photo / The Moscow News / Joy Neumeyer

The orchid festival also has begonias, bromelaids and other flowers

until March 18 at the ‘Aptekarsky Ogorod’ Moscow State University Pharmaceutical Garden, 26 Prospekt Mira, m. Prospekt Mira, www.hortus.ru
Open daily 10 am-7 pm; adults 200 rubles, concessions 150 rubles

Butterfly House

year-round at the All-Russia Exhibition Center, or VVTs, Pavilion 2, 119 Prospekt Mira, m. VDNKh, www.buterfly.ru
Open weekends 10 am-8 pm, weekdays 10 am-7 pm; adults 300 rubles, children 200 rubles

Strolling through palm trees, two women bend down to breathe in the scent of a pink and yellowringed orchid.

“It’s gorgeous!” one exclaims, fishing her camera out of her fur coat — a piece of clothing made redundant by the 24 degree-heat.

With a steamy climate, dazzling color and heady aromas, the third annual Winter Orchid Festival at Moscow State University’s “Aptekarsky Ogorod” botanical garden is the city’s best escape from the January chill. Along with the butterfly house at the All-Russia Exhibition Center, the exhibition makes it possible to enjoy a tropical getaway for the price of a couple hundred rubles and a metro ride.

The orchid festival is housed in the orangery of the university’s pharmaceutical garden, founded by Peter the Great in 1706 to grow medicinal plants. After approaching through the frozen snowdrifts covering the garden, visitors enter through the orangery’s glass corridor.

Inside, dozens of orchid varieties from the garden’s collection blossom next to centuries-old palm trees collected by Peter the Great. The orangery also boasts maroon bromeliads, pink begonias and other rare and exotic flowers, adding up to more than 1,000 plants in all.

But it’s the famously fickle orchids who are the festival’s stars.

A Butterfly House Morpho

© RIA Novosti. / Iliya Pitalev

A Butterfly House Morpho

“It’s all manual labor,” said technician Yelena Konyeva as she watered a phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, a longblooming flower whose petals are speckled with hot pink. “You walk around, feel them, sometimes even knock on the pot…. There are a lot of nuances.”

In order to create ideal conditions for the blossoms, many of which are native to South America and Southeast Asia, the room is kept around 25 degrees Celsius with high humidity. Konyeva says most orangery workers enjoy the warm temperatures (especially in comparison to the garden’s cold subtropical greenhouses), though a few visitors are less enthused.

“Sometimes babushkas feel sick and have to take a seat,” she said.

On a recent Tuesday morning, the orangery was buzzing with babushkas with no interest in sitting down, brandishing their digital cameras as they examined the plants.

“I probably have hundreds of shots already,” said Tatyana Popova, adding that her heart was “pounding with excitement.”

“I have a lot of flowers planted in my garden, but orchids are generally very capricious and are hard to keep at home,” she said. “So I prefer to go somewhere to see them.”

Like the orangery, the All-Russia Exhibition Center butterfly house is kept warm and moist. It contains about 50 types of butterflies from Southeast Asia, Africa and South America, as well as a separate room with cages of tarantulas, geckos and other crawling creatures.

Owl butterfly at the House of Butterflies

© RIA Novosti. / Iliya Pitalev

Owl butterfly at the House of Butterflies

Butterflies flutter freely in the main room, which brims with trees and flowers from their native countries (including orchids). Near the back, a glass case marked “rod dom” (maternity ward) houses cocoons that will eventually become the house’s newest inhabitants.

According to worker Olesya, the exhibit’s most interesting creature is the Morpho, a South American day butterfly with metallic blue wings. One of her duties is making sure overeager visitors don’t try to pick up the insects; posters with a frowning butterfly announce this offense carries a 1,500-ruble fine.

“But they’re not afraid of people,” she said, attempting to entice an owl butterfly with a plate full of ripe fruit.

Owl butterflies, which hail from Mexico and South America, prefer to hide in the shadows during the day. But they’re not averse to occasional socializing. A visitor squealed with excitement when one landed on her hand, closing its wings so that the trademark eye-like spots were visible on the reverse side.

“Take a picture!” she exclaimed. But her boyfriend’s camera lens was fogged; they would have to wait for the next landing.

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