Orchid Love, An Origin Story

Orchid Love, An Origin Story

Walking into Dotty and Berry Woodson’s greenhouse is like walking into heaven, but thankfully you don’t have to perish to get there. You do need to make an appointment or be lucky enough to receive an invitation, as I did last week. Could there be anything more fun than spending time with Dotty and her magic greenhouse? I don’t think so!

D&B Orchids, Fort Worth, TX

3,000 square ft., wet wall cooling, 5,000-gallon rain collection capacity

You could call Dotty an educator and a horticulturist, though neither description feels adequate. Horticultural evangelist seems a far better title for a woman who has made it her life’s work to teach everyone about “landscape water conservation practices by design, plant selection, irrigation efficiency, and rainwater collection.”  

Dr. Woodson teaching Texas Master Gardeners. Photo courtesy Francisco Almaguer

Dotty is known by other names, too. She’s a mother of two and a grandmother, as well. Reporters have called her the “orchid whisperer.” Fort Worth horticulturist and author Steve Huddleston says you might as well call Dotty the “orchid queen.”  

Dotty Woodson with orchids in a greenhouse

Clint Wolfe, Patrick Dickinson, and Daniel Cunningham, Dotty’s colleagues from the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, have called her a mentor, as have many other people across the plant-loving world.

Whatever you call Dotty, she’s one of a kind.

When I pulled into the parking area at D & B Orchids, I saw Dotty and her spaniel, Sparkle, out front. We said hello, and then Dotty opened that blessed greenhouse door. Plants filled the space from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. I saw Plumeria so tall they nearly touched the sky. A scattered herd of Cattleya orchids caught my eye. Celestial containers of jewel-toned Vanda orchids and bulbous carnivorous plants hung down from the roof rails; their baskets festooned with Spanish moss that brushed against my ears. Blown away by the sight of so many tropical delights, I forgot every question I had meant to ask.

Dr. Woodson clicked into teaching mode, which is her default mode. Several days each week, she teaches two college interns about greenhouse management and how to cultivate orchids, ferns, and carnivorous plants. 

Our discussion ran through all dimensions of time and space, from the Aztec emperor Montezuma and his place in the history of her vanilla vines to the benefits of rain barrel water versus city tap water for carnivorous plants. 

Dotty showed me how to water Spanish moss.

She reminded me that orchids are seasonal perennials that can live for decades. She has a 35-year-old orchid, for goodness sake. That people throw them out after they bloom is a tragic waste. 

Henceforth, I do solemnly swear to protect and nurture any orchid that crosses my path.

Orchids are not disposable!

As we walked the benches, Dotty gathered far too generous a collection of young plants for me to take home, reminding me of those Italian grandmothers who say you need more meat on your bones, but in this case, bromeliad and butterworts, among other treats.

Eventually, Dotty shared the story I had come to hear, the story that would explain how this petite woman with a charming accent and sweet orchid broaches had become a living legend. I am of the opinion that supergardeners, like superheroes, have origin stories.

Orchids, orchids, everywhere!

Dotty’s marvelous story began in 1962.

Junior High Dotty and her five McDaniel siblings lived within a short bus ride to Washington, D.C. One day, Dad decided that Dotty and her elder brother should take the younger kids into the city to go sightseeing. Off they went. 

Fate led the children to the United States Botanic Garden. They landed in front of an entrance door that said DO NOT ENTER.

Of course, they entered. As Dotty says, “You shouldn’t expect to keep six kids from opening a door that says DO NOT ENTER, unless you lock it.”  

Behind the forbidden door was the Great Hall, where the displays are now, but in those days, the kids could see into the glass Conservatory. It had fallen into disrepair. Before the children got too far into the hazards of tropical Narnia, a curator caught them.

He did his best to run them off, but he wasn’t gruff enough. Three weeks later, our heroine returned with her two youngest siblings, the second graders. 

The curator corralled the kids. He looked Dotty square in the eyes and said, “Okay, I’m ready for you this time.” 

Dotty shot back, “What? You going to kick us out?”  

“No,” he replied, “I want you, if you can, to control the rug rats and get them to pull out all the dead leaves and stuff out from under all the plants. They’ll have to get on their hands and knees to get all that out. Can they do that?”  

Dotty said, “Yeah, they can do that,”  though she wasn’t exactly sure.

Fortunately, the rug rats complied, so the curator pointed to some bags of mulch and directed the kids to spread it out under all the plants. They did a good job. Dotty thought it turned out “real nice.” The curator thought so, too. He brought Dotty to where he had been dividing and potting up orchids. He showed her what he was doing and invited her to help. 

Present-day Dotty exclaimed as I imagine she did then, “Orchids…okay! We can do this!”  

Can she do it? Yes, she can!

Dotty returned just once more to the Conservatory before moving to Germany with her military father, but the curator’s brief tutelage had made a lasting impression. 

In Germany, life was dull, so Dotty found her way to the botanical garden in Frankfurt. She chatted with the director. At his urging, she set out that afternoon to see the botanic garden at Heidelberg University. At Heidelberg, she told the director he didn’t have enough orchids. She recommended he contact a great orchid man she’d heard about in Munich. She was sure the man in Munich could help Heidelberg acquire more orchids. On her advice, the Heidelberg director rang up the great orchid man in Munich, and he said he would be happy to send orchids to Heidelberg. Wunderbar!

From Germany, Dotty applied to study horticulture at Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tarleton. 

Orchidaceae returned to Dotty’s timeline in 1973 when she and her husband Berry received the gift of their first orchid. The next day, they went to the library and asked for all the books on orchids. The librarian returned with just two, but she soon brought them a delicate 19th-century folio filled with illustrations. There, the pair discovered a deep shared passion for orchids. 

Dotty and Berry joined orchid societies and traveled to California and beyond to learn from professional growers. They chose to grow orchids that would appeal to collectors rather than retail customers. They are very good at what they do. D & B Orchids has registered nearly 70 Phalaenopsis selections with the RHS and earned a shelf full of American Orchid Society show trophies. The AOS named Berry Woodson as their Herb Hager Hybridizer of the Year in 2014.  

As president of the Fort Worth Orchid Society, Dotty was instrumental in the execution of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden’s first-ever orchid exhibit, which was held last spring. The World of Orchids was a tremendous success. Thousands of orchids filled the 10,000 sq. ft. Rainforest Conservatory. The show was extended for weeks. 

Entrance to the FWBG’s Rainforest Conservatory, May ’23

When Dotty and I sat down in her office, just beneath the orchid teacup collection, I asked her to tell me some stories from her 24-year career with AgriLife. She had quite a few from her time as Tarrant County’s Horticulture Extension Agent (Fort Worth). 

There was the time the boss sent her out in the field to teach farmers about composting dead horses. 

There was the time an agent from across county lines was miffed that local garden clubs were asking Dotty to speak instead of him. When she offered him his choice of the 75 engagements on her calendar, he never bothered her again.  

There was the time her 2005 doctoral dissertation persuaded AgriLife to recognize the impact of the large audiences she was reaching through the many articles she produced for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the radio interviews Dotty gave, and the frequent T.V. appearances she made.  

Dotty Woodson selfie

Dotty often takes half-selfies-She thinks “the sights around me are more important than me.” She’s wrong about that, but not much else.

AgriLife colleagues loved working with Dotty, though they didn’t see much of her. According to Clint and Patrick, “Dotty traveled hundreds of thousands of miles around the state in her red car, stopping into the office only long enough to say, Hey, guys, How’s it going? I’m off to another program.” 

Dotty is still in great demand, but she’s no diva. Before I left her place in Fort Worth, I asked her what she would want someone who had never met her to know about her. She didn’t hesitate. “I love sharing my knowledge and skills about growing orchids with everyone.” 

She wasn’t kidding. If you ask her, she just might be willing to give a talk for your local gardening group. Plan ahead!

P.S. Many of Dotty’s presentations are on YouTube. The irrigation ones are awesome, but this time of year, you might also check out Don’t Throw Away That Orchid Part I and Part II.  

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