Posted by: Bridget Junker  | Sep/1/2021

NOT A PASSION, BUT AN OBSESSION

Donor Feature: Russ Vernon, founder of the Wheeler Orchid Collection and Species Bank Fund

The Dr. Joe and Alice Rinard Orchid Greenhouse is one of Muncie’s best-kept secrets. Right in the middle of Indiana is a small, tropical environment that is home to over 2,000 orchids, making it the largest collegiate collection in the United States. And this was all made possible through the help of Russ Vernon, a former curator of the greenhouse. 

When it comes to his love for orchids, Russ explains that he didn’t have much choice in the matter. Both his parents and grandparents enjoyed gardening and even farmed. In fact, Russ used to save his allowance so he could buy cacti at the local Woolworths. And when he was just 12 years old, he began growing his first orchid.

After earning a degree in horticulture from The Ohio State University, Russ went on to become the curator for the Wheeler Orchid Collection and Species Bank in 1973, which is located at Ball State University. During his time there, Russ worked tirelessly to establish an orchid collection for the greenhouse, stating “I decided to point in the direction of a conservation project.” The collection is still located at Ball State University but is now known as the Dr. Joe and Alice Rinard Orchid Greenhouse. 

Russ Vernon
Russ Vernon

 

Russ explained that people were becoming more and more aware of the habitat destruction happening in the tropics, which in turn endangers the orchid species. His idea was to establish a collection where people could donate their own orchids. In exchange for donating to the collection, donors receive their own orchid to take home to create their own collection at home. He even added an insurance policy; if the plant you take home dies, you will receive a new one to replace it.

The collection proved to be a huge success. During Russ’s time at the greenhouse, he managed to trade orchids with botanical gardens from Philadelphia, Ontario, and even the Kew Gardens in England! And to continue to support this collection, he decided to establish a fund through The Community Foundation. "And so, because I have a lot of emotional currency in the collection, I decided to set up this fund, ”  said Russ.

"Because I have a lot of emotional currency in the collection, I decided to set up this fund."

Russ created the Wheeler Orchid Collection and Species Bank Fund, which is a designated fund that benefits the orchid collection located in the Rinard Greenhouse. Russ explains that he created the fund as a way of ensuring the preservation of the collection.

“Individuals and institutions can lose interest or are no longer able to take care of what they have, so these plants could be lost. And the way that habitat destruction is growing, they’re not only lost, but also lost in nature,” said Russ. 

Russ has the love and knowledge to truly invest his time, talent, and treasure into preserving the orchid species. In fact, his wife, Anita, explains that his passion for Orchids is not a passion, but an obsession.

“I think the word here is not passionate, it’s obsession. So if you’re just passionate, you can kind of wear out, but an obsession is a different thing that you never give up," said Anita Martin.

"I think the word here is not passionate, it’s obsession."

As Anita puts it, Russ’s “obsession” with orchids was cultivated at a young age, and since then he has been able to develop the knowledge and understanding that it takes to care for a collection.

By establishing this fund, Russ hopes that it will eventually be large enough that others will be able to do wonderful things for the greenhouse and the collection. Curators for the greenhouse could visit various habitats around the world and can work to expand educational resources for the community.

Oda Harry Baldwin “Orange King”
Oda Harry Baldwin “Orange King”

 

Phal Indiana’s Pink Ribbon “Intense Stripes”
Phal Indiana’s Pink Ribbon “Intense Stripes”

 

“That’s the goal of doing anything: to give it the support it needs to become better than it is,” said Russ.

"That’s the goal of doing anything: to give it the support it needs to become better than it is."

As far as short-term goals go, Russ explains that it would just be nice to see more people growing orchids. Russ uses his vast knowledge of orchids to educate others through programs on orchid conservation and helping others to grow and sustain their own orchids. The hope with this fund is for the community to continue to experience the collection and continue to be involved in caring for the greenhouse.

“There is no more favorite subject for Russ to talk to people about. Having such an early experience with plants, he is very encouraging of others, especially kids, who are interested in growing something,” said Anita .

Russ, along with wife Anita Martin, have created their own orchid collection through their business called New Vision Orchids located in Yorktown, Ind. They specialize in Phalaenopsis and Odontoglossums, which are different types of orchids that are sold for wholesale and retail.

Learn more about the Dr. Joe and Alice Rinard Orchid Greenhouse and the orchid collection.