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People Behind the Plants: Libby Besse

Selby Gardens is featured weekly on ABC7 News at Noon. Tune in Thursdays to see more informative segments like this one.

Like most non-profit organizations, Selby Gardens has long relied on donors and volunteers to help achieve its goals. Libby Besse was a volunteer powerhouse at Selby Gardens in the 1970s and 80s, helping to take care of our collections here at the Gardens as well as serving as a member of our board of trustees. Not only did she help to fund many of our plant collecting expeditions at the time, but she participated in the trips, aiding immensely with work in the field. In fact, Libby Besse was behind one of the most fabulous orchid discoveries of the twentieth century.

Phragmipediums, also known as “lady slipper orchids,” grow in cooler tropical areas, usually in high elevation. They typically bloom purplish-pink to white. In 1981, while plant collecting in Peru with Selby Gardens staff members Joe Halton and Harry Luther, Libby Besse collected some Phragmipediums out of bloom on the road from Tarpato to Yurimaguas. She took photos, pressed some plants for herbaria, and also took some live plants back to Selby to grow. At the time, Bessee and the others assumed that this was the first recorded collection east of the Andes Mountains of Phragmipedium climii, a lady slipper with typical flowers.

So, it was a complete shock to everyone involved when the orchid later flowered at the Gardens. The deep red color of the bloom is totally unique for this genus, and no one had ever seen anything like it before. Selby’s Calaway Dodson and Janet Kuhn described the new species in the 1981 American Orchid Society bulletin, naming it Phragmipedium besseae after its discoverer.
Libby Besse still lives on the beautiful Siesta Key estate she and her husband, Byron, shared for decades.

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