NEW YEAR'S EVE is all about partying like the dickens and crafting a laundry list of resolutions to begin the year ahead with a clean slate and a newfound conviction for life.

But by tomorrow afternoon the post-party doldrums will set in. The better part of the day will be spent enduring fanatical football fans as they attempt to monitor the 14 games scheduled for New Year's Day.

Why not resolve to spend the day differently? Opt for something a little more exotic (and, depending on how you look at it, erotic) with a trip to the greenhouse.

Trade in those beernuts and brewskis for a peek at "The Modern Art of Orchids," the dazzling exhibit at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers that runs through Feb. 26. Eventhe most dedicated football fan will be ooing and aahing at the beauty of the 350-plus orchid showcase.

"The goal of this exhibit is to present orchids like the masterpieces of nature that they are. Everything is set up so you are looking truly at the orchid instead of the setting," says the conservatory's education curator Lisa Van Cleef.

The contemporary setting places the flowering beauties against a backdrop of blinding white walls and windowpanes. These flowers are certainly able to hold their own as nature's works of art.

The diversity of the dizzying array of colors, shapes and sizes makes it all the more difficult to believe that the exhibit is but mere fraction of what the orchid world has to offer.

"Humans keep messing with orchids because they can, and they cross-pollinate, creating thousands and thousands of different hybrids," says Van Cleef, who explains that there are over 25,000 known species of orchids and over 100,000 man-made hybrids.

And to put that number into perspective, Van Cleef says, "one out of every 10 flowering plants in the world is actually an orchid."

If variety is the spice of life, the orchid is definitely the poster flower.

What makes an orchid

What makes an orchid an orchid? Well, there are a few distinguishing traits that separate this flower from the others.

Three is the magic number when it comes to orchids. Unlike other flowers, the orchid's streamlined design is divided into three sepals and three petals. The lower petal is modified into a "lip," which serves as a landing strip for insects who drop by and help with the pollination process. The Paphiopedilum's lower lip resembles a shoe-shaped pouch, which is why it's commonly referred to as the "lady's slipper orchid."

To attract pollinators, the flower is often designed in such a way that it mimics the scent or looks like another insect. The critters are tricked into landing on the flower, and then "the insect is fooled into a pseudo-copulation until it realizes, 'oh, you're not a bug' and flies away," says Van Cleef.

While insects have certainly contributed to the growth of the 25,000 known species, it's the combination of man's experimentation and the orchid's breeding capabilities that have led to the 100,000 man-made hybrids. Most plants aren't able to hybridize among the same genera, but evidently the orchid is far luckier when it comes to getting its lovin' on.

Among the thousands of orchid species, the moth orchid or Phalaenopsis is the most cultivated variety and the most familiar because of its availability at stores like Trader Joe's and Home Depot.

"Out of the thousands of orchids you should be able to grow one of them, and the moth orchid is probably the least demanding," says Van Cleef.

But don't be fooled. Just because orchids can be less trouble than you imagined, it doesn't mean you can skimp on the TLC.

Just ask Mary Gerritsen. The cell biologist and pharmacologist knows a thing or two about keeping orchids happy and healthy. With an estimated 1,500 orchids in her care, the self-described orchid addict has figured out tricks to keeping the flowers alive and in bloom.

Gerritsen, 52, of San Mateo, is the vice president of the Peninsula Orchid Society and author of "Masdevallias: Gems of the Orchid World" available from Timber Press for $45. She says the biggest problem people have with orchids is getting them to bloom.

Fear of repotting

"The biggest reason it doesn't bloom is because it needs to be repotted and most people either don't know how to do it or are afraid, but it's really very easy," Gerritsen says.

Since about 70 percent of all orchids are epiphytes, which means they grow atop other plants and are typically found on bark or tree branches, it's best to keep them out of the dirt.

Most orchids bought at nurseries grow in a bark mix, says Gerritsen, who suggests dumping out the old bark, cleaning the roots and putting the orchid atop fresh bark.

"The best time to repot is in early March or April. Never repot in the summer, it stresses them and you'll end up with a dead plant," says Gerritsen.

Another challenge Bay Area orchid fanciers face is the yellow bean mosaic virus transmitted by aphids. Once it gets on an orchid, if not treated immediately it can infect other orchids and devastate a whole collection.

Gerritsen suggests spraying a 70 percent rubbing alcohol solution or using an insecticide suitable for orchids to combat the disease.

"Orchids are so cheap now, many people treat them like cut flowers, especially the ones that only bloom once a year. So when they die they just buy a new one. Sometimes it's just easier to compost it than to care for it and wait for it to bloom again," says Van Cleef.

But whether you decide to purchase a drugstore orchid and chuck it after it blooms or dedicate time and effort into cultivating it, both Van Cleef and Gerritsen agree that the key to keeping a successful orchid is finding one that meets your needs and simply follow the directions.

"The best thing to do is go to an orchid show or visit a nursery. There are a lot of experts you can talk to and when you buy an orchid you can ask them specific questions on how to grow it and find the one that's right for you," says Gerritsen.

You can e-mail Christina Troup at ctroup@angnewspapers.com or call (925) 416-4856.