Shangri-la of Exotic Blossoms
“Orchid Adventures” at the New York Botanical
the weather is serving up its famous local cocktail of soggy
snow with rain, the tropics to escape to are in the Bronx.
Within the soaring crystal halls of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory
at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), an extravaganza of
more than 6,000 orchids will burst forth from February 26
until March 27 — just in time to rescue us from late-winter
depression. Promising to be even more popular than its highly
successful antecedents, this third annual Orchid Show provides
a sensual journey through the almost limitless subtleties
of a flower long considered the pet of the elite. And though
the orchid cognoscenti wouldn't dream of missing it,
neither should anyone who has ever been captivated by the
beauty, mystery and blatant sexuality of an orchid.
A display of colorful hybrids at the Orchid Show in
the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
The rare Darwin Star orchid Angraecum sesquipedale.
Slipper orchids Paphiopedilum.
Laelia x Gouldiana.
From the minute you step into the conservatory's Palms
of the Americas rotunda, you'll be surrounded by colorful
plants set in and around the central reflecting pool. You
might recognize among them the mothlike petals of Phalaenopsis,
now increasingly available through commercial growers. But
wander the various chambers of this grandest of all existing
Lord and Burnham conservatories, and the sheer variety of
orchid shapes and shadings — both species and hybrids
— will amaze. Spiked, ruffled, striped like tigers or
spotted like cheetahs, fretted like lilies, pouched like slippers,
as tiny as insects or as large as saucers, every orchid blossom
on display has, of course, been brought to perfection, a standard
maintained throughout the month of the show.
The theme for 2005 is “Orchid Adventures,” unfolding
the worldwide hunts of orchid collectors who have so far brought
some 30,000 species to light. The current adventure is the
pressing need to conserve those species and their threatened
habitats — an effort in which the scientists of the
NYBG are constantly engaged. “People have risked life
and limb to collect orchids, some have even killed for them,”
says Darrin Duling, who is the curator of the recent orchid
shows and full-time curator of glasshouse collections. “The
ancient Chinese cultivated orchids; and, in later years in
the West, it was the Victorians with their passion for horticultural
collecting who spurred the craze. In fact, some disapproving
individuals found orchids just a bit too suggestive,”
he adds with a grin. “Well, from a natural history standpoint
orchids are trollops — with all sorts of intriguing
seductions for luring their pollinators.”
Hybridizing humans, however, account for much of the diversity
here on display. Orchids, Duling explains, are unusual in
that they can be easily bred between distinct genera; for
instance, Cattleya with Brassavola, “akin
to crossing a rosebush with an apple tree.” And the
resulting hybrid can be crossed with others — for larger
or more profuse blossoms, for better color or fragrance —
so that a complex, man-made hybrid could have dozens of ancestors.
To plump the show with glorious examples, the NYBG draws not
only on its own collections, but also on top growers throughout
The seasonal show galleries present orchids of the Old World
(Asia, Africa and Australia) in dazzling displays —
masses, spires and spills of them. But you can also experience
the plants in a simulation of their native environments. Step
under the overarching greenery of the humid Lowland Rain Forest
section, and orchids native to the Americas festoon the branches
and cling to tree trunks. Amid the giant ferns and exotic
leaves of the cooler Upland Rain Forest gallery, the heroes
of last year's show, miniature orchids, will once again
strut their stuff in the climate-controlled terrarium that
also features year-round orchid displays. Keep in mind that
any time of year you visit, you'll also find an orchid
display in the rotunda of the library (near the Garden's
Mosholu entrance). During the show, it will feature a stunning
gathering of slipper orchids.
It's a myth, of course, that growing orchids is only
for people with greenhouses. Varieties of Oncidium
and Phalaenopsis, among others, do splendidly in
home conditions, popping sprays of long-lasting blossoms.
In 2003, so many visitors were inspired to take home an orchid
or two that the Shop in the Garden, opened in chic new quarters
just last February, sold out its initial supply within a day.
“This year,” says Margaret Csala, the shop's
manager, “we'll be better supplied.” Not
only can you buy the proper soil medium, food, stakes and
gorgeous orchid books, but experts will be on hand also to
advise on selection and care. That's not to mention
the nosegay of excellent lectures and workshops on all aspects
of orchid growing that will be offered during the month of
the show — and off and on throughout the year as well.
And yes, the Shop in the Garden will have some rare and unusual
orchids for serious collectors. “But come early,”
advises Csala. “They go fast.”
Waller, a former features editor of Victoria and
Town & Country magazines, is a New York-based
freelance writer and editor.
Image 1,2,3: John Peden, image 3,4: Kay Wheeler.