Orchids are easy to obsess over. Who hasn’t been preoccupied with a phalaenopsis at one point? Had some cattleyas floating around the back of your head? Maybe one showed up on your desk and you spent the rest of the workweek helicopter parenting it, or maybe a cymbidium flashed its blooms at you after you’d shown it some big-time benign neglect, making you question your entire approach to life.
In the 19th century, there was an official name for this madness: orchid fever. The upcoming exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden, The Orchid Show: Orchidelirium, dives into this “dangerous history”; as orchid fever swept Europe and North America, orchid hunters were sent to the tropics to find the most obscenely beautiful and unusual blooms.
It’s NYBG’s 14th annual orchid show. February 27 and through April 17, 2016, the garden will be showcasing thousands upon thousands of orchids as it tells the story of humans’ mad, hot love affair with orchids. Orchidaceae is the largest family of flowering plants on Earth, with over 30,000 naturally occurring species, so prepare to see flowers of every size, color and shape you can imagine. Guests will also enjoy demonstrations about care, poetry readings, and live music and dance. And yes, the show’s ultra-romantic Orchid Evenings (where cocktails meet instruments and hot-house flowers) are back!
The exhibition is also part of the garden’s 125th Anniversary Celebration. The Orchid Show: Orchidelirium is designed by Christian Primeau, who helms NYBG’s collections of tropical/subtropical flora. The show is curated by orchid master Marc Hachadourian, manager the garden’s Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections — where you’ll find approximately 7,000 specimens of orchids alone. (You might remember our magical trip last year to NYBG, which is just 20 minutes from Grand Central.) We can’t think of a better way to celebrate spring’s arrival to the city.
Marc was kind enough to chat with us during these busy days leading up to the show. Below, via email, he describes the “pretty outrageous bloom” that started it all, talks global conservation, and spills some exciting show features to look forward to.
Join us! As we step into the bloom-boom room…
The official NYBG statement reads, “The 19th century craze started with a single orchid bloom.” Must have been quite a flower! Tell us about it.
According to history, the orchid craze for one man was inspired by the Psychopsis papilio—the Butterfly Orchid. It’s a pretty outrageous bloom looking like a large orange and yellow butterfly in flight.
When the Duke of Devonshire received a plant as a gift from the Governor of Trinidad, he started collecting and creating one of the largest collections of orchids that has existed.
As new and unusual orchids such as Cattleyas, Paphiopedilums, Phalaenopsis, Dendrobiums, and others were discovered and introduced by collectors, and later flowered in cultivation, European horticulturists couldn’t get enough of the exotic flowers, and their demand grew. Many of the familiar and more popular cultivated orchids today were only discovered and introduced into horticulture in the past 100 or so years.
Why do orchids excite us?
I think that people are drawn to orchids for the obvious reasons of the beauty, color, and fragrance of the flowers. Their long history in cultivation and association with things that are seen as wild, exotic, and often tropical places helps fuel their popularity. Of course the orchid has also been associated with wealth and status as only some people were willing to take on the cost and expense of purchasing the once-expensive orchid plants and grow these tropical plants in cold climates in their private greenhouses. The popularity of the orchid as a cut and corsage flower in the early 20th century helped further that reputation as a status symbol of the rich and famous.
What were you inspired by for this year’s Orchid Show? How will it be different from years past?
Since the New York Botanical Garden is celebrating it’s 125th anniversary, this year we decided to go with a theme of the orchid show that celebrated and detailed the history of the plants journey into cultivation. Looking at this wonderful history, the stories and personalities behind the quest for these exotic plants is as colorful as the blooms they possess.
What is the most memorable orchid you’ve ever encountered?
A tough question for me, as I have been growing and researching orchids for over 30 years now. I have traveled around the world to observe orchids in the wild to learn more about them and understand how to better grow and conserve orchids in cultivation. There are many orchids that I have seen that can only essentially be observed in the wild as the conditions they require are almost impossible to duplicate in a greenhouse environment. I could list many plants that I have seen, but I love them all.
What does NYBG do to preserve orchids in the wild?
The New York Botanical Garden is actively involved in researching plants in the wild, documenting their populations and distribution. Science staff has also worked on creating reserves in areas threatened by deforestation where many orchid species are found. In the greenhouses we run a CITES rescue center to help rehabilitate and care for orchids that have been brought into the country illegally. Rather than see the plants destroyed, they are brought here to be cared for and grown on.
What features of the show do you think will really capture people’s imagination?
I think that many people are unaware of the interesting and sometimes bizarre history of the orchids’ journey from the wild into cultivation and the subsequent “Orchidelirium” during the Victorian Era. It is a wonderful story with lots of scientific and historic legend and lore surrounding the plants and the people who discovered, grew, and researched them.
Of course, the thousands of orchids in bloom are the real draw especially during the cold gray days of winter.
What do orchids need when they’re growing in glass houses?
Orchids are a large and diverse family of plants and it is difficult to generalize their care requirements—depending on the plant and where it comes from, it could need cool and moist conditions or hot, bright and dry conditions. If you were to try to generalize, most orchids are happy with bright indirect light, good air movement, and good humidity.
Do you grow orchids at your own place?
Of course I do! I have my own personal greenhouse and a personal orchid collection of my own at home.
In your work, have you garnered any orchid care tips you’d like to share?
Orchids thrive on benign neglect—most people kill their orchids by over-watering them. Allow them to approach dryness before watering again. They need slightly differing conditions than most terrestrial (soil) plants.
Anything we’ve missed that you’d like to add?
Come to the orchid show—it’s an event that anyone who loves plants and horticulture, or even someone who needs a little bit of a tropical escape, shouldn’t miss!
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