Continued from Part 1
Orchidelirium, this year’s Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden, closes on April 17. This is the 125th year anniversary of the NYBG. Part of the celebration is Orchidelirium, the Garden’s homage to the Victorians whose mania for orchids gave rise to conservatories like the NYBG’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Wealthy orchid collectors needed places to house their collections of beautiful, rare orchids. Joseph Paxton, who designed London’s Crystal Palace, inspired the design of the largest Victorian glasshouse in the U.S., the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
I was able to interview Marc Hachadourian, the NYBG’s Orchid Curator, about the Victorians and this year’s Orchidelirium.
How did you select the orchids? I don’t recognize a lot of them. I was talking to Christian Primeau [the designer of Orchidelirium] and he said he was not familiar with some of them either. And I know you’re a genius about orchids. How did you determine what orchids to choose?
Christian and I worked very closely together. We get along wonderfully, which is fantastic, especially with these types of installations. You have to get along. So as we were working on the designs, Christian is looking at the color palate and what he’s trying to achieve visually. So he’d say, “Well, I want these colors here and that color there, and I want to draw the eye up and create a sort of color flow through the exhibition.” And then from there it’s like, “OK. What do we have that’s available?”
That’s where I come in. He’s the artist. I choose the paint. Does that make sense? He works at the canvas and I help him choose the paint that goes on the canvas. So in terms of looking to select orchids for different areas of the exhibition, if it’s going to be up high, we know we need something that’s long-lasting so we don’t have to be on the ladder 10 times during the exhibition. Or if we need a special thing, a feature thing for this particular area, we need to focus on and select a whole group of plants for this feature.
We did this throughout the exhibition, so that it’s not like it’s all one plant in one location. We try to get as much diversity throughout. It may be diversity within a single type of orchid, like [with the] many different kinds of Phalaenopsis (Moth Orchid), or many different types of orchids. In one area, we may have 10 different genera of orchid.
So it depends on where it is in the exhibition, what the theming is, because it also has to match the interpretation. The narrative has to go along with the display. Just because you want this orchid here, it doesn’t necessarily mean it fits the narrative. So you also have to work with the interpretive people as they’re writing the narrative that we help create in terms of orchid knowledge, the history and the story we are trying to convey here, to then arrange the plants according to that as well. So there’s a number of different processes about how we choose the plants, where they go and what they do here.
You referred to this earlier as a “horticultural production.”
I see it as horticultural theater. The way exhibitions are, there is tremendous complexity. It’s like when the curtain goes up the set changes. So when people come in here they go, “Well, where were the trains?” And you say, “They were here.” And they respond, “No, no, they weren’t here.” [smiles] A giant mountain full of orchids? And they’ll insist, “No, the trains were there.” And even though our visitors are in the same place many times a year, they sometimes forget how each exhibition was featured.
And that’s part of the art of the illusion, and why I equate it to theater. You want that transformative aspect of the design to give people the impression that they’re somewhere else. They don’t realize they’re in the same building and they walked in that same front door. They think they’re in a different building. Because even though the trees may not change, you have to change the space itself to give the visitor an experience where they’re transported to a location, a person’s garden, or in this case, the tropical orchid collector’s orchidelirium greenhouse. And then from there, the designer is completing that set of illusions in terms of imagination. For a lot of our exhibitions we’ll include music. If there’s theming, for a particular cultural icon. In this one they will be having some nature sounds.
It’s amazing how many visitors come and they kind of forget, but they love it. We have a lot of orchid show groupies. On member days they line up, even before the conservatory is open. They want to be the first ones in the door. It really is kind of our big prelude to spring.
I can imagine that a dream of yours as an orchid geek would be to find an orchid that has never been found before.
Not yet [grins from ear to ear]. I’ve come close. I’ve come close.
I was with a group of people traveling in Peru. The person just ahead of me found a new species and it was like “grrr.” But you know, seriously, I don’t have that competitiveness about it. Would it be wonderful? Absolutely. With my last name, I guarantee no one is ever going to name a plant after me. Twelve letters, that’s not going to happen. But in terms of where I’ve traveled, to be able to see the plants in the wild? It’s one of those things where seeing it pays for it. Seeing the plant in the wild in its native environment is just 10 times more breathtaking.
Would you ever be tempted to take a plant?
No, no, no, no, never. [extremely emphatic]
So you would never be like these other individuals – the Victorian explorers, collectors, plunderers.
Oh goodness, no. I actually run the CITES rescue center here. I’m working in rehabilitating endangered species. For me to travel and then take a plant? [He shakes his head and it’s obvious this is anathema.] I don’t collect from the wild. The only thing I take are pictures. [smiles]
Have you been to the Chatsworth House estate? [The Duke of Devonshire, who began the orchid craze, had a magnificent estate with gardens and greenhouses.]
No. All my friends in England are yelling at me. You went where? You flew to where and you can’t come here? The problem is when I want to go, I can’t get away from here.
Have you added to your own orchid collection?
Yes. Absolutely. I don’t get enough with the 7,000 here. I have several hundred in my private collection. I’ve scaled it down a little bit, but I still have my collection. My living room is like a fraction of this, but I always have orchids blooming at home. It’s my sanctuary. I go home and putz around in my greenhouse and love it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
In the last interview I had with you, a friend said, “I thought he was going to talk about how to care for orchids.” She’s killed more than a few in her life.
I can do that. That’s a whole other interview. [smiles]
Under-watering or over-watering?
Under-watering is better. The worst thing you can do to an orchid is over-water it. Most people kill their orchids with kindness.
Orchid Myst from England? What do you think?
A bit of a gimmick. Misting an orchid at home does more to increase your wrist strength than it does to help the orchid. [I laugh.] All it is is a dilute fertilizer in a spray bottle. It’s the kind of thing that follows the concept that when they want to sell you shampoo, what do they do? They put the repeat of the thing on the bottle.
I have no problem with some of these products. It’s not harming you and it’s not harming the plant. Above all, if it creates an interaction between you and the plant, that’s important.
One of the reasons why people have trouble growing plants is that they don’t pay enough attention. They don’t observe. They actually will see the plant but they don’t observe the plant. If misting that orchid gets you to the point where you might notice the bug or [that] it needs to be repotted or [there’s] a new root or a new flower spike…if that’s the benefit it gives you, then it’s worthwhile.
Dilute fertilizer, a dilute amount on a regular basis, every third to fourth watering. You want to use a balanced fertilizer, one where all the numbers are the same. Most orchid fertilizers have a little too much nitrogen. You get a lot of leaves, not as many blooms. Orchids aren’t too picky about what they get fed. They just need to get fed.
Most people forget to feed their plants. That’s another issue. They say, “But it doesn’t do anything.” Well, you’re not going to do much if I don’t feed you. The plant is like you. It needs to be fed.
The NYBG is celebrating its 125th year. Orchidelirium, designed by Christian Primeau, will run until April 17th. To check out some of the diverse programming like Orchid Evenings Saturdays (April 9, 16), and Friday (April 15), World Beat: Music and Dance Around the World of Orchids, and orchid care demonstrations on the weekends, go to the NYBG website.