The 13th Annual Orchid Show: Chandeliers is currently running until April 19th at the New York Botanical Garden. The show is amazingly beautiful and a much-needed encouragement during what sometimes seems like an eternity of winter. During my wondrous visit relaxing amongst the gorgeous blooms, I spoke to Marc Hachadourian, Director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections.
Marc is a fount of information about the orchids. His title belies his down-to-earth nature and sunny personality. I can understand his joy working around such vibrant, luxurious plant life. A fellow photographer kept on remarking during our visit that the Garden is a great place to decompress and rewind from frenetic city life. It’s another world at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, and Marc’s job is to make sure that all the orchids in the Garden’s permanent collection are as happy with their living conditions as possible. He is also responsible for curating the hybrids brought in and grown for the Orchid Show.
Marc Hachadourian, you’re the resident orchid expert here supervising the care of the botanical collections including the extensive orchid collection and exhibition plants in the Nolen Greenhouses.
Yes. I’m the curator of orchids at the NYBG.
I know you love orchids from what you told me when I spoke with you last year. Orchids festoon your home where you have a great variety and number of orchids. And you are probably way more successful at keeping and caring for orchids than I am.
In addition to caring for the Garden’s orchid collection, I do have my own personal orchid collection, so some of my friends joke that I need a recovery program for orchid addiction because I leave one orchid collection to take care of another. It is something that I absolutely love. I was joking with a friend that they are my greatest stress and stress relief at the same time. But it is something that I absolutely love. I have been growing orchids now for 30 years and they’ve become a part of my life, like my children. Some people become very attached to their pets. I’ve become very attached to my orchid plants. They don’t have names, though. [laughs] [I laugh] OK. How old is your oldest orchid?
At the Garden or my personal collection?
Your personal collection.
Over 20 years old.
I know at the Garden that those beautiful orchids encased in glass – those rare orchids –
The miniatures are old.
Some of them aren’t. They range in age in our collection. But some of our oldest orchids in our permanent collection…are not on display because they are not flowering at this time of year, but we actually have plants in our botanical collections here at the Garden that are over 100 years old. People assume that a 100-year-old orchid must be the size of a house, but in reality, some of the plants may be miniature, so you may be able to hold a 100 years of orchid growth in your hands.
So it’s something that we have a long historic orchid collection here at the NYBG. In fact we have one of the best orchid collections of any institution. There are about 7,000 specimens in our permanent orchid collection. We have all different sizes and different types. You had mentioned the miniature orchid which we have on display in the conservatory where we pull out a lot of the really interesting and unusual botanical plants from our collection, plants that you might walk by if they were put next to some of these really flashy hybrids.
But in reality there are some orchids in the glass case right now that in the palm of your hand in that miniature plant you can hold anywhere from 700 to 1,000 individual blooms on a single plant. Of course, the flowers are so tiny, they are no bigger than the head of a pin, but it is wonderful to hold a plant with that many beautiful flowers. They are from a range of geographic habitats, everywhere from Australia, Southeast Asia, South America, and a range of sizes [1/16 of an inch in diameter to giants more than 25 feet tall], colors, shapes. It’s one of the things that surprises people when they come to the Orchid Show. It’s not just the beauty of our displays, but the extreme diversity within one plant family, the orchid family.
These very rare miniatures – were they sent?
No these are part of our permanent collection that we grow in the back of the greenhouses and that we bring out when they flower.
Do you grow them by seed?
We grow them by division mostly. Sometimes, they will be sourced by specialist orchid nurseries and because we have not only a display collection but a noted research collection, one of my important jobs as the curator of the orchid collection is making sure that we have the proper diversity and a proper survey of the orchid family represented in our botanical collections, so researchers all over the world can come here and use our collections.
It is much like a living library of plants. So if you want to think of it as a library collection or an art collection, that fits. If you specialize in Impressionism, you want to make sure you have a few Monets and a few of this and a few of that. It’s the same thing with developing an institutional orchid collection.
You want to make sure you have a representative display, not only orchids from each country, but from each type of orchid that grows around the world. So we have one of the largest and one of the most widely represented orchid collections of any institution in the world.
How many types are there?
The orchid family is the largest flowering plant family. There are over 30,000 naturally occurring species and now over 150,000 man-made hybrids. They’re found on every continent of the world except Antarctica and everywhere from deserts to swamps to tropical rain forests, even up to the Arctic tundra. So even places that you don’t usually associate with orchids normally have orchids. When you think of this family, you think of the tropics, the rainforest, but there are orchids native to Alaska. And there are even orchids growing within Manhattan itself. There are native species.
I don’t know if there are any Lady Slippers still growing in Manhattan, but there are Lady Slipper species growing throughout New York State. Many of these native species, which are protected by law, can still be found, although rarely in the Tri-State area [New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut]. So these are a few details that you wouldn’t normally think about orchids.
Are there species that you think are still undiscovered or that you are trying to get a hold of that are very rare?
Absolutely. There are many rare orchid species. It is just a matter of patience before we are able to acquire some of those plants and add them to our collection. Just like there are very few Vermeers in our world and everybody would like to have one as a part of their art collection, these rare plants are a bit more challenging to come by. But in our orchid collection, there are orchid species that are discovered every year. Dozens of species are newly described. People might go into an area they’ve never been before and find something new. Sometimes they are right under your nose. There are areas that are well traveled that have orchids. But you would have to have been there at exactly the right moment to see the orchid flower. So it’s fascinating that every year there are so many new species described and discovered.
Some of these orchids, the rare ones, must be extremely valuable.
The value on some of these orchids to the obsessive collector wanting the rarest of the rare, the most unusual plant can create an exaggerated pricing.
Like the tulips? [we both laugh].
Yeah, almost like the tulip mania of the 15-16th centuries. But the value we place on our plants is not something financial. It’s conservation value, biological diversity value. For some of these plants it may be that they have a wonderful history or the orchid may be a rare hybrid. So for that, their value would be almost priceless for what they represent in the orchid family.
The loss of one? I know how I feel if I lose an orchid or one of my plants; I’m devastated.
Well, I’m sad. If it’s something beyond your control then you do get sad at those moments. But there are more successes than failures, so that makes up for it.
You must have read Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief?
I have to admit I never read the book. The reason why is that it is a somewhat fictionalized account about people that I know. So it’s kind of odd to read since it’s based on a series of actual events and I know some of the people involved. It almost kind of feels awkward to me. So it would be like if someone made a fictional tale about your life, you’d be reading it. But it’s a wonderful book and I’ve read parts of it. I never have read it in its entirety. Probably, the real key is having that free time to be able to read it. [we laugh]
Thanks so much for speaking to me. You are so knowledgeable, I enjoyed talking with you.
Enjoy the show.
Oh, one more question. You were going to check on how many orchids comprise the Orchid Show.
Mark confers with a colleague who says, “We always say thousands.”
One might die at any moment.
We are replacing plants throughout the show so the exact number is always changing. We know that at any one time there are thousands. Having anyone actually count them…?
No – it would be a dizzying effort.