The New York Botanical Garden Orchid Shows are some of the NYBG’s best-attended exhibits. Orchids are exotic flowers, with a tremendous diversity of shapes, colors, sizes, and extravagant, luscious beauty in over 150,000 hybrids. This year’s Thailand theme is magnificently realized by show designer Christian Primeau and orchid curator Marc Hachadourian, who collaborated to select the perfect orchids for Primeau’s design pageantry.
Karen Daubmann (Associate Vice President for Exhibitions and Public Engagement) explained that there had not been a geographical theme for the orchid shows in quite a while. But because of the country’s climate, fascinating culture, spiritual ethos, and identification as a global orchid capital, and the Thai people’s veneration of orchids and lovely garden styles which fuse the ancient and modern, Thailand is an inspired thematic choice.
Home to an incredibly diverse abundance of orchid species (1,200-1,300), Thailand is almost synonymous with orchid hybridization, cultivation, breeding, production and export. The Thai people have been working in orchid horticulture for over 100 years. The show includes those species essential to Thailand’s orchid industry: the world-renowned Vandas, the Paphiopedilums, and the Dendrobiums.
The climate is ideal for native species and hybrids that luxuriate in Thailand’s varied ecological zones – the north’s cool, humid mountain forests, central Thailand’s low, grassy plains, and the southernmost areas which include lowland tropical rainforests. The U.S., 20 times larger, has only 200 native orchid species. India, six times larger, has only 450. Indeed, Thailand’s orchid diversity of native species is its horticultural treasure.
Rainbow orchids, Vandas of every imaginable hue, and slipper orchids, the unusual and mysterious Paphiopedilum, enjoy the cooler environs and high humidity of the northern reaches of Thailand’s mountains.
Dendrobriums, soft and hard cane varieties, love the lowland rainforests and have also adapted to the mountains and even dryer areas.
All these orchid species are found in Thai gardens with other tropical plants like ferns, banana and mango trees, and palms. This year’s show echoes these gardens, with its many Thai cultural features and symbols: water jars, bamboo accoutrements, spirit houses, sky lanterns, sun-shade pavilions/salas, and topiaries.
I visited the exhibit earlier in February. Since then some orchids and other plantings have been replaced by different colored hybrids or orchid varieties. On some plants that were blooming the blooms have faded a few weeks later, or the reverse. It is always fascinating to note what was not there before, because the NYBG staff makes sure the designs are always fresh and striking, even adding creations and sneaking in novel effects as the show peaks, then moves toward its closing date, which is 9 April.
I had the opportunity to notice additional features and symbols on this last visit, especially during the evening hours as the setting sun threw shadows making the orchid hues and shapes multi-dimensional.
As darkness seeped into the conservatory, the feeling of the exhibit was transformed, becoming subtly surreal and softly foreboding. The orchids’ shapely forms shifted, the lines deepened and came into focus, played upon by the lights strategically placed along the walkway up to the exhibit centerpiece and even in the Palms of the World Gallery.
I especially enjoy going to Orchid Evenings (Saturdays: March 11, 18, 25; April 1, 8) (Fridays: March 31-LGBT Night and April 7), where one can bring a partner, buy drinks, and saunter at a more leisurely adult pace. The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory in the evenings is mysterious. The orchids and other blooms are sensuous. They shimmer in the diffused light; their textures brim with life in the dense air that one senses is filled with unseen wonder.
Darkness provides a contrast to the vibrant hybrid pigments which strike more succinctly in the dim light.
Every crevasse, crease, depression and fold is shadowy; the plant forms are distinctly outlined bursts of color or fade to black. The tone and atmosphere are magical and, I would add, other-worldly, spiritual and ethereal, especially with the sky lanterns shedding their warm glow from above.
Some details I noticed, in addition to the khom loi shining and rippling their good luck in the lightly fanned air, were the numerous small topiaries, some placed at the entrance of the walkway. With the bamboo elements they are natural breaks in the overall fluid, floral design patterns. The fancifully shaped trees are a tribute to mai dat, an ancient Thai method of clipping trees and shrubs into whimsical shapes. The topiaries, some trimmed into ball shapes, others in spirals, provide a balancing effect throughout the exhibit with their dark green foliage against the collisions of orchid kaleidoscopes.
The spirit houses and the spirits living within are encouraging visitors to bring offerings and gifts, I noted. During my initial visit the spirits were just getting started. Now they are happy and bringing great good fortune, receptive of the tamarind, fruits, and cans of Fanta orange, the ceramic dancers, the garlands and the orchid blossoms. Visitors have contributed coins and money for the spirits, and someone donated a white scarf. The spirits must be pleased so their good luck and protection cover the Garden.
In Thailand, ancient Thai spirit worship or phra phum is practiced because everyone wants prosperity. Spirit houses (san phra phum) appear at Thai places of business and homes to protect against floods, storms and disasters. Spirits live in the houses made for them and use the offerings to remain contented. The representative hand-carved teak wood dragon decorative spirit house pictured here is fashioned by Thai artist Pirot Gitikoon.
The Thailand theme also includes the use of lucky numbers and veneration of elephants, which were the backbone of Thai culture as laboring animals and are today the national animal. In the exhibit the elephant topiaries that carry the orchids on their backs are representative of Thailand’s close ties with elephants as vital symbols of their history.
Also serving as a tribute to Thai culture is the representation of their lucky numbers: the number three and any number divisible by three as well as odd numbers and the lucky number nine. These numbers appear throughout the exhibit (there are nine sky lanterns at either end) and are represented in the plantings and groupings of orchids and foliage.
Christian Primeau and Karen Daubmann were assiduous about including this symbol of Thai culture in the exhibit. It is an enjoyable historical detail and appreciation of the country. We have Thailand to thank for its prodigious contributions to the orchid universe. And its cultural mystique is unforgettable.
If you are going to the Orchid Show: Thailand, you probably should bring an offering to the spirits; even a piece of wrapped candy would be fine. And you should check out the show twice: once in the daytime and once for Orchid Evenings.
Comparing both times you will have an entirely different perspective and appreciate the completely different atmospheres.
Try to recall where the placement of various orchid species were, whether hanging on trees or in large plantings on the walkway interspersed among topiaries. You will enjoy trying to remember how many of the orchid hybrids are in the same places, what was refreshed, changed, added, supplanted, and whether the spirits have been sampling the candy and fruits. You will probably notice an updating of flourishes as I did.
On the sala there were orchid blossoms strewn on the bamboo flooring. And in another addition, there were large concrete water bowls with orchid florets floating on top. Just lovely.
The exhibit runs until 9 April. There are Film Screenings at various times (Vanilla: The Sacred Orchid and Adaptation), in Ross Hall.
Also in Ross Hall or seasonally in Conservatory Plaza there are Dance Performances (Magical Thailand – A Journey with the Somapa Thai Dance Company). If you enjoy learning about orchids, there are Roaming Guides in the Conservatory along with Orchid Show Tours and Orchid Care Demonstrations. There is even an Orchid Expert who will give you tips about your own orchids in the NYBG Shop. For exact dates and times and additional offerings and programming check the NYBG website.