Before taking us on a tour of the garden for this year’s Orchid Show, Orchidelirium, New York Botanical Garden Orchid Curator Marc Hachadourian talked about the reasons for orchids’ popularity and the Orchid Show. In his words:
Orchidelirium is a combined effort from so many different departments around the NYBG, including the horticultural staff, the science staff, the interpretative staff, and the library staff. It is a Garden-wide exhibition in which the departments incorporate and interpret many different things we do here in the NYBG.
The Orchid Show was started 14 years ago as a way to teach people about plant biodiversity, the importance of plant conservation and to show off the beauty of the plants themselves.
The orchids are the perfect group for us to be able to talk about all the different things we do here at NYBG in terms of research, education, [and] horticulture, what we refer to as our tripartite mission, because they are such a very charismatic and popular group of plants. They are the pandas of the plant world. Everyone loves and enjoys them, and we can bring people in and lure them with the beauty of the orchids and then also teach them so much more about what we do here.
I’ve been the Garden’s orchid curator for almost 15 years now, which is terrifying when I think about it. But this is my dream job, especially for an orchid geek like myself, to work in a world-class institution and then also teach the public and show off the beauty of the plants we’re able to grow and display for everyone to enjoy.
Why was “Orchidelirium” chosen as the theme of the show?
The orchid’s journey into cultivation was something that took thousands of years. The first records of orchid cultivation actually go back to the time of Confucius. He actually referenced orchids in his writings. So orchid cultivation is nothing really new. But it was the Victorians whom we celebrate with this exhibition who created and started the modern orchid craze that still continues today.
The Victorians were very fascinated with natural history. At that period, essentially when this conservatory was built, people were exploring the edges of the Earth, coming back with all sorts of wild and exotic treasures. Many of them were objects of natural history. The Victorians had a fascination with ferns, palms, and other tropical plants because these were the weird and the wonderful.
As the world expanded, people traveled looking for spices and other resources. When they came back to Victorian England, they brought back fantastic stories, wild tales, legends of the headhunters and man-eating trees. All these bizarre stories fascinated the public and then spawned this huge renaissance in natural history. Orchids were just one facet, but very popular.
Orchidelirium, the title of the show, refers to this craze that happened back in the day when there were obsessive orchid collectors. They saw these plants in bloom, became completely taken with them, and created these massive collections of plants. The Victorians’ collections were [placed] in these elaborate glass houses like the [NYBG’s] Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. When guests came over, the collectors showed off their status and importance by displaying exotic orchids in the parlors of their home and sharing [stories like] “This sea captain just returned with this orchid from New Guinea. I’m the only one in England who has it.”
The amount of money people spent on them at that time translated into modern values of tens of thousands of dollars for a single plant just to be the one person who had it. So once these people realized there was this great horticultural wealth out there, they literally would send collectors to the edges of the Earth to bring back the newest and the rarest and most unusual plants, for bragging rights, and for the beauty of the plants themselves.
What about the Victorian orchid hunters? Marc discusses some of the more unappealing aspects of the Victorians’ mania for orchids.
When orchid hunters were hired to go out into the jungle wilds and unexplored terrains to get those orchid gems, they were driven to extreme actions against native peoples and even their fellow orchid hunters. Examining the results of their explorations, we knew that the public would find some of this distasteful.
We’re talking about death and dying and the element of exploitation. Orchid hunters would actually dress up as native peoples to sneak by them to go into the mountains to get the orchids. There’s the espionage element, which nowadays, when you look back under our modern cultural lens, is bad. Here you are, you’re basically taking a country’s natural resources and exploiting them for financial gain.
But that was the standard practice of the explorers in the Victorian period. I paid you thousands of dollars to go far off into the forests of India to bring me back this plant. I want this plant. Even now, there’s corporate espionage and the same applies.
In another example, they were sent to find the dove tree in China. And it took them months because essentially this wasn’t, “Oh, go find this plant.” Oftentimes, they didn’t know where it was. Sometimes they didn’t know it existed and they would stumble on these plants and they thought, “Wow…hey, maybe we can get a lot of money for it.” It was that weird element of not knowing what was there and hopefully you might find something even better on the way.
But many of these hunters never made it back because of the ravages of the terrain, wild beasts, diseases like yellow fever and malaria, [and] struggles with indigenous people and rival orchid hunters.
What is the rarest orchid you have?
Paphiopedilum sanderianum would probably be the rarest.
Are there certain orchids you favor for the show?
No, there’s a little bit of everything. Whatever we could get. Working with breeders to get the newest hybrids from Taiwan maybe, or whatever is available at the time and whatever is flowering at the time. There are a lot of Phalaenopsis because their blooms last a long time and also because they’re the most popular orchid. Some people say, “Oh, that’s common.” Nevertheless, they are still the orchids that people love and appreciate.
Daffodils have a similar structure. Are they part of the same family?
Extremely distant relative. We’re talking a comparison between an elephant and a monkey. They are mammals. It’s all about the pollination biology. There are many flowers that have similar shapes even though they are unrelated. But it’s all about what pollinates them. So is it pollinated by a bee? Then it will have a particular shape. For instance, hummingbird-pollinated flowers are usually red, orange, or yellow, and they’re tubular to accommodate the hummingbird. So with [other] flowers, it is just that the shape matches the insect and that’s what it’s all about, not necessarily [genetically] related.
The NYBG is celebrating its 125th year. Orchidelirium, designed by Christian Primeau, will run until April 17. 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.
My exclusive interview with Hachadourian appears in Part 2.