The New York Botanical Garden has become my home away from home, contributing tranquility and a refreshing perspective on the current time of anxiety. Venues like botanical gardens, museums, and theater, now more than ever, provide an incalculable comfort.
This is especially true of this year’s New York Botanical Garden Orchid Show: Thailand, which offers a rich panorama of spectacular flora that exemplifies Thailand’s majestic contribution to the amazing world of orchids.
The selection of this year’s orchid theme was suggested by Karen Daubmann, Associate Vice President of Exhibitions and Public Engagement. Karen had been considering the natural meld of orchids and Thailand for a while; this year the opportunity arose to effect a fitting conceptualization.
The moment one enters the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the paradigm shifts. There are orchid rainbow splashes everywhere amidst the spiky, slender and fan-shaped foliage of towering palms and mammoth flat-leafed philodendrons, sprengeri and bird’s-nest ferns in the Palms of the World Gallery where The Orchid Show: Thailand begins.
The exhibit manifests much of what is held to be particular about the Thai people’s love of garden settings that renew and replenish the soul using water imagery – pools, ponds and lagoons.
Creating an atmosphere of contemplation, reflection and relaxation is paramount and in this 15th year of the NYBG Orchid Show, that ethos is conveyed in every corner of the conservatory. You will see an exceptionally designed phantasmagoria of orchids and dynamic and symbolic plantings to soothe the heart.
The reflecting pool in the Palms of the World Gallery is breathtaking loveliness. The exhibit, designed by Christian Primeau, who oversees the extensive tropical/subtropical plant collections (in 11 different environments in the conservatory), has all the pageantry of an exotic South Asian tropical getaway.
Perched on rocks covered with ferns and moss are red Dendrobium varieties and yellow-brown variegated Oncidiums. Surrounding the pool on the ground are pastel and deeper-purple soft cane Dendrobiums and deep yellow Cymbidiums. These complement multitudes of exquisite sprays of fuscia, pink, yellow, pastel pink, and variegated hues of Dendrobiums and Phalaenopsis (moth orchids), which fan into circular mound shapes, sidle up trees that drip Spanish moss, and perch on the tops of elephant topiaries, all of which are mirrored in the reflecting pool below.
The effect is striking and hyper-dimensional. Pictures cannot capture the profound depth yet evanescent aura of the orchids, shimmering and glorious in their watery reflections, and the images of blue sky patches reflected downward from above.
The elephant topiaries that “carry” the orchids represent the Thai elephant (chang thai, whose habitat is in the Northern mountains of the country), the official national symbol of Thailand. Information placards in the gallery note that Thai elephants are on the edge of extinction, with only 2,000-3,000 left in the wild.
For the 2,700 domesticated Thai elephants that work in tourism or the logging industry that is destroying their habitat, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC) is one of a number of organizations that improves working conditions and helps to reintroduce young Thai elephants back into the wild. Look for informative placards about chang thai around the reflecting pool.
Emerging from the Palms of the World Gallery through the doors into the vibrantly gorgeous orchid explosion of the conservatory’s central walkway, whose vista culminates in the 360-degree centerpiece at the heart of the exhibit, one notes how the floral themes introduced in the gallery continue. It is a celebration of the culture of Thailand, the influence of its orchids, and its tropical gardens and horticultural wealth.
Thailand’s important symbols are integrated into the exhibit as well: lucky numbers, especially the number 9; traditions, such as spirit houses, sky lanterns (khom loi), and small topiaries (mai dat), the clipping of trees and shrubs into whimsical shapes); and its natural resources, one of which is the orchids themselves.
In Thailand’s renowned tropical gardens, and with a climate and terrain acutely favorable to them, orchids flourish naturally (Thailand has in excess of 1,200 native orchid species). As a result they have been bred prodigiously, establishing the country as an international center for orchid horticulture and propagation.
Thailand has been a premier producer of cultivated orchids for more than a century and are the largest exporter of tropical orchids in the world. The Thais venerate and feature their orchid industry; if you visit the country you will see orchids being grown on the trees that line public streets.
The popular, plush Vanda orchids are a Thai specialty. Another is the widely grown Dendrobrium genus, including the Dendrobrium nobile hybrids, whose flowers cluster along cane-like stems resembling bamboo, lusciously mesmerizing.
The unusual Paphiopedilum (lady slipper) orchids are also found in Thailand, in the darkened forests where there are streams, verdant ground cover, and mottled sunlight filtering down through the thick canopy of tree tops. All of these orchid types are abundantly represented in this orchid show along with fascinating rare orchids that are part of the NYBG’s permanent collection.
The variety of orchids is stellar; one appreciates so many intricate shapes and flamboyant hues of the hybrids landscaped with ferns, bromeliads, palms, ficus, bamboo, mat dai and more. It is a festival for the eyes.
There is so much to see, you can easily miss some of it. You just have to return a few times to understand the magnitude of this spectacular floral theater. Following is a little guidance in a few areas, so you will miss less of the symbolism of Thailand and perhaps consider what is being conveyed about the culture.
Take a moment to check out the spirit houses, which are very interesting. Though most Thais are Buddhists, in their practices there remain elements of Chinese ancestor worship, Hinduism, and ancient Thai spirit worship. The tradition of phra phum, unseen guardian spirits that protect pieces of land, is widespread.
If you place a spirit house at a place of business, a home, or a garden, and make it inviting with offerings of tamarind, soda bottles, fresh fruit, garlands of jasmine and marigolds, and pretty ceramic dancers, the spirits will live within it and protect your land from storms and disaster.
The spirit houses at the NYBG where phra phum live are of hand-carved teak (created by Thai artist Pirot Gitikoon), with dragon flourishes symbolizing naga, mythic protective dragons of wisdom, enlightenment and longevity.
In the entrance to the walkway look up and you will note sky lanterns made of white cloth and gold. There are nine, an auspicious and lucky number in Thai culture. If you study the plantings and floral arrangements throughout the exhibit, you will also see that many are arranged in threes (another lucky number), other odd numbers, or numbers divisible by three. Christian Primeau, the show’s designer, told me he made sure to adhere to this assiduously to bring on the luck. There are also nine sky lanterns in the centerpiece gallery of a different color, and smaller. They will be lit on Orchid Evenings to create their own mystical illumination in the shadows of evening.
The sky lanterns (khom loi), originally used in Northern Thailand for celebratory occasions, are now a practiced festivity throughout the entire nation at prescribed times and places. Lit with a small candle, they rise like small hot air balloons, and when sent over water in the hundreds are picturesque lovely auras shining warmly in the darkness.
The show’s remarkable centerpiece is an open structure that evokes a Thai pavilion known as a sala. Salas are part of temple complexes or public spaces functioning as meeting places or shady rest areas. The sala is not to be confused with Thai Buddhist temples, which have a different function.
The NYBG sala is adorned and staged with the signature varieties of orchids (Dendrobiums, Phalaenopsis,Vandas, Paphiopedilums, Miltoniopsis-pansy orchids, Cymbidiums) seen throughout the show in a grand and lofty display. Included are elephant topiaries, a small lagoon reflecting stunning orchid hues, signature bamboo belying Southeast Asia, ferns, massive bromeliads and more.
The architecture is inspired by a contemporary landscape design created by Thai architect Mom Tri. Check the placards nearby for more information about the elements I’ve highlighted, and ones I have not (bamboo, water jars).
I spoke briefly with Marc Hachadourian, Director of the Nolen Greenhouses, which curates the exhibition’s orchid selection and collaborated extensively with Primeau to prepare for the exhibit.
I always love to ask how many of the show’s orchids are sourced from volunteers and from NYBG horticulturists and staff. These are orchids shipped in from Hawaii and other places and then planted, maintained and preserved in the greenhouses, so that they might replace withering orchids to keep the exhibit fresh and vital. I am told that the official stance is “thousands.”
When I see this extraordinary floral production and realize that these orchids number in the thousands and they are happy, thriving, and sporting their beauty for our contentment, I am just gobsmacked, and very grateful to everyone responsible for contributing to make this an exceptional show.
The New York Botanical Garden Orchid Show: Thailand, now in its 15th year, runs through April 9, 2017.
Orchid Evenings promise to be singular with sky lanterns glowing their magic. Fridays: March 31 (LGBT Night) and 7 April. Saturdays: March 4, 11, 18, 25; April 1 and 8.
There are Dance Performances themed “Magical Thailand” (a journey with the Somapa Thai Dance Company) Saturdays and Sundays, March 4-April 9. Performances are at 1 and 3 p.m. and will be held in Ross Hall, or seasonally in Conservatory Plaza. Click here for additional programming.