New York Botanical Garden ‘Orchid Show: Thailand’ a Feast for the Senses and the Soul
Every year I attend the NYBG Orchid Show (now in its 15th year) I am pleasantly surprised to note that the exhibits are increasingly more intricate and more lovely. This year Orchid Show: Thailand is absolutely smashing. It runs until 9 April. The team of professionals, staff, volunteers and others whose creativity, prodigious effort and great good will in executing the drama of a beautiful, living production of one of the most exquisite and exotic of plant species, has outdone itself.
Karen Daubmann (AVP of Exhibitions and Public Engagement at NYBG) originated the theme Thailand which she had been considering for a number of years. She is thrilled with Christian Primeau’s (Designer of Orchid Show: Thailand) and March Hachadourian’s (Director of the Nolen Greenhouses who curates the show) culminating work to create this striking exhibit. Christian and Marc collaborated to select the orchids and then came up with the unique and inspired interpretations and symbolic representations that are NYBG’s Orchid Show: Thailand.
It has been a while since the staff and experts conceptualized a geographical theme for the NYBG orchid show. Thailand was an excellent fit. For uber orchid experts, Thailand is synonymous with orchids. Thailand has been in the forefront of orchid horticulture in the cultivation and hybridization of orchids and in the expansion and promotion of orchid farming for more than a century. It is the biggest exporter of tropical orchids globally and if you ask an expert, he or she will tell you that whether native or hybrid, orchids are mostly associated with Thailand.
The Thai people lionize orchids because they flourish in the companionable climate. They add explosions of vibrant, joyful color amidst the lush, green tropical foliage and they contribute handily to the GNP. Thai horticulturalists have been able to propagate a great variety of hybrids which have become ready plantings in Thai gardens adding tranquility and loveliness to promote well being. Their admiration of exotic tropical plants, the orchids’ wide variety of sizes, shapes and hues have prompted Thais to grow them on trees that line public streets.
Another reason why the country “fell” into orchid breeding and pursued it with diligence is because Thailand is the birth place and residence of 12oo known native species. Of course, there may be some native species yet to be discovered in Thailand; one can be sure botanists and orchid horticulturalists are on the hunt for them.
To realize Karen’s theme the NYBG team researched the integration of orchids in Thai culture. They explored how to incorporate particular elements of Thai social and religious structure into the exhibit. They made sure to honor symbols and traditions that the Thai people venerate, adhering to them assiduously throughout the show; that was Christian’s particular passion. Combining these features and designing them into the backdrop of the veritable kaleidoscope of the orchids themselves, has made this show a number one pick to revisit time and again to renew one’s spirit and be soothed by the phantasmagoria of beauty that bathes the senses as you saunter through the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
After seeing the show once or twice, you get it! Upon entering the Palms of the World Gallery at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, one’s perspective and emotions immediately shift. You are in a subtropical, lush, other worldly habitat where the plants are happily riotous. Centered in the reflecting pool which echoes the vibrant pageantry above and below in mirror images, the elaborately hued hybrids, the Phalaenopsis (moth orchids), Dendrobriums (hard cane, soft cane), pansy orchids, Oncidiums (dancing lady orchids) Paphiopedilum (lady slippers) and Vandas luxuriate. Water reflections in the Palm Gallery’s pool reverberate the striking color palate of orchid hybrids which Christian and Marc selected to exemplify the Thai people’s preferences for amazing rainbows of color.
Also in the Palm Gallery are noted the Thai cultural elements that thread throughout the other galleries that comprise The Orchid Show: Thailand: water, elephants and noted varieties of orchids specially featured as Thai favorites (Vandas, Dendrobiums, Paphiopedilum). The reflecting pool is reminiscent of the Thai’s evocation of tranquility and serenity in their gardens which often sport small pools, ponds, waterfalls. The elephant topiaries carrying orchids indicate their veneration of the Thai elephant, chang thai. It is their national symbol. Thai elephants have been used for centuries as a means of transport and a laboring force. Chang thai’s picture is in on the emblems of many of Thailand’s provinces.
As you move around the Palms of the World Gallery and saunter into the walkway of the conservatory toward the piece de resistance, the 360 degree centerpiece heart of the exhibit, you will see elements of the Thai culture represented in the design features of the exhibit and in symbols throughout. To become aware of them, it will take close scrutiny. These design elements include bamboo sectionals and dividers-pieces of bamboo filled with moss. There are amazing dendrobium plantings in water jars, small topiaries which are a tribute to mai dat, the ancient Thai craftsmanship of clipping trees/shrubs into fanciful shapes. There are hanging Thai sky lanterns and hand carved teak spirit houses.
If you have time you will note placards with information about lucky numbers and the sky lanterns. Numbers are very important symbols for Thais. They believe in lucky numbers: numbers divisible by three, odd numbers, the lucky number 3 and the penultimate lucky number 9. But the number 13 is bad news. You will never find it in Thailand which is similar to our rejection of the thirteenth floor in hotels across the nation.
At the beginning of the walkway after you leave the Palms of the World Gallery, look up. You will see the sky lanterns (khom loi). If you count their number it will total nine. Thais use khom loi during festivals and important occasions. These offer a soft, glowing, halo effect in the evenings; you’ve seen the sky lantern festival photos where folks light the lanterns, and like tiny hot air balloons, they rise over water. These lanterns will be lit during Orchid Evenings to create an enchanting effect. There are different sky lanterns farther on in the 360 degree centerpiece gallery which also number nine and which will be lit for Orchid Evenings. There is no preventing the good luck which is manifest everywhere in this orchid show.
Integral to that insurance of good luck in Orchid Show: Thailand are the teak spirit houses hand carved by Thai artist Pirot Gitikoon, near the grand centerpiece. Spirit houses are traditional in Thailand and represent a merging of religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Chinese ancestor worship and ancient Thai spirit worship or phra phum which is widespread.
Spirit houses appear in places of business and homes. It is believed spirits live in these houses made for them to guard against disaster: floods, typhoons, storms, catastrophe, etc. The spirit houses at the NYBG are hand carved with dragon elements: dragons symbolize wisdom, power and protection. Offerings of food, fruit, candies, cans of Fanta soda, exotic ceramic dancers, ceramic elephants are on a platform in front of the spirit house. They are there to lure the spirits to feel at home. These offerings include everything a spirit would need to live in the house, be entertained, eat, have transportation and protect the environs.
At this point in your journey, you have come upon the 360 grand centerpiece. It is a sala inspired by a structure created by Thai architect Mom Tri. Salas are pavilions which are incorporated into temple complexes and public places. They are used for relaxation, rest for weary travelers, meeting places, etc.
The NYBG sala and circular staging environs are adorned with all of the orchid varieties we’ve seen throughout the show arranged into a spectacular finale. The water element is present in a reflecting pool, the elephant topiaries carry white Phalaenopsis and fabulously hued Dendrobium. Paphiopedilum cling to moss on rocks in the pool. Mammoth Bromeliads frame the pool with ferns, palms and other foliage. Mega plantings of fabulous Phalaenopsis frame either side of the sala, while in the back spanish moss drips and pansy orchids greet those who peek behind the structure. Exceptional living theater.
Above are two pictures of the Thai sala from a different perspective, one a close-up
I took hundreds of photos capturing some of the thousands of orchids and found it difficult to wrap my mind around the prodigious effort it takes to choose the orchid show theme, plan the design, effect appropriate research, decide upon the plants, strike the previous show (Christmas train show) grade and prepare the ground, select the plants, arrange the design settings, then plant each orchid for this extravaganza which Christian mentioned took around nine (lucky number) months to plan and put together. The more I visit, the more I begin to understand what such a horticultural production, which March Hachadourian likens to a theatrical spectacle, entails. Can you imagine the behind-the-scenes drama to create this panoramic phenomenal display?
The Orchid Show: Thailand must not be missed. One should especially come back for orchid evenings. Christian mentioned that the night before the show opened to the press, he was in the conservatory surveying the final results. The lanterns were lit, it was peaceful, tranquil and absolutely “magical,” a term he said he doesn’t use lightly. I believe it.
The photo above is the duality of reflections in a pool where up is down and the Phalaenopsis mirrors itself as the light and color bounces off the water.
I am definitely going back in the evening when the Garden is at its most ethereal and “magical.” An Orchid Evening is coming up this Saturday, 4 March. Orchid Evenings are Saturdays: March 4, 11, 18, 25; April 1 and 8. Fridays: March 31 (LGBT night) and 7 April.
The Thailand theme will be expressed everywhere in the Garden to enhance the exhibition.In addition to Orchid Evenings, there will be Film Screenings (Ross Hall) Dance Performances by the Somapa Thai Dance Company (Ross Hall or seasonally in Conservatory Plaza) Orchid Show Tours, Orchid Care Demonstrations and Orchid Expert Q & As. In the NYBG Garden Shop there is themed merchandise and a sea of orchids to purchase with an expert on hand to guide you. Phalaenopsis is easiest to grow with recurrent blooms.
The Orchid Show: Thailand runs until 9 April. For additional events and programming, CLICK HERE.