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NYBG Orchidelirium: The Victorians’ Obessession for Orchids and Profits


Phalaenopsis at NYBG Orchidelirium Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Phalaenopsis orchids, the most ubiquitous of flowers, hardly garner a second glance when we stroll by the myriad colored hybrids that adorn restaurants, homes, offices, and flower sections of grocery stores.


Opsistylis Mem. Mary Nattrass NYBG Orchidelirium Photo by Carole Di Tosti


However, in 19th century Victorian England, if you had orchids in your parlour, you were most probably a member of the upper class. Orchids were a costly rarity, and for much of the 19th century, these plant gems remained in the domain of aristocrats, whose adoration of spectacular orchid originals epitomized the genteel display of power, status, and luxury.


Phalaenopsis I-Hsin Sun Beauty at NYBG Orchidelirium  Photo by Carole Di Tosti

In celebration of those passionate Victorians whose obsessions spawned perilous journeys and whose collectors’ cultivations helped to transform the field of plant research, propagation, and conservation, this year’s theme of the NYBG Orchid Show, is “Orchidelirium.”  Representative of all that is exceptional and dynamic about this monumental flowering plant family Orchidaceae (over 30,000 naturally occurring species from tiny to large, with over 150,000 man-made hybrids), NYBG “Orchidelirium” in its intense visual design and intriguing tour layout circumscribes the trending mania that burst onto the scene in Victorian England. The exhibition highlights the finest and most innovative creative impulses of the time and recalls some of the most nefarious of human activity before profiteering, exploitation, and habitat destruction became the anathema they are today.IMG_3048

Marc Hachadourian (NYBG orchid curator) holding the beloved Psychopsis papilio that whetted the Duke of Devonshire’s obsession for more rare beauties. Photo: Carole Di Tosti

The euphoria began when the Duke of Devonshire fixated upon a dazzling, most singular orchid, Psychopsis papilio. Enchanted, he lusted for more “living jewels” and commissioned explorers to travel the continents and bring back obscure treasures. They did. His addiction grew. Word spread. London’s upper class’ fanaticism was set ablaze, and the orchid craze catapulted into hyper-drive.


Close up of the Psychopsis papilio that started orchid mania and determined the  British Duke of Devonshire to amass the largest private orchid collection in the world at his Chatsworth House estate in Derbyshire which you can visit today. Photo Carole Di Tosti

The Duke’s head gardener Joseph Paxton revolutionized greenhouse design and orchid cultivation for the Duke whose expanding collection (eventually his greenhouses were over an acre under glass), inspired his wealthy friends to also display their unrivaled orchid prizes. Soon hundreds of adventurers were commissioned to travel on the high seas and bring back all the obscure, unparalleled beauties they could find. In 10 years the Duke possessed the largest private orchid collection in the world centered at his Chatsworth House estate. The grandiloquent gardens, greenhouses, and impressive buildings in Derbyshire, which recall the wealth and splendiferous  grounds of Mr. Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice, are worth the visit if you are traveling to the UK.

20160226_113919Fragrant Dancing Ladies Orchid, Oncidium, Rosy Sunset ‘F’  NYBG Orchidelirium. The oncidium orchids carry a lovely fragrance of roses or chocolate. Photo:  Carole Di Tosti




Miltoniopsis Herralexandre (pansy orchid) NYBG Orchidelirium Photo:Carole Di Tosti

Our love of orchids has been tempered with an ethical imperative about conservation and preservation of habitats that was absent back in the time of the exploitative, predatory Victorians. Throughout, this prodigious show highlights the extent of the Victorians’ often piratical obsession, not only through its exquisite, floral pageantry but by showcasing the historical artifacts, books, pictures, narratives that adorn the pathways where the lusciously fragrant Oncidium Rosy Sunset ‘F’ orchids dance (they smell like chocolate), and the Miltoniopsis Herralexandre (pansy orchids) charm with their smiling faces that bloom with scintillating color. The narrative discloses “movers and shakers like Benedikt Roezl, the “Prince of Orchid Hunters,” who was the most famous and successful orchid collector of the era.


Featured display introducing Orchidelirium in the Palms of the World Gallery and Reflecting Pool.  Photo by Carole Di Tosti

The exhibition is breathtaking in its conceptualization, scope, design, and presentation. It is partly conceived as an expeditionary journey that snakes through the greenhouse galleries and suggests the diversified habitats that recall the various continents spanning rain forests, mountains, and deserts (orchids live in all continents with the exception of Antarctica), where orchids luxuriate. One first enters the conservatory’s Palms of the World Gallery Reflecting Pool and is struck by the explosion of whites,  fuscias, variegated roses, pinks, and maroons of reigning Phalaenopsis which cascade dripping Spanish moss from elevated dispositions in the trees. The featured display symbolizes how far orchid cultivation has come from hunters poaching species in the wild to the massive hybridization and cultivation of Orchidaceae it is today.


Oncidium Irish Mist ‘Big Hot Sun’ Photo by Carole Di Tosti


Bratonia Kaui’s Choice-note the long petals. NYBG Orchidelirium Photo by Carole Di Tosti


Vanilla orchid not in bloom, pods visible. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Around each turn is the unusual, like the vanilla orchid whose pods are not beans and which is the only orchid of natural economic value from which we derive all our vanilla flavoring. According to Marc Hachadourian who walked with us along the orchid trail, the vanilla seed pod of the orchid is what is taken, dried and cured and as a result of that curing process or fermentation, that’s where natural vanilla comes from.  So the Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla which is the real vanilla extract, comes from the seed pod of an orchid. Marc referred to the black flecs in Vanilla Haagen dazs ice cream which are from the vanilla orchid seed pod. “You see, you’ve been eating orchids your entire life and didn’t know it.”

As we move along the trail, Marc informs us of the tremendous diversity of orchids which are highly adaptable to all terrains and climates and are the reason why researchers use them in their plant studies. Along the pathway through the galleries that mimic the various terrains where orchids grow, you will encounter the desert orchid Eulophia Petersii.


Photo of desert orchid in bloom in the NYBG desert gallery. Photo of photo by Carole Di Tosti

20160226_103311-001The Desert Orchid Eulophia Pettrsii has adapted to the terrain in that has stems like the swollen stems of a cactus and it has a defense; the edges of the leaves which are like a saw, may cut you. Orchids adapt to every location in the world but Antarctica.

There is also a display case filled with orchid miniatures and valuable, rare orchids from the NYBG’s permanent collection. Within the case is a yellow orchid from Southeast Asia that has the fragrance of horse manure, a scent irresistible to its fly pollinators. As he walked with us Marc Hachadourian discussed that he even  had equestrians test it and verify the scent. According to Marc, “It’s one of the things that orchids are known for, the really bizarre pollination biology sort of verging on science and science fiction.


The Bulbophyllum orchid smells like horse manure fragrant to its fly pollinators. This may be found in the permanent orchid collection ,NYBG Orchidelirium. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

The winding trails of the rainforest gallery recall the thick jungles of an earlier time when thousands of undiscovered orchid species proliferated with abandon. Their abundance was staggering. It exists no longer, having fallen prey to wasteful plunderers. Stop to read the story synopses of collectors and nurserymen and see how the orchid hunters lived while under threat of tropical diseases (malaria, yellow fever, blackwater fever), big jungle cats, and other predatory animals. Historically recorded are some of the most dastardly examples of plant exploitation, cupidity, and habitat destruction, encouraged by the likes of self-proclaimed “Orchid King” Henry Frederick Conrad Sander.


On the orchid trail with Marc Hachadourian who points out the typical shelter of an orchid hunter at NYBG Orchidelirium. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Sander sent out twenty explorers at a time to South and Central America, India, Burma, etc., all in the name of possessing, monopolizing, propagating, and monetizing the most inimitable specimens. The collector amassed a fortune, grew between 1 and 2 million orchid plants in his nurseries, and was named Royal Orchid Grower to Queen Victoria. The NYBG bought orchids from Sander. One of them, a Vandopsis gigantea purchased in 1904 and on display, is almost as old as the NYBG which is celebrating its 125th Anniversary this year. The Vandopsis gigantea is in its 112th year.

Behind the scenes of the splendid  faerie blooms imperiously showcased in sedate upper class English parlours and Joseph Paxton designed conservatories (his greenhouse innovations influenced the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory design), lurked venality, bellicosity and coldblooded aggression. The orchid wilds were foreboding territories of mayhem and murder. Avaricious collectors like Sander and his competitors (Dr. John Lowe, Beechers, Veitch & Sons), hired ruthless, cutthroats to seek and discover peerless finds that would yield a veritable king’s ransom ($100,000 and more in today’s currency for a single orchid). If they could destroy their rivals’ orchid specimens, urinate on them, burn down forest habitats, cut down trees (4000 were cut during an expedition), throw competitors “off the scent” of a particularly stupendous find by slyly redirecting them, and generally assure their orchid bosses’ exclusivity in nature’s masterpieces, they succeeded. That was the “game of orchids.”


The interior of the hut with the implements the orchid hunter used including the Wardian Case found on the orchid trail NYBG Orchidelirium. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Along the garden tour is placed an orchid hunter’s grass hut. Inside, along with examples of his tools and implements, is his Wardian Case (an early terrarium), where he would create a kind of micro-climate for his orchids’ preservation on the long journey home. Wardian Cases were also used to display orchids. A few in this exhibition display delicate orchid miniatures.


Photo of a sketch/photo of Benedikt Roezl, “Prince of Orchid Hunters,” an intrepid gardener, horticulturalist and orchid collector who discovered 800 different species of orchids. NYBG Orchidelirium Photo by Carole Di Tosti

The life of the orchid explorer was arduous and death-defying at every turn. One can review chronicles of those who drowned in the Orinoco (William Arnold), were attacked or mauled by jaguars and tigers, were felled by dysentery (Gustav Wallis), or yellow fever (Frantisek Klaboch), or robbed 17 times at gun or knifepoint (Benedikt Roezl). There were many who simply didn’t return. (David Burke, a Veitch hunter was murdered as many probably were). Indeed, though these brazen, plunderers might fiercely fight with spear, gun or knife, they were duty bound to come back alive with their “booty.” If they killed a rival or indigenous peoples to preserve their stash? Well…

Susan Orlean’s John Larouche of The Orchid Thief and the posse of Seminoles who were arrested in 1994 for poaching the ghost orchid from Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve are pussy cats in comparison to the wanton, fortune hunting Victorians. They were not constrained by any laws except the laws of the jungle, where only the fittest survived to plunder the precious rarities that had never been discovered before.


Rare orchid in the glass display case as part of the permanent collection. NYBG Orchidelirium   Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Is it any wonder that Charles Darwin, Victorian contemporary and “fantastic observational botanist” (quote from Marc Hachadourian NYBG orchid curator), who was all too familiar with the rapacious frenzy of orchid collectors and the lurid stories of explorers’ dire misfortunes in jungles, high plains, mountains, and plateaus, that the notion of predatory survival in nature spoke to his heart and perhaps added weight to his evolutionary theories?There is a nod to Darwin as an aficionado of orchids with a marvelous explanation and illustrations of an ingenious discovery Darwin intuited about the Darwin Star Orchid and its pollinator that you can see on your way through the galleries.


Paphiopedilum (lady slippers) and Nepenthes (pitcher plants) in a gallery before the final exhibition centerpiece. NYBG Orchidelirium Photo: Carole Di Tosti

In the gallery just before reaching the finale you will find an interesting display of the unusual that Christian Primeau (see previous articles on this site) designer of Orchidelirium really enjoy: Paphiopedilum and Nepenthes which also can be found in the centerpiece where they are quietly tucked in and create uniqueness and an innovative touch to the usual gorgeous and brilliant displays.


A view of the orchid mountain from the previous gallery. NYBG Orchidelirium Photo by Carole Di Tosti

On the final expeditionary leg one reaches the centerpiece of the exhibition, and the apotheosis of Victorian orchid frenzy, a 360 degree supernal, floral prominence rising over 8 feet tall in glittering, vivid technicolor. This otherwordly mountain is awash with orchids of varying species, Phalaenopsis, Oncidopsis, Oncostele, Oncidium, Vandas, Paphiopedilum (lady slippers). The hundreds of orchids vibrate a multitude of colors-fuscias, yellows, variegated pinks, roses, tricolors, whites, pale yellows, maroons, and more.


Another view of the orchid mountain with waterfall at the far side NYBG Orchidelirium Photo: Carole Di Tosti

They are a massive profusion, with smaller, quiet vignettes of orchids here and there on rocks clinging as orchids do. This splendid proliferation evokes what orchid hunters may have seen  at the dawn of their exploration before the craze was underway and many had been ripped from their centuries old habitats. Jewels, they drape the mountain and create its texture rising up to the summit, sported by staghorn ferns and weird hanging Nepenthes (pitcher plants). Paphiopedilum, sit on rocks at the bottom of the two waterfalls planted with striking orange blooming bromeliads and Tacca chantrieri (black bat flowers) luxuriating in the water shallows.

Another view of the mountain NYBG Orchidelirium Photo: Carole Di Tosti

Christian Primeau, the designer of the exhibition, was inspired into the mountain creation by an engraving of James Bateman’s (Victorian horticulturist and collector), naturalistic display in a conservatory at his country mansion, Knypersley Hall. The illustration appears in a two volume tome commissioned by James Bateman, The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, (1843).

A studied vignette of the mountain with Bromeliads and Phalaenopsis NYBG Orchidelirium. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

This  mountain created with volcanic rock, steel cubes, and chicken wire with a secret door to water the plants from the inside is “an homage” (Primeau’s words), to those who have gone before…to the avid collectors who endured the wrath of indigenous peoples, poisonous serpents, insects the size of birds, predatory animals, and murderous rivals in their exploits to scour unknown terrain, even lava-spewing volcanoes (Roezl did this), for the most exquisite and valuable of Orchidaceae. Despite the negatives, we have the Victorians to thank for their remarkable finds and innovations in cultivation and propagation.


Illustration of a potting bench with a variety of orchids one might find in an orchid collector’s greenhouse. NYBG Orchidelirium Photo: Carole Di Tosti

Victorian Orchidelirium gave birth to the billion dollar orchid industry that abides today. It even gave rise to the New York Botanical Garden’s ornate Victorian Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and its missions of research, preservation and protection of orchid species and hundreds of other plants that are becoming extinct because of illegal poaching, habitat destruction and climate change. With every delicate bloom, every fern, every pitcher plant, “Orchidelirium” is a bedazzling, live horticultural spectacular, a sterling exhibition to celebrate the NYBG’s 125 Anniversary.

The NYBG Orchid Show 2016 concludes April 17th.  Check the Garden website for details about Orchid Evenings on Saturdays (March 12, 19, 26, April 2, 9, 16), as well as Friday (April 15), and Thursday (March 24, LGBT night). On select evenings visitors can also upgrade to V.I.P. status and enjoy an Orchid Lounge.

A shorter version of this article appeared on Blogcritics.



NYBG Orchidelirium Designer Christian Primeau Talks Orchids, Part I


Beloved Phalaenopsis are one of the most popular of the thousands of man-made orchid hybrids. Orchidelirium at the NYBG. Photo Carole Di Tosti

Orchidelirium, the theme of the NYBG Orchid Show for 2016, refers to the Victorian period in England when there was a renaissance in the collection, research, propagation and cultivation of rare and exotic plants which eventually morphed into an obsessive craze for orchids. The selection of the theme dovetails with the 125th Anniversary of the Garden because the Victorians’ orchid obsession spawned many innovations in propagation and cultivation and hybridization of orchids that has continued to this day. The Victorian passion for illimitable orchid gems even improved trends in greenhouse design and helped inspire the Victorian design for the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.


Phalaenopsis Shu Long Beauty, NYBG Orchidelirium. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Indirectly, it is because of Victorian orchid mania that the NYBG has one of the largest institutional orchid collections in the world with over 7,000 individual specimens as a part of its entire collection, a fact which Marc Hachadourian orchid curator reinforces. The family Orchidaceae is the largest and one of the most varied of blooming plant families in the plant kingdom and as a result it has been used to conduct research and encourage efforts toward conservation and habitat preservation. Additions from the historic, permanent orchid collection are included in the Orchidelirium exhibition.


Angulocaste Red Jewel, NYBG Orchidelirium. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Christian Primeau, the show designer and manager of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory oversees the extensive tropical/subtropical plant collections housed in 11 unique environments in the Conservatory. Primeau reinforced the tremendous influence the Victorians had and continue to have today. It is because of them that orchids are the most charismatic and popular of plants. As NYBG orchid curator Marc Hachadourian says, “They are the pandas of the plant world.” It is their popularity that has encouraged growers and cultivators to create over 150,000 man-made hybrids for us to enjoy.


The many varieties of orchids at NYBG Orchidelirium galleries. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Christian Primeau talked to a group of us about his design inspiration for the show and clarified that the two week installation period was a high pressured and frenetic but absolutely enjoyable time.


Christian Primeau, Orchidelirium’s designer

Orchidelirium has a whole different meaning for my staff and me because we’ve been working 13 hour days including weekends. We were pretty ambitious with the design and we hope you like it. But we’re all hallucinating at this point. I think I’m one of those rare people and I think Marc probably shares the same feeling of love for our jobs. It’s  my hobby and my career. And it’s just what I’m passionate about. I hope that’s not the case, but loving one’s job seems like a rarity these days. I owe everything around me, this entire beautiful collection, this palate of plants that we get to work with, we owe all that to the people who came before us who were passionate. As Marc explained their motive may not always have been so pure, a lot of time it was a passion for personal glory or for profit, but in any case we owe what we have now, where we are today in this industry, everything around you that you see to that passion.


Introductory display in the Palms of the World Dome. NYBG Orchidelirium. Photo Carole Di Tosti

This is a celebration. We’ve been here 125 years. Orchid collecting has been going on for longer than that. So we owe this to the passion of those people. It’s an homage to those guys and ladies and people who sometimes gave up their lives so that we can enjoy these plants. And we also give them a nod because in terms of breeding and conservation, we’ve come a long way. We’re much more responsible, hopefully, nowadays in regard to collecting. Not always, but we’re trying. Of course, the mission of the garden is to move that along and to show the public these plants that they wouldn’t have access to see 125 years ago. Orchid collections was only accomplished with those who had the wealth to fund orchid expeditions for themselves or orchid collectors.


Orchid Mountain and waterfall at NYBG Orchidelirium. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

This is the centerpiece of the collection. (Christian points to the magic mountain of orchids towering above us.) When the Victorians obtained these beautiful plants, they would bring them into their greenhouses and try to stage them basically to reproduce nature. We found this incredible drawing. I think you all have access to it. It’s an 1837 sketch of the Epiphyte house at Knypersley Hall. (The illustration appears in a two volume tome commissioned by James Bateman, The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala, 1843). It’s about a 5-6 foot mountain they built at the center of the greenhouse, beautifully covered with ferns and orchids.


The orchid mountain rises above 8 feet at NYBG Orchidelirium. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

I thought, wouldn’t it be great to take this and put it on steroids? So I asked, “Hey, can you build me a fake mountain? And they came back and said, ‘No, that would cost as much as a vacation home in the Hamptons. But what you can have is a bunch of four foot by four foot cubes.’ So the bones of this mountain are four by four steel cubes stacked on top of each other. It looked great on paper. But when I saw them stacked I wondered, how are we ever going to make that look like a mountain? Hours later and many rolls of chicken wire later, we were able to mount it and plant it to look much like the mountain in the picture but just on a grander scale. It’s hollow and we have a little access door. I won’t tell you where it is. So it’s on the mountain and we can go inside and water it from the inside. All the orchids are wrapped by hand in moss so we can actually water them from the inside through the chicken wire. It looks like a beast to water but it’s fairly simple to do.

It’s an homage to those guys who really were so passionate and built these structures. It is naturalistic but that’s what they were going for and it is the inspiration for our centerpiece mountain. I really let my staff loose in terms of creativity. I cannot thank them enough because I really worked them to the bone. So as you walk around, you are going to see lots of little moments and vignettes so the character of each one of my staff members is actually reflected in certain moments in the display. I hope that people will find the moments that appeal to them whether it be the really intense colors or delicate colors or the moss areas or the small areas of the Paphiopedilum, the Lady Slipper orchids, to find something they can grab onto. My hope is that the orchid enthusiasts will be as psyched about the show as the people who are general plant growers. They’ll find something they can recognize or something that will spark that passion that we all have here. I mean that’s what it’s all about. We want to share what we love and ignite this love in them as well.


Paphiopedilum (lady slipper orchids) Photo by Carole Di Tosti


Vignettes of Paphiopedilum  by the waterfall. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

I planned for a large waterfall in the front, and in the back something a little more peaceful. So we just wanted to have a mossy grotto of water, taller in the back and a bit crazier in the front. In the sketch there’s actually a bird’s nest fern at the top of the mountain. I thought it would be great to take a little license. So we took bromeliads up there and again on paper it looked great. But when we actually had to climb up the mountain carrying a 70 pound bromeliad, it became less fun but we got them up there and we got everything planted. And are fairly happy with the way things turned out. So that’s it. So this was based on that illustration that we talked about. And then we head into what I imagine Marc Hachadourian’s greenhouse looks like. For the crazy plant nerd, orchid geek, this would be the greenhouse that you see. And again we took license and as I said we’ve come a long way in terms of breeding and cultivars. What you see here crazy color, lots of contrast, lots of strange plants and again a huge, huge variety of orchids that we have in this section.


Orchids are epiphytic and grow on trees and rocks. Others are terrestrial orchids, depending on where they grow. Lots of plants will be epiphytic. Note the walls. They are reproductions of the walls that are actually in that scene from Knypersly, so we had those reproduced. A working greenhouse would be dingier and a little less densely planted. We have the potting benches where people can learn a little about propagating orchids and what a working greenhouse would be like but this section of the display it’s predominately ornamental. We tried to load it up with a diverse selection of orchids. The Phalaenopsis (moth orchid) on the mountain everyone is familiar with but you come in here and even if you’re a serious orchid aficionado, you will see a lot of interesting orchids you may not have seen otherwise. The more expensive orchids come from our permanent collection.


The Wardian Case with a variety of orchids of different sizes and shapes. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

Explorers and others used the Wardian Cases to transport orchids back in the Victorian era. They created and maintained that micro-climate to keep them alive. The show also highlights the history of Ward and the invention of the Wardian case wonderfully. The Wardian Case is a symbol of the Victorians.


An example of an orchid geek’s potting bench with orchids in a greenhouse. Photo by Carole Di Tosti


Another example of a potting bench displaying a variety of orchids. Photo by Carole Di Tosti


The majority of the orchids that people buy are from Florida, Hawaii, California. The bulk orchids come in from nurseries around the country. And the rarer ones come from our collection. (What happens to the orchids after the show?) We all have plenty of orchids in our houses after the show. But we donate the rest to schools and societies and give them to people who use them to teach so they don’t go to waste. If they are degraded then we compost them. They have their own value and come back into the greenhouse or into the vegetable garden as they are recycled. So that’s what we tried to do with the show. It turned out to be more ambitious than we thought in terms of numbers of orchids, but I’m happy it doesn’t look like Q*bert the game. That’s what it looked like before we planted. I think we succeeded. We took Q*bert out of it, making it look natural.

Orchidelirium, The NYBG Orchid Show 2016, concludes April 17th.  Check the Garden website for details about Orchid Evenings on Saturdays (March 12, 19, 26, April 2, 9, 16), as well as Friday (April 15), and Thursday (March 24, LGBT night). On select evenings visitors can also upgrade to V.I.P. status and enjoy the Orchid Lounge.










































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