Orchidelirium: Inside The New York Botanical Garden’s Spring Orchid Show
This spring, there is a method to the madness at the New York Botanical Garden. Inspired by the 19th century era Orchidelirium— a period in which the English were obsessed (sometimes to the point of foolishness) with everything having to do with orchids– the New York Botanical Garden’s spring show Orchidelirium has assembled an adventurous display for their annual orchid exhibit, which is crowded with beauty, rich in history, and brimming with enthusiasm.
To the Victorians, orchids epitomized the romance of conquest and the seductive mystery of far away lands. They were elegant, alluring, glamorous prizes that could cultivate the admiration (and jealousy) of others and were immensely popular (as they still are today). Innovations in the technology of greenhouses during the 19th century catalyzed orchid gardening in the cool English climate, making them a feasible exotic commodity. Orchids, in fact, were so prevalent that at the peak of orchid mania, cheaper orchids were used to cushion rarer ones during shipping.
Apart from the many influential mores of Victorian society (many of which are still significant today), the culture of Orchidelirium was a force unto itself. At a time when the English were colonizing much of the world with a distilled barbarity (famously immortalized in Heart of Darkness), orchid hunters (those charged with recovering as many rare and exquisite orchids as possible) still managed to distinguish themselves as a hard type. Unlike other adventurers, they had no assurance of discovery: they set out looking for something that might not even exist, and which could easily perish on the return journey. Many died in thick jungles from untreatable illnesses or as a result of their own oversights. A great number of deaths and disappearances passed suspiciously, however; no doubt some perished at the hands of their competitors.
Today, there are 30,000 naturally-occurring species of orchid (and an ever growing number of hybrids) known to scientists. For the show, The New York Botanical Garden has collected many rare and unusual specimens (drawing on their own extensive collection sourced from across the United States), and the result is sure to impress even the most avid orchid connoisseurs.
The exhibit culminates in a greenhouse with a tall ceiling, which ushers guests towards a great mountain of orchids in the center of the space (the scene was inspired by famed orchid collector James Bateman’s outcropping, originally designed to recreate the origins of his remarkable collection). On one side a waterfall issues out from the top, its clear water splashing down across bright petals and dark leaves. Rock and root come together effortlessly, disguising the many hands and hours of labor that went into crafting the impressive, beautiful, towering peak.
Christian Primeau, the designer of the exhibit, has undeniably succeeded in recreating the wonder and awe of the Victorian orchid craze: the exhibit endlessly unfolds upon itself to reveal a cacophony of colors, shapes, and smells. Primeau encouraged his workers to decide for themselves where they wanted to plant certain species — the effect is a collage of “vignettes,” which shift and change like a lenticular print as the viewer moves about the room. Just as it was during the original Orchidelirium, it seems there is always a new discovery for visitors to make.