Orchid fever in New York

New show titled Orchidelirium at the New York Botanical Garden traces the history of and obsession with the species

The orchid that launched a thousand ships has crinkled brown and yellow petals.

On seeing it, the Duke of Devonshire became so obsessed that he built a 0.4ha greenhouse, burning 300 tonnes of coal each winter to carry heat via more than 11km of pipes to maintain his collection of orchids.

Growing plants in greenhouses and displaying them in their homes was a way of showing status for the Victorians; the Duke of Devonshire was just doing this on an epic scale, commensurate with his wealth and his enthusiasm for orchids.

At the recent opening of the New York Botanical Garden's orchid show Orchidelirium, Mr Marc Hachadourian, manager of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections, explained that it was the charms of the drab but statuesque Psychopsis papilio that launched not only the Duke of Devonshire's orchid obsession, but also the orchid fervour that gripped society.

Orchidelirium was an obsession and enthusiasm for orchids that reached such heights that individual plants could sell for the equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds at modern-day prices.


A variety of Paphiopedilum (above) and the Mountain Waterfall main setpiece at the orchid show. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

More than a century later, orchidelirium continues unabated, although orchids are now transported by planes rather than ships.

Victorian times were an age of scientific discovery and exploration of the world and orchids were very much part of this.

Mr Hachadourian described how Charles Darwin saw an orchid with white flowers that are scented at night and have 30cm-long nectaries.

Darwin stated there must be a moth with a tongue long enough to pollinate Angraecum sesquipedale - in other words, a moth with a 30cm tongue. This was a shocking revelation from the scientist who had concluded that people were descended from apes.

And Darwin was right. Years after his death, the Xanthopan morganii moth and its 30cm tongue was found to be the pollinator of A. sesquipedale.

Mr Hachadourian also talked about orchid-collecting practices in Victorian times.

"Collectors lied about where orchids were found. They burnt the forest after collecting to prevent their competitors from having orchids that they had discovered.

"In modern days, this wouldn't be thought of as ethical. At the time, orchids were considered to be so abundant, it was of little consequence. Some orchids were even used as packing material for other orchids."

Today, the approach to orchids is different - conducting research and working to prevent illegal trade of wild-collected orchids.

This year's orchid show takes orchidelirium as its theme, but contextualises it for modern times by including references to the botanical garden's current research and conservation work.

The story of orchidelirium is narrated through a succession of displays.

There is a Wardian case - of the kind used to transport orchids on their long sea journeys from the tropics to Europe - crammed with orchids. Diminutive Epidendrum polinii poised under a magnifying glass contrasts Paphiopedilum sanderianum, which can have petals over 1m long, the longest petals of any plant in the world.

Juxtaposing such different species gives an indication of the diversity of the orchids.

Walking through the show unfolds the engaging story of orchidelirium from its beginning with P. papilio to current orchid conservation work.

Orchid enthusiasts can certainly be intrigued by the history of their hobby and delight in the excellent condition of the plants and range of species on display.

It is a reminder of the attention to detail Victorian gardeners paid to gardening techniques and showcasing plants.

At its simplest level for anyone taking a leisurely orchid-filled walk through the Orchidelirium show, it is a colourful and enchanting experience.

THE GUARDIAN

  • The Orchidelirium show at the New York Botanic Garden runs till April 17.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Orchid fever in New York'. Print Edition | Subscribe