March 17, 2014


I had a double dose of spring these past few days.  Three of those days were spent at the Boston Flower & Garden Show, which I think I covered adequately in ‘Flower Show Fever’ in the essay just below this one.  On Saturday, Betty and I took the day off and drove down to the New York Botanical Garden.

Mid-March in New York is an ‘iffy’ time of the season.  There are years when the lawn is already awash in daffodils and spring is officially in the air if not yet on the calendar.  This is not one of those years.  It has been a cold, wet winter across the mid-Atlantic and the Ides of March blew cold and damp.

The Orchid Show is an annual event, a means of attracting visitors to NYBG at a time when ‘fun outing’ and ‘botanical garden’ are not normally used in the same sentence.  And inside the majestic Enid Haupt Conservatory, it is the March of the tropics or, more specifically, Key West. 

Walls of orchids.  Double-click
for a slideshow.
You don’t try to count the number of orchids on display; they come by the wall-ful.  One ‘plaque’ contains 900 dendrobium orchids, each a unique plant in its own tiny pot, wired into place and made part of the whole by judicious use of moss.  There are orchids overhead and at ankle level; massive cascades of polychrome and spiky orchids that appear to have taken their inspiration from a coral reef.

The designer of all this is a gifted tropical landscaper named Raymond Jungles (and the biographical sources I searched all swear that this is his real name).  Jungles believes in modernism: cubes, thrusting angles and circles.  ‘Waterfalls’ are niches cut in lime-green stucco walls through which water flows in perfect measure to a ‘pool’ thirty feet long and a six inches wide.

Alone amid the scent
of vanilla
But the glory of this garden (inspired by one of Mr. Jungles’ real-life commissions for the Key West home of a prominent New York family) is the sheer abundance of color.  There is no muted backdrop to make these orchids pop; rather the multiple varieties of crotons and bromeliads compete for the eye.  And it all works.

We had the luxury of seeing all this on a Saturday morning when the Conservatory was nearly empty, but it takes planning to have such an experience.  By noon, the nearby subway and Metro North stations are disgorging thousands of visitors, all headed for the same building.  We left suburban Boston at 6 a.m. and arrived at the NYBG’s main parking lot just as it opened at 9:45 (when we left at noon the lot was full).  We were inside the entrance a few minutes later and made the short walk to the Conservatory.  The exhibit nominally opens at 10 a.m. but the sight of a dozen people huddling outside the door caused the staff to open the doors a little early.  I figure we were in the exhibit at 9:50.

It is all the difference in the world to see the exhibit without crowds.  You can appreciate the design better, stand in the middle of a room and slowly drink in the color.  You can also stand very still among dozens of vanilla orchids and smell their intoxicating aroma.

The Orchid Show runs through April 21.  Yes, by mid-April you’ll be able to enjoy far more of what NYBG has to offer.  But right now, it has something very special:  a building full of tropical color at a time when the world is still gray.

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