The Orchid Show: On Broadway

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through April 25.

When you enter the conservatory for the New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show, you’re directed first through the permanent exhibition of desert and rainforest habitats—the latter of which is augmented with extra orchids for the occasion. In a lesser garden, this might be a drag, but the permanent exhibition is stunning, packed with plants so colorful and dramatic and unusual that they look unreal. Viewing the orchids in this context, with the accompanying literature, also provides some sense of how they fit into the natural world, clinging to the branches of a tree or huddled, small and secret, on the forest floor. Amid their native compatriots, the flowers seem all the more precious for being uncultivated and wild, not tame hothouse flowers but savage beauties, their grandeur innate in their bold colors and extravagant petals.

After that, the orchid show proper looked amusingly like literally gilding the lily (or, you know, the orchid, as the case may be). To be fair, the show’s designers, from the theater world, actually interpret this year’s “On Broadway” theme with some subtlety, mostly using the blooms to evoke proscenium arches and the like. It could have been unbearably corny and trite, but instead it’s endearingly lavish, and the unexpected oddness of hearing “Gee, Officer Krupke” from West Side Story in a Victorian conservatory kept cracking me up. (Frankly, the background music selections are bizarre. I also caught “Your Daddy’s Son,” a heartfelt ballad about manic would-be infanticide from Ragtime, so yeah, very strange.)

Cascades of corsages are fun, I have to admit, but as I wandered past the overflowing flowerbeds and under the floral archways, I couldn’t quite get past the notion (which snuck up on me two years ago) that this kind of presentation doesn’t really highlight what’s special about orchids. Surely this kind of architectural effect would work better with a simpler, relatively uniform flower like a rose. Orchids are too individual, too filigreed and distinctive, to be deployed like mere pixels of color. The show itself seems to halfway acknowledge this by describing the orchid as the diva of flowers. The metaphor is meant to justify the Broadway theme, but to my mind, it undermines the motif. Divas don’t belong in a chorus line but in their own domain, rare and precious, so resplendent that no spotlight or microphone would ever be necessary.

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I attended the orchid show with my parents, who are visiting Sean and me this weekend. Dad, an amateur photographer, happily brought his camera on our trip to the Botanical Garden because he particularly enjoys taking pictures of flowers. As he enjoys pointing out, flowers pose very patiently without ever sighing or rolling their eyes or fidgeting like, oh, his camera-averse daughter, so here are a few shots of the ever-cooperative floral models, courtesy of Dad.