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Chasing spring at the New York Botanical Garden

By Dorothy Delgado Novicio Published May 04, 2024 5:00 am

NEW YORK — The Bronx is said to be the most underprivileged borough of New York. Yet it also home to one of the city’s most prized treasures: The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). 

As local newspapers and magazines ran stories on when and where to catch the first blooms of spring, we received an invitation from a couple friends to visit the orchid show at the NYBG. Considered a “National Historical Landmark,” the nature preserve claims to be one of the grandest botanical gardens worldwide and the largest in any city in the US.

Spring’s stars are in bloom at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).

The 133-year-old sanctuary prides itself on being a “living museum and a major educational institution.” It is also a famous center for plant research and conservation. Within the 250-acre garden is the Thain Forest, an herbarium, an arboretum, a rose garden, a vegetable garden with the nearby Edible Academy, a children’s adventure garden, the Daffodil Valley, picnic pavilions, native plant garden, a home gardening center and more gardens and activity centers. 

A ballgown of orchids

The Bronx River divides two sides of the preserve. A day is certainly not enough to explore its interesting features but good enough to plan more trips in the future.

A mannequin amid velvety blooms

On the day of our visit, the botanical garden’s spring stars were in bloom! Daffodils, tulips, magnolias, lavenders, gorgeous spring flowers and rows upon rows of cherry blossom trees, not only of the pink varieties but in hues of white and more, gently swaying with the cool afternoon air.

An orchid named for Winston Churchill

Guided tours are available for those who wish to explore specific sections of the botanical garden, while there is a regular, 25-minute tram tour highlighting the garden’s main attractions. I also found out that they offer online classes for those interested in growing their botanical skills, may they be in the area of gardening, floral designs and more.

Cattleyas in a giant vase

The annual orchid show is one of the two popular and largely visited events in NYBG, the second being the train show, which takes place in winter. Running for about three months, starting in February, the floral spectacle is perhaps one of the most expansive, collections-wise, and most spectacular shows we have attended in recent years.

Florals-in-fashion summer look

On that cheery spring Saturday, the line was already kilometric when we reached the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the event venue. But we were pleasantly surprised at how the flow of guests coming in and out of the glasshouse was efficiently managed. A mixed crowd of seniors, families with their children, friends, couples, and certainly orchid aficionados filled the massive conservatory. The sheer volume of guests was not a deterrent for one to enjoy the event because of the diversity of the sections. There was also enough space to take photos or nooks in between to rest.

Oberonia Insectifera is also from the Philippines.

This year’s orchid show, “Florals in Fashion,” signaled the arrival of spring. It showcased dazzling petals, velvety blooms and glamorous bouquets transformed by designers into fabulous costumes one wouldn’t dare wear. Wrapped around mannequins or what seem to be human figures, the orchids appear so fragile, fragrantly inviting and refreshing to the spirit. I imagined how the artists and designers, with the supervision of the orchid curator, must have fastidiously worked to transform the flowers into installations.

Oberonia Setigera is a rare orchid from the Philippines.

Aside from the themed gallery are varieties upon varieties of orchids from all over the world, a good number of species coming from Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Brazil. But how did we spot an orchid? At the show, guests are presented with a guide on how to identify one. In all six continents, except Antarctica where they don’t thrive, are over 30,000 exceptionally diverse types of orchids. An orchid may be “waxy, warty or hairy,” with petals that can extend to three feet long, or they can be so tiny they’re invisible to the naked eye. 

Orchids come in many colors and grow on trees, rocks and on the ground.

A section at the show directs guests on the three features that make a flower an orchid. First are the merged male and female parts called the column; second is the solid, sticky pollen called pollinia and lastly is a modified petal known as the labellum or lip, where insect pollinators land. While I was grateful to have learned about these details, I was simply lost in amazement and contentedly immersed in the tropical rainforest atmosphere of the Haupt Conservatory all throughout the visit.

Orchids grow in treetrunks.

I took particular interest in the endangered orchids. I was impressed to have found out that two rare varieties of orchids come from the Philippines, with the rest coming from Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Thailand, etc. Oberonia setigera and oberonia insectifera are two rare orchid species indigenous to the Philippines. Displayed like priceless diamonds in an upscale jewelry store, these one-of-a-kind genera rest on specialized glass encasements, where they are protected from the elements. It was quite a challenge to scrutinize the orchids inside the glass case and read their labels, since most guests were curiously ogling them; we had to patiently wait for our turn.

The New York Botanical Garden's Haupt Conservatory is transformed into a tropical rainforest for the annual orchid show.

How the atypical orchids found their way to NYBG is through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora Rescue Center of the botanical garden. Orchids grow in small concentrations in the wild and are very susceptible to threats such as damage to habitat, environmental change and poachers.

The NYBG's sprawling Mertz Library is open for research and reading four times a week.

What is then the role of New York’s botanical garden when wild plants are illegally harvested and unethically sold? When orchids are illegally picked and eventually retrieved, “they are sent to rescue centers with the facilities and expertise to preserve and rehabilitate them.” 

Visitors line up the entrance to the orchid show, where rows of cherry blossom trees stand.

At the NYBG a team of experts nurtures repossessed wild orchids back to health in a specific place called the Nolen Greenhouses. I am extremely grateful of the thought that two of our rare orchid breeds are specially taken care of and found their home at New York’s Botanical Garden. And that I had discovered this while chasing spring.