A flowery view that's totally worth the wait

Botanical garden creates kaleidoscope of beauty in annual orchid show reboot

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With each step, with every angle, this year’s orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden is designed for visitors to envision themselves in a vibrant floral kaleidoscope.

It’s a tradition nearly two decades old that showcases 11 galleries of the exotic plants at the garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. And this year, it features the return of Jeff Leatham, whose clients include everyone from Kanye West, to Dolly Parton, and to even the Dalai Lama.

Leatham had actually designed the last orchid show at the botanical garden in 2020, but that was a show cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.

Leatham has brought back what is essentially the same event, except organizers said it’s larger and more dazzling than before the world locked down.

Visitors enter through the palm dome — which recently reopened after a 2020 restoration project in 2020 — and are greeted with Leatham’s famous faceted vibrant sculpture. The sculpture is something Leatham often uses in his designs, such as a reflective mirror with a three-faceted form. 

“Some are more abstract, and some of them are more representation,” said Joanna Groarke, who leads exhibitions at the New York Botanical Garden.

These three-faceted forms allow reflected light, helping to create the kaleidoscope effect.

Once they reach the conservatory, visitors will find orchids growing in a naturalistic setting. Moving forward creates a feeling of being transported into a number of different environments, as the orchids change in every gallery.

It’s here where the kaleidoscope experience begins, turning what is normally viewed in a small, handheld device into a life-sized realistic floral display that anyone can simply step into.

Looking into a handheld kaleidoscope with a single eye, one typically sees mirrored pieces of colored glass that changes shapes and patterns as the tube is rotated. Leatham tried to accomplish the same thing — except creating something that can be seen with both eyes.

“Jeff is acknowledging the use of the beauty of flowers that he uses in each of his designs that changes one experience to the next,” Groarke said.

A rainbow tunnel connects the exhibitions and orchid towers, showing vibrant yellow, orange and green to give an additional nod to the overall visual theme.

The conservatory features more than a thousand orchids, display facts about as many as one person can read in a single visit. It allows the garden to express an educational side of view, where flowers and plants are more than just a pretty “face.”

Groarke says this year’s exhibition gives guests “a chance to view a beautiful and exclusive show.”

And a warm one, too — especially with how cold winter has been the past few weeks. “It’s like a mini-vacation,” Groarke added.

The exhibit itself took a month to put together — but that’s nothing new when it comes to creating orchid shows at the garden.

But bringing in Leatham was a special treat, Groarke said. In fact, the designer’s impact on the floral design industry has been so profound, a flower market in Holland named an orchid after him.

The Sunanda Jeff Leatham was actually part of the 2020 exhibition, it’s white-dotted purple display mirroring a shade of the designer’s favorite color.

What makes orchids unique and, most importantly, interesting is that there are more than 30,000 different shapes, colors, and sizes. Orchids are found on every continent except Antarctica, where there are obviously none of the tropical environments orchids need to flourish.

In fact, vanilla flavoring comes from orchids — considered one of the world’s most popular aromas as well.

The New York Botanical Garden, located at 2900 Southern Blvd., collaborates with a number of different artists for its displays each year, and sometimes it takes a little extra work to cultivate a shared vision between those artists, and curators.

Groarke, however, says that effort is worth it.

“Working with artists to help them to realize their vision and their creative concept is one of my favorite parts of what we do here at the garden,” she said.

The orchid show officially opens Feb. 26 and runs through May 1. The garden also plans to bring back “Orchid Evenings,” an event catering to those 21 and older, that includes not just the famous plants, but also music, food and drinks.

And for those who might want to design an orchid show of their own, the botanical garden’s gift shops will offer orchids people can take with them and grow at home.

“We try to really make it feel like a full exhibition with a lot of art installations,“ Groarke said, “and with a lot of information about artists that visitors can access.”

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