Celebrating Thai orchids

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Before you even start to take in the orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden, you are tantalized by soft perfume.

The 15th annual show already is in progress, and will delight the public through April 9. This year, the garden chose a geographic theme — Thailand — in recognition of the importance Thailand plays in the horticulture of orchids. It is the leading exporter of orchids worldwide, with more than 1,000 native species, particularly dendrobiums and vandas, and is recognized for serious work in orchid breeding.

The Thai theme is woven skillfully through the show. Distributed along the allee, there are large round earthenware water jugs of a type traditionally found outside many homes. Bamboo has been woven into fencing with interlacing cords.

Mai dat, a form of Thai topiary from the 13th century in which the ends of tree branches are pruned into fanciful pom-pom shapes, can be seen on many small trees. In the Palm Court entrance, there are elephant topiaries — reminiscent of English and French garden style — representing the national animal of Thailand, which is important both culturally and practically for their use in transportation, freight hauling, and even as “tanks” in wartime.

At the court area at the far end of the allee display, there are other artifacts. The small structure, standing on an offering table, is a “spirit house” where daily offerings are placed to invoke friendly protection from local spirits. Strawberry soda seems a favorite, perhaps because red is considered a lucky color.

The open structure, whose roof is draped with curtains of orchids, represents a sala — an open structure used as a meeting place, or simply as a place to sit and rest.

Odd numbers in a floral garden or photographic arrangement are more pleasing to the eye than even ones. In Thailand, odd numbers are considered auspicious, with particular emphasis on the number nine. Odd numbers of items are, therefore, used throughout the display, including nine sky lanterns — small paper constructions that float upward because of a flame inside, and used to symbolize the dispatch of bad luck.

Despite reading Rex Stout’s mysteries featuring the detective Nero Wolfe (an orchid enthusiast and grower), I know very little about orchids except that I have killed several over the years. The most notable characteristic of orchids shows is color. Flowers are lavishly displayed on columns, hanging from trees and in myriad pots interspersed with colored foliage.

There was even an area lined with bromeliads, sporting tiny pineapples. The colors cover practically the entire spectrum — except for black — and flower sizes range from tiny to huge.

As the botanical garden shows, you do not have to travel to exotic locales to see native orchids. In fact, many years ago, I was on a springtime tour of Wildflower Island, which is part of Teatown Reservation, in Ossining. The highlight of the tour was a yellow lady’s slipper, cypripedium calceolus — a small, delicate and wondrous surprise.

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