It was a gray day in New York City. My friend Annelise and I were in a cab, grinding our way toward the annual orchid show at the New York Botanical Garden, which I planned to write about and she would film. This year, the garden has named a new orchid after the actor Awkwafina, and the show’s theme—“The Orchid Show: Singapore”—was inspired by the island that recently co-starred alongside her in Crazy Rich Asians. Her flower is a “Vanda hybrid (Susan Best x Crownfox Black Forest),” a rare type of orchid that can bloom in any color. If you are over 21 years of age, you may party with Awkwafina (the flower) on one of the NYBG’s “orchid evenings.” For a non-member ticket price of $38, you are promised entertainment in the form of “supertrees,” Singapore-themed cocktails, “freestyle dancers,” and, of course, many orchids.
But it was noon on the day of our visit and the park was cold. Once we’d collected our press tickets, we asked a man in mittens where we might climb a hill to get some good shots of the Bronx Park. He suggested some high rocks in the Thain Family Forest, which is the largest remaining area of uncut wooded landscape remaining in New York. The botanists Nathanial Lord Britton and his wife, Elizabeth, chose the site after visiting London’s Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, opening their own city’s garden in 1891 in the hope of preserving botanical specimens and edifying the public.
Once up on the forest rocks, we could see nothing but bare, depressing trees and cold brown water pooling in the earth—he had misunderstood our question. Signs on the trees asked things like, “Why is this tree tagged and numbered?” For an answer, you must download an app or visit a website. Other signs were more helpful, explaining that “evidence that a frozen sheet of ice at least 1,000 feet thick once covered the New York region is all around you.” The rocks scattered between the trees are known as glacial striae (flat) and glacial erratic (knobbly), remainders of the last ice sheet that “began to melt back from the New York City region about 14,000 years ago, leaving behind a thin layer of clays, sands, pebbles, and small boulders.”
I was keen to get to the orchid show and its Singaporean supertrees, but Annelise was busy searching for a “frame” that would make the bare forest into a picture-postcard. I had to admit the woods were beautiful: cold, fresh, luscious. A vision came to me of New York City—every skyscraper, every bus, every bit of this simulation of Singaporean botany in a glasshouse—encased in a thousand feet of ice. Perhaps this hot and frantic city, which is poised to get only hotter and more frantic, will look back on its icebound days with fondness.
The double lines of benches along the entrance promenade to the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory are all dedicated to the memory of people who loved the garden. One plaque, for Edward F. and Mary McDermott of Richmond Hill, Queens, reads, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With daffodils, tulips, and peonies neat, and anything else the squirrels don’t eat.” As we pushed the glass doors of the conservatory open, the cold air became as hot and humid as our earth’s future. As we explained our project to the garden staff (who very kindly bent the rules to allow our tripod in, much to the wrath of some camera-mad visitors), one of them suggested that we make a horror movie called Attack of the Plants, about flowers so beautiful that they make people pass out. It was an intriguing concept: a botanical leisure experience heightened to such sublime levels of magnificence that the consequences are fatal.
The first room was mainly palms, huge palms. The travelers tree, ravenala madagascariensis, reached up to brush the ceiling. Beneath another sat a plaque for Enid A. Haupt, an elegant white lady in a powder-pink dress coat. Embedded in her plaque is a medal presented to her posthumously in 2008; made in silver by Tiffany and Co., it read, “an ardent horticulturalist and a serious collector and breeder of orchids.”
The next room was purple and yellow and even hotter. It smelled sweet, and was laid out in a long passage encased by arches furred in leaves and flowers. At first, the orchids were just flashes of color, but as we got closer we saw that they were growing from crevices in the trees, as if from an armpit. Others just hung in the air, suspended on string. Some had the classic testicular form—the Greek name for the flower, ὄρχις (órkhis), means testicle, because the twin tubers of certain species bring that part of the anatomy to mind—but others were pointed. Oncidium Twinkle ‘Fantasy’ is a frilly, yellow creature; nothing like a testicle at all.
In this second room, I saw the first GoPro of the day, in the hands of some tourists who beat me in the jostle for space by a plant called Philodrendron ‘Big Phil.’ Just as I got so hot that I had to take off my jacket, I reached Awkafina the plant. Awkafina the person smiled out from an informational sign: “NYBG names this new Vanda hybrid in honor of Awkwafina, a native New Yorker and star of Crazy Rich Asians (2018), a film which spotlights Singapore and features some of its many green spaces,” it read. “Vanda orchids are abundant in Singapore,” the sign went on. “The deep raspberry-red color of this new hybrid is especially vibrant and bold, like its namesake.” Underneath, a quote from Awkafina the person: “One of my first memories ever is of my mom taking me to NYBG. I’m truly honored!” Awkwafina the plant was very small, only forking into seven magenta blooms, but lovely.
By focusing on Singapore, an archipelago of jungly islands refashioned into a gleamingly profitable city-state by human ingenuity, the NYBG has chosen the ultimate symbol of land reclaimed from nature. Singapore was once mostly swamp rainforest; now it is a forest of skyscrapers decorated by the biological remnants that appeal most to humans—like orchids.
The British port at Singapore was established in 1819 by the absurdly-named colonialist Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. But the city-state we know today was forged during an intense program of modernization driven by the formidable Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled from 1959 to 1990. Ninety-seven percent of Singapore’s original rainforest has by now been transformed into a combination of high-rise business buildings and HBDs, the nickname given to Housing Development Board homes that sprang up throughout the 1960s. There now remain only 2,000 hectares of forest in Singapore, or 3.4 percent of the land, though the urban space of the city is extremely green. The surviving jungle is untouched but put to work as a water catchment buffer. Perhaps only the productive thrive in Singapore.
The national orchid of Singapore is a hybrid, much like the country itself, which boasts five official languages, topped the 2011 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index, and contains a nature reserve housing more species of trees than that live in all of North America. That hybrid orchid is the Vanda Miss Joaquim, named for its Singapore-based, Armenian horticulturalist mother. The flower is printed on Singaporean banknotes, neatly embodying its twin economic specialties—petals and cash.
Raffles himself was an enthusiast of formal horticulture. In 1822, he suggested that a botanical garden be built next to his home, where he had already planted a selection of his own imported cocoa, nutmeg, and clove specimens. That little garden grew to 19 acres in size, essentially founding the Singaporean spice industry, though there is evidence that he was inspired by the traditions of Malay agriculture. In this way, Raffles bound the classic colonial project of preserving a new territory’s flora in botanical gardens (see: Kolkata (1787), St. Vincent (1765), Kirstenbosch at Cape Town (1913) and using those natural resources to fuel economic development to the benefit of its occupiers.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, at the same time Miss Joaquim bred her famous hybrid, the Singapore Botanical Gardens became a commercial hotbed once more (it had closed due to the collapse of the nutmeg market). Gardens director Henry Nicholas Ridley spent much of his tenure puzzling over the problem of how to tap latex from rubber trees without destroying them (earning him the nickname “Mad Ripley”). It worked, and rubber took over the Malaya region’s economy. The Singapore Botanical Gardens became the main source of rubber tree seeds, and you can imagine the effect on its finances.
Orchid breeding on a grand scale began at the Gardens in the 1920s, when director Richard Eric Holttum overhauled the horticultural agenda. He established laboratories and experimented widely in hybridization, creating hardier orchids of the sort that might sell. In 1963, when Singapore became independent, Lee Kuan Yew embarked on a “greening” project, instating a still-celebrated national Tree Planting Day and enlisting the Gardens’ staff to help with planning flower beds in public spaces—thereby converting a colonial mission into a nationalist one. Back in the 1920s, however, flower cultivation was not so much a public-spirited but a commercial enterprise. Technical expertise in decorative horticulture became a hot commodity, and a School of Ornamental Horticulture opened near the Gardens. In all, Singapore’s Botanical Gardens helped to found the global trade in flowers, which is now one of the foremost industries in many developing countries.
At this stage I got lost. Perhaps I chose the wrong door. Wherever it was I ended up, it was much cooler than the orchid rooms. Here I found the Zulu Giant, a carrion plant whose smell of rotting flesh attracts flies to its enormous hairy flowers. Alien forms descended from the ceiling, bulbous stag horns and water tassel ferns like snakes. In a glass case the carnivorous plants sat, caged and hungry. This section of the garden was clearly where the orchid show’s id resided. A desert room lay just beyond, containing a plant labeled “I Am Not Dead, I’m Dormant.”
Having found my way back to the orchid show, I realized while looking at the gardenia jasminoides that all the vertical orchids were supported by a splint. Without them, they’d flop. It was almost too on the nose: What better symbol could there be for the delicate ecosystem of global capitalism, supposedly held aloft by the “invisible hand” but actually propped up by force?
They do smell good, though. Following an especially fragrant vapor, I found the Oncidium Heaven Scent ‘Redolence.’ It smells like clean vanilla in a world free of sin. The “supertrees” are not in fact individual plants, but tall and curvaceous metal structures adorned by flowers so decorative that the senses are overwhelmed. The Oncidium Yellow Sweet Sugar ‘Lemon Drop,’ the Asian Corsage Orchid; these flowers are jewelry made by God himself. Or at least that’s what one likes to think: The Oncidium Yellow Sweet Sugar ‘Lemon Drop’ is a patented hybrid, registered in 1990 by a person named M. Sato.
Some orchids defy description. How can I begin to explain the flower that began six inches from the bench I rested upon, then swooped up across the room in a grand arch, like a bower for a bride? Its flowers fell in grape-like clusters of, on average, thirteen blooms. I saw flowers at each stage of development. An individual bloom begins life as an oxblood-red bud. Then a yellow bean-looking thing presses through and the inner petals of the flower erupt into a strange hooded pulpit, like a bright yellow mouth screaming into the air. The twin stamens stand upright like elongated uvulas, the outer edges of the flower rusty like dried blood. From the next arch hung bunches of flowers shaped like miniature bananas but in the most artificial-seeming shade of bluish-green, a shocking crème de menthe. It’s a jade plant, I learned; bats hang upside down and drink from it. Although we were not even within 9,000 miles of Singapore, I could not resist looking up, as if a host of bats might be about to drop.
On a sign, an NYGB gardener named Veronique Turletti Jugie had written, “I went into horticulture because of this plant! I found this huge, scraggly plant in the garbage and had no idea what it was, but I thought, ‘You’re so beautiful! I want to try to save you.’” She was not talking about orchids, but a hideous spiked bush called Crown-of-Thorns. Nobody would put an orchid in the garbage.
Veronique’s love for the Crown-of-Thorns seemed totally out of step with whatever motivates the orchid show, so soaked in colonial history, Singaporean gumption, and undeniable beauty. Like the stock market, orchids transmit a manic energy. As Susan Orlean describes in her book The Orchid Thief, they inspire lust in the covetous hearts of thieves, and command prices more commonly associated with saffron. This manic energy derives, I think, from the many paradoxes that orchids embody. They blend the natural and the artificial, the native and the colonial, the historic and the futuristic, the free God-given plant and the expensive luxury item.
More than anything, though, the orchid represents the human instinct to impose an elaborate and arbitrary system of value on naturally-occurring phenomena. The geography of New York City is superimposed by a similar system. The advertised orchid evenings struck me as no different from a gallery opening, where the art exhibited at least partly takes its price from its location on some glamorous Lower East Side street. They are both animated by the force that creeps invisibly up Harlem, pushing up the rent as it goes.
At the start of The Orchid Thief, Orlean describes traveling from “the dead center of winter” in New York to the “warm and gummy” climate of Naples, Florida, in pursuit of a flower. Annelise and I made no such trip to visit our orchids; we just opened a glass door. It was as if a wormhole had opened between Singapore and New York, shuttling the most expensive flora between global hotspots. As we drove home, the rain by now driving down, I imagined orchids flowering at the stock market of every major financial city on earth. They would mark the places where men decide what things cost, and who can afford them. Whether these flowers would bear any relation to their cousins growing wild in the jungle would be a question for the botanists, or whoever calls the shots in our hothouse future. Go see the orchids now: Nothing beautiful ever really gets cheaper.