I awoke on the first day of spring to snowdrops blooming in my yard in suburban New York — that is, until a blanket of actual snow buried all evidence of those promising stirrings of life.
But then, after joining the city’s huddled masses, I decided to heed the call of the New York Botanical Garden’s 16th annual Orchid Show. Outside, the charcoal skies of the Bronx dropped intermittent dustings on the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. But inside, an 18-foot cyclone of fuchsia, pink and white — Vandas, Phalaenopsis, Miltoniopsis and Oncidiums, entangled in a web of transparent tubing — spiraled skyward from the reflecting pool toward the conservatory’s palm-covered 90-foot dome.
You could almost hear the collective gasp. Behold, a thousand selfies.
All across the city, spring is — well, if not exactly springing, then poised for a dramatic pop. And for the seasonally disaffected among us, that glorious big bang can’t come soon enough.
Cherry tree devotees keep refreshing the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Cherry Watch webpage, as the buds on some 240 trees, divided among 47 varieties, slowly unfurl ahead of Sakura Matsuri, the cherry blossom festival on April 28 and 29. (Alas, as of early this week, with the city covered in snow yet again, only a handful of Okame, Jugatsu-zakura and Fudan-zakura had opened.)
Macy’s shoppers have found respite from slushy streets at “Once Upon a Springtime,” the store’s 44th annual flower show, on view through Sunday, and perhaps sought out a lipstick to match the weeping crabapple in the Fairy Godmother’s Cottage Garden or the fiery-hued plume of Dagny, the flower-breathing dragon.
At the Queens Botanical Garden, the outdoor Fragrance Walk offers aroma therapy (deep breath, please) with its heady combination of hyacinths and Edgeworthia chrysantha, more commonly known as the paperbush plant, whose scent has been likened to a spicy gardenia. (And … exhale.)
And at the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park, crocuses, dwarf irises, glory-of-the-snow and striped squills, along with Lenten roses and primroses, are but a warm-up act for the main event: tulip, narcissus and fritillaria bulbs, timed to explode on April 23, the date of Shakespeare’s death.
Back at the Orchid Show, visitors swooned before the ghostly Miltonidium Fall in Love “White Fairy,” with its magenta heart, nestled in the crooks of trees. Others ducked beneath the scraggly, tentacled roots of an archway of spotted purple and pink Vandas or gazed at their reflections in a dark pool lined by blazing Cymbidium Golden Boy “Nevada.” Some stopped to marvel at a mountain of Oncidiums, Epidendrums, Cattleyas and Phalaenopsis in a sweetly autumnal palette, perched on a bamboo grid that echoed the conservatory’s glassy panes.
If the line between nature’s magnificence and human intervention was blurred, that was how Daniël Ost, the Belgian floral designer who curated this year’s show, intended it.
“I didn’t want to see this exhibition as a wedding or a party, where you put 100 or 2,000 or 10,000 Phalaenopsis together, which I already did in my life,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium. “I thought it should remain a botanical garden and show the collection they had.”
Mr. Ost was granted unprecedented access to that collection: more than 6,000 orchids representing 2,273 types from regions in Australia, Africa, South America and Madagascar.
“And then I went overboard,” he said, laughing rather mischievously. “It was fantastic to find out that some of the plants exhibited now never left the true collection and are for the first time seen by the public.”
To that collection, he has applied the wizardry that has led Europeans to call him “the Picasso of flower arranging.” Not that the unstyled collection wouldn’t already be considered beautiful, especially by orchid aficionados. “But there is no artistic mélange in it,” he said. “I tried to bring some aesthetics to it, without losing the fact that you should see each individual.” That is a credo that has guided his practice since a master of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, told him years ago: “Daniël-san, sometimes one flower can say more than 10,000. You have to know the right place and the right moment.”
Now 62 and more weary, Mr. Ost has veered from the ephemera of cut flowers. “You take the life of the flower, and you have to pay with your own life,” he said — this from a man who claims to have once worked 19 days straight, with only an hour of sleep each night.
Inspired by the youthful spirit of Nele Ost, 33, his daughter turned colleague, he has instead gravitated toward commonplace materials, like the show’s plastic tubing, which stands in for the jungle vines to which orchids cling in their natural habitat. “I like preservation,” he said, “and I’m looking now for new ways to use everyday objects and to try to turn them into a diamond.”
Mr. Ost, who wears custom-made eyeglasses with rims shaped like flower petals, has an undeniable affinity for orchids: On a test of 200 Latin names for the various types, he said he missed perhaps two.
Just don’t ask him to name his favorites — that would be like demanding that he choose between children — or, perhaps worse, imply that his splendiferous creations for the New York Botanical Garden prove that he’s exalting orchids above all others.
“I’m not a person who is discriminating against flowers or plants, because if they gave me tomorrow a dandelion” — he pronounced the word with the accent on the second syllable, lending the weed a momentary elegance — “I will try to make the best out of it.”
The 16th annual Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden runs through April 22; 718-817-8700, nybg.org.