Botanical garden focuses on plants from the Far East for annual exhibit of tropical favorites

The annual Orchid Show at Selby Botanical Gardens usually focuses on New World plants and specimens from its collections on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

This fall, Selby will turn to the Far East with a show called “Blossoms of Asia.”

Living plant displays — a bold tradition at the bayfront gardens — will reference Japanese garden design and horticultural practices such as ikebana, the art of flower arranging, and bonsai, the creation of miniaturized trees. Gallery exhibits will include books and prints from the Selby Research Library, along with ink paintings and watercolors from the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach.

“In previous years, we’ve taken a largely scientific approach, but there are other stories to tell,” says David Berry, guest curator for the Orchid Show. “When we started talking about the cultural significance of orchids, that led immediately to Asia.”

“Blossoms of Asia,” presented by Better-Gro, opens Saturday and continues through Dec. 1

Berry, associate director of academic affairs at the Ringling Museum of Art, collaborated with Angel Lara, Selby director of glasshouse collections, along with Bruce Holst, vice president of botany, and Jeannie Perales, vice president of museum exhibitions.

They had plenty of time to talk on a road trip to the Morikami Museum on the east coast.

Selby wound up borrowing four woodblock prints based on watercolors by the artist Zuigetsu Iked, who had been commissioned to record orchids in a Japanese collection. The prints are part of a collection called Rankafu, (Orchid Print Album), first published in 1946.

In Asian art, the orchid is one of four plants, including the plum blossom, bamboo, and chrysanthemum, known as the “Four Gentlemen.” Each plant signifies one of the four seasons and is associated with certain desirable human traits.

The challenge for Selby designers is exploring and expressing that heritage with living plants.

“It is exciting to work with a part of our collection that we don’t normally focus on in exhibitions,” Lara said. “While Asia is broad and diverse in geography and culture, using Asian-inspired design and horticultural practices from various cultures, we will create an immersive and dynamic display in the conservatory for this show.”

Selby guest speakers

The fall schedule for “Blossoms of Asia” will include an Orchid Evening, at 6 p.m. Nov. 6, featuring beer, wine and hors d’oeuvres, along with live entertainment by the Sarasota Ballet School. There also will be monthly guest lectures.

At noon on Oct. 16, orchid researcher Stig Dalstrom will speak at Selby about his conservation work in the Himalayan nation of Bhutan. His talk is called “Orchid adventures and discoveries in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.”

At noon on Nov. 13, Berry will speak on “Asian Inspired: The Roots of the Orchid Show 2019.” At noon on Dec. 18, Rhiannon Paget, Ringling curator of Asian Art, will speak of “Idealism and Ideology: Orchids in East Indian Ink Painting.”

“She brings a perspective and expertise I don’t have,” Berry says. “It helps to round out the lectures.”

The Orchid Show typically begins with the kind of elaborate plant displays that have become a Selby trademark. Gallery space in the Payne Mansion gives the gardens a chance to show off Selby science, research and relationships with other cultural organizations.

“There’s a kind of break in the visitor experience,” Berry says. “We can tell different aspects of the story in completely different ways.”

This fall, he will be teaching a New College of Florida class on the Art of Natural History. Classwork will include a field trip to explore the botanical illustrations at Selby.

Because of Selby Gardens, Sarasota probably has more than its share of orchid collectors and growers. Berry isn’t one of them. Successful cultivation has not been part of his research.

“I’ve had one orchid, and it didn’t last very long,” he says, laughing. “I go to Selby for that.”