Meet the First Woman of Color to Design the New York Botanical Garden’s Iconic Orchid Show, Debuting Tomorrow

Landscape artist Lily Kwong shares her Chinese heritage in the New York Botanical Garden's orchid show, which opens on Feb. 18 at Enid A. Haupt Conservatory in the Bronx.

Artist Lily Kwong at The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage at the New York Botanical Gardens

Courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

When landscape artist Lily Kwong opened her Art Basel Miami piece "Moongates" for Florida's Bal Harbour Shops in 2019, she became entranced by the magic of orchids. “It was the first time I started deeply exploring my heritage through my artistic practice, using the traditional architectural element found in Chinese gardens as a scaffold for thousands of distinctive and extraordinary orchids,” she told Travel + Leisure

It also harkened back to an early memory of the flowering plants, omnipresent in her grandparents’ Shanghai home, potted in antique ceramics. “They were somewhere buried in my consciousness, just waiting to be rediscovered," the Studio Lily Kwong founder said.

Now Kwong is showcasing thousands of orchids from across Asia, as the guest designer of "The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage" at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). It will be on view at the Bronx’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory from Feb. 18 through April 23, 2023. The annual show holds extra significance this year, not just because it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary, but because Kwong is the first woman of color to step into this design role.

Interior of The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage by Lily Kwong at the New York Botanical Gardens

Courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

It's a full circle moment for the California native. “When I was just beginning my practice, I took classes through NYBG’s certificate program with the hope of starting a traditional landscape business,” she said. “Since then, my path has blossomed to have an incredibly enriching and unique focus on large-scale botanical art and environmental impact. To have the opportunity to collaborate with NYBG’s world-class horticulture team to bring this vision to life has been mind-expanding and joyful." 

Calling the opportunity “one of the great highlights of my career,” Kwong found inspiration for the display from four large scrolls that were passed down to her from her parents and grandparents. “They hung in my living room my entire childhood, and staring at their enchanted mountains, intricate foliage, and snapshots of quotidian life from rural China was the first time I really remember getting lost in my imagination,” she said, adding that she “could hear the sound of the water and wind rushing through the leaves just by looking at them.” 

Interior of The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage by Lily Kwong at the New York Botanical Gardens

Courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

Feeling the “powerful urge” to recreate that imagery for the show, she asked her grandmother more about the artwork's symbolism — and that’s when she learned that her grandmother’s name in Mandarin is Jian Lan, which means “healthy orchid." Her grandmother's two sisters are also named after orchids, stitching an even tighter-knit familiar link to the show.

The plants of the orchidacea family — which Kwong said have more than 28,000 accepted species — have been cultivated in China’s mountain valleys for more than 2,000 years and are “deeply woven into philosophical, artistic and cultural traditions of the country." But capturing their essence for the show took careful planning.

“One of the most difficult aspects of working with our planting palette was finding species that would be in bloom during the exhibition,” Kwong said. “The NYBG horticulture team has been choreographing this complex ballet of species acquisition, intercontinental shipping, and bloom times to make this show possible and the result is a true feast for the senses.”

White orchids around water at Lily Kwongs, The Orchid Show, Natural Heritage at the New York Botanical Gardens

Courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

Kwong’s fascination with horticulture was cultivated growing up among the redwood trees in California’s Mill Valley, where her elementary school neighbored thousands of acres of nature preserves, including the Tennessee Valley trailhead, the Marin Headlands, and Rodeo Beach. “I was immersed by the power and wisdom of the natural world from a very young age, and spent my early years in the woods building forts, foraging for edible plants, hiking and tracking animals and insects,” she said. By the time she was in first grade, she started a nature club at school. 

“In many ways, my mission remains the same as it was with my first nature club: To continue to honor the natural world, exploring [its] beauty and intelligence with my greatest friends and plant allies,” Kwong said.

Being able to pair that lifelong passion for nature with her own heritage is especially poignant right now, given the rise in anti-Asian hate. “It’s been a very difficult few years for the Asian diaspora in New York City and beyond,” Kwong said. “I lived here for a long time, and never have I felt my community so scared of physical violence and abuse.”

It’s this reality that really drove her to dig into her Chinese roots. “I wanted to offer a pure celebration of the culture and all its rich biodiversity, philosophical traditions, and artistic practices,” she said. “It feels like a special moment to share this exhibition with New York right on the cusp of spring — roughly three years from the start of the pandemic that reshaped our world — like we’re coming out of the darkness into the light. And that’s how I think you navigate the tough moments — with beauty, ancestral guidance, and your unique light.”

Interior of The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage by Lily Kwong at the New York Botanical Gardens

Courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

As the mother of a young son with her comedian husband, Nick Kroll, she’s been sharing her culture with her family through food, photos, stories, and even “curiosities.” 

And it’s that same sense of interest she hopes to spark in visitors to the NYBG’s show. “Even though this exhibition focuses on my Chinese heritage, I hope it inspires people to look at their own ancestral connections to the plant world,” Kwong said. “All of us have people with deep and intimate relationships with the land in our lineage or else we wouldn’t be here. It is my strong belief that in order to survive as a species and restore harmony to the planet, we must relearn the old ways and weave them into the best parts of our culture today.”

Tickets to Kwong’s "The Orchid Show: Natural Heritage," including Orchid Nights — an after-dark experience on select dates with cocktails, food, and music — can be purchased at

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