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Porcelain New York

The LaGuardia Airport Bathroom Orchids Aren’t Just Surviving—They’re Thriving

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden wishes!

A diptych of two purple orchids in a brightly lit bathroom at LaGuardia Airport.

(Photos courtesy of LaGuardia Gateway Partners)

With the right mindset, there's beauty to be found all around us—in the glimmering iridescent scum on the surface of a puddle; in a word-salad Instagram ad for a class-action lawsuit; and even in LaGuardia Airport's bathrooms. The no-joke million-dollar fountain in the middle of the Terminal B food court is an obvious stunner, Dubai by way of Queens. (The pricing in the food court? Not so pretty.) 

But the newly bespoke LaGuardia has another slice of the sublime, tucked away somewhat from the public eye. If you're at the airport, you'll probably stumble upon it eventually—the orchids that spend their days next to the bathroom sinks.

Feast your eyes: 

(Hell Gate)

Stunning.

These orchids certainly raise traveler morale, but they also raise a few questions, like: Are those real orchids? Are they OK? Is a bathroom an OK environment for orchids?? Oh my god why are there live orchids in this airport bathroom???

To get to the bottom of these questions, Hell Gate reached out to orchid experts with a few questions about the flowers themselves. When I sent Ron McHatton, the chief education and science officer for the American Orchid Society, photos of the bathroom orchids, McHatton identified the orchids as a hybrid type that are "mass produced by the millions" and most commonly known as moth orchids. When this reporter asked him if orchids could possibly thrive in a windowless bathroom that our own Christopher Robbins described as laced with "the smell of human effluvia and misery," his answer was, "Pretty much, yeah."

"Phalaenopsis are indeed low-light plants—not no-light or very dark locations like Peace Lilies but light levels more like those suited to African Violets. This makes them excellent choices for areas with good but not bright light," McHatton wrote via email. "Orchids can be grown under completely artificial light if their other needs are met and the light is bright enough." (To demonstrate how true this is, McHatton even told us about a former orchid nursery located in a mineshaft in Kansas City: "[It's] out of business now, not because it didn't work, but because of an illegal hazardous waste dump someone created in the forest above the mine...The illegal dump above it caught fire and eventually burned through the roof of the mine, filling it with toxic smoke. Everything perishable died.")

Wow! Orchid care mystery solved. But only people intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the $8 billion LaGuardia renovation could answer the "why" behind the floral display—and it turns out those people come from a series of companies whose entire existence hinges on making LaGuardia randomly, double-take-inducingly fancy. 

"We hope that the presence of live orchids in the restrooms at LaGuardia's Terminal B will evoke a sense of tranquility and elegance for guests who encounter them," Jamie Haviaris, the chief technical officer for LaGuardia Gateway Partners, the developer behind the airport's Terminal B, told Hell Gate. 

Good news for Haviaris: They totally do, although it's definitely tempered by a sense of confusion. "While there has been the very occasional theft, the biggest issue we face is our guests watering the orchids," Haviaris said. "We've added a sign asking guests not to water the orchids to prevent over-watering."

That makes perfect sense—leaning on random airport-goers to keep LaGuardia's bathroom orchids healthy and beautiful would be a horrible plant care strategy. So, who actually keeps them alive and resplendent? "I guess you were traveling and you went into the bathroom and saw orchids, and that's what prompted you, correct?" Michele Grusser-Garcia, a sales and design consultant with the interior landscaping company Ambius who designed the airport's orchid installment, asked when Hell Gate reached out to her. Reader, she was dead on the money. "Coming into the bathroom, no one expects to see an orchid," she said. "It almost feels like a spa bathroom. They're beautiful, and the orchid in the bathroom adds that one extra thing."

According to Grusser-Garcia, the orchids require weekly maintenance and are rotated out every eight weeks, at which point they're given away to other LGA employees. "Maybe the cleaning staff, maybe some of the staff behind the...you know, where the food courts are," she said. "We're not just gonna toss those plants." 

But the fact that these orchids are ephemeral and part of an endless rotation raises another question: How much does all of this cost? 

Unfortunately, that's the only mystery Hell Gate couldn't (and lowkey doesn't care enough to try to) solve. LaGuardia's terminal operator, a Port Authority spokesperson, and Grusser-Garcia all declined to comment exactly how much these orchids cost, although the latter noted that while "it's certainly more expensive than just buying a plant and having that plant serviced...LaGuardia feels comfortable with the cost because they know what that means to the guest and what that means for the guest experience." 

I guess it really is hard to put a price on transcendent beauty, even if that beauty is in full bloom a few feet away from where people who have been holding it since O'Hare finally get to poop.

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