Update on the Eastern Bluebird Trail

Eastern bluebird nesting boxes

The green roof Eastern bluebird nesting boxes before installation on the trail.

In 2012, the Smithsonian Gardens Green Team developed an Eastern Bluebird Trail at our greenhouse complex in Suitland, Maryland. The trail of ten paired nest boxes was designed to support and expand the year-round resident Eastern Bluebird population. By the end of the 2013 nest season, the bluebird population had expanded to about thirty birds.

What happened in 2014? We began monitoring the trail in March, looking for the first signs of nesting behavior. The monitoring continued through July and in that time, no Eastern Bluebirds have been seen at or around the greenhouse complex. We believe the resident population migrated to another location due to a harsh winter of repeated deep Arctic cold blasts starting in late November and persisting through March. In addition to the cold, we believe the bluebirds did not have enough food to support their population.

American beautyberry and flowering dogwood

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, top) and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida, bottom) are bluebird favorites!

Bluebirds rely on fruit for more than thirty percent of their diet. In the winter, when insects are scarce, they depend on persistent fruits more than at any other time of year. The SG Green Team is committed to planting more native tree and shrub species around the facility to provide a sustainable winter habitat for the birds. Planting trees and shrubs not only provides food for birds but also provides shelter from harsh winds and cold temperatures.

-Sarah Hedean, SG Green Team Member

December 11, 2014 at 10:30 am Leave a comment

News from the Smithsonian Gardens’ Orchid Collection

Phragmipedium besseae

Phragmipedium besseae acquired from a nursery in California.

This summer, many exciting things happened with the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC). Not only are the greenhouses getting a good cleaning and reorganization, but Smithsonian Gardens is seeing significant additions to its species collection. In March, SGOC’s tropical species became an accredited collection with the North American Plant Collections Consortium. As you may recall from reading about the accreditation on the blog this past spring, this designation comes with a responsibility to continually improve collections management practices and species representation.

orchid specimens

Specimens from local nursery in Huntingtown, MD.

In June, Smithsonian Gardens’ terrestrial orchids received quite a boost in numbers. Collection managers Tom Mirenda and Sarah Hedean made a trip to a local nursery to purchase Paphiopedilums and Phragmipediums. They found many  valuable additions for the collection, including a blooming-size Phragmipedium kovachii and several associated hybrids. We will hopefully see these spectacular kovachii flowers within a year. Additional Phragmipediums were obtained from another nursery, including Phragmipedium brasiliense, Phragmipedium boisserianum and Phragmipedium sargentianum. All three species are new to the collection.

June was a very busy month for accessions. At the end of the month, Tom flew out to California to speak at the request of Orchid Digest and during his trip, was able to stop by a local nursery to purchase almost sixty additional plants for the collection. This purchase includes a number of new species that address collection gaps identified by SGOC’s 2013 benchmarking study.

Paphiopedilum tigrinum

Paphiopedilum tigrinum from the San Diego Zoo Botanical Collection.

In August, four species of Pterostylis in the form of bulbs were donated to the collection. These propagules are from orchids that won the highest possible score from the American Orchid Society for specimen plants (99 points). Since these are colony-forming species, these propagules will be clones of the highly-awarded individuals. In this same donation we also received several bulbs of a Diuris hybrid. Diuris is commonly known as the Donkey Orchid due to the fact that two of the petals emerge from the top of the flower like donkey ears.

This fall, SGOC received an influx of Cattleya hybrids in anticipation of the 2015 Orchid Exhibit and the San Diego Zoo Botanical Collection sent Smithsonian Gardens a Paphiopedilum tigrinum in exchange for one of our Psychopsis hybrids.

It is very exciting to see significant progress made this yeat towards achieving our goal to improve the tropical species collection. Hopefully the momentum will continue into 2015 and beyond! 

- Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Contractor

December 4, 2014 at 10:58 am Leave a comment

Way Down Yonder in the Paw-Paw Patch

Pawpaw tree blossoms

Pawpaw tree in bloom in the Native Landscape garden at the National Museum of the  American Indian.

Ever heard of the pawpaw tree?  Ever tasted its fruit?  Did you even know it had fruit?  Though it may not have the name recognition of an apple or a peach tree, pawpaw trees have a long and important history in the United States. In 1541, Hernando de Soto observed Mississippi Valley Native Americans growing pawpaws and eating the fruit. According to scientist Neal Peterson, the Spanish mistakenly named the pawpaw fruit “papaya.” Spanish explorers selected this name because they observed pawpaw fruit to have a similar green skin and orange flesh to a papaya. Overtime, the English language transformed the fruit and tree species name from papaya to pawpaw (Asimina triloba).

According to James A. Little in his 1905 A Treatise on the Pawpaw, pawpaw fruit helped sustain Native Americans and early American settlers in times of harvest failure. Little wrote that pawpaw trees needed little maintenance in order to survive in the wild, unlike apple, pear, or peach trees. Thanks to its resilience, Native Americans and early pioneers enjoyed pawpaw fruit as a dependable source of fiber and nourishment.  Even members of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition survived on pawpaw fruit during their long journey west in 1804-1806.

Pawpaw tree fruit

Pawpaw tree fruit at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Found between Georgia  and Northern Michigan, pawpaws extend across eastern portions of the United States. Unlike the tropical members of the Annonaceae family to which it belongs, pawpaw trees thrive in harsh conditions of snow and ice. Despite this resilience, pawpaws still struggle to reproduce. Scientists believe the tree is ineffective at attracting flies and beetles to pollinate its flowers, thus creating challenges for reproduction.
The pawpaw tree produces a very nutritious and delicious fruit, which is actually a berry.  The pawpaw berry is also called a “custard apple” and is said to taste like a mix between a banana and a pear, with a hint of vanilla.  The name custard apple derives from the creamy texture of the fruit.

Pawpaw tree foliage

The pawpaw tree has striking foliage in autumn. Pictured here on the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History.

Smithsonian Gardens currently has seventeen pawpaw trees in its Tree Collection.  They can be found in the Native Landscape garden at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Butterfly Habitat Garden adjacent to the National Museum of Natural History, and the National Air and Space Museum.

Next time you stop by one of the Smithsonian gardens keep an eye out for this beautiful tree with a deliciously-interesting past.

-Jessica Brode, Archives of American Gardens intern

November 26, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Preparing Your Trees for Winter

Japanese coral bark maple

Japanese coral bark maple (Acer ) in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, next to the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building.

As we gaze around at the beautiful autumn colors that our trees are showing us, we’re trying not to think about the arrival of the cold and snowy weather of winter.  However, arrive it will, and now is the time to prepare your trees for those coming winter months.  Although all trees are potentially susceptible to winter injury, young and/or thin-barked, and broadleaf evergreen trees require the most preparation.

Excessively cold temperatures, wind, and quick temperature changes can cause drying, browning, and death of evergreen foliage.  This problem is most prevalent on broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons, laurels, boxwoods, and hollies.  To help prevent this damage, construct a barrier of heavy burlap, like a fence, to block drying winds from their prevailing direction.  If the entirety of the plant is exposed, loosely wrap it in burlap.  In either case, be sure to leave the top of the plant exposed so light and air penetration can still occur.  In addition, it is important to keep watering your trees up until the time of the first hard frost.  A 4-6 inch layer of mulch over the root zone will also help the soil retain warmth and moisture.  (Remember not to pile the mulch up against the trunk of the tree.)

Kean Hall Garden wrapped in burlap for winter.

The boxwoods in the Kean Hall Garden in Livingston, New Jersey wrapped up in burlap for the winter, 1955. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of American Collection.

Another issue of concern, which is also caused by rapidly fluctuating temperatures, is sunscald.  This occurs when the sun has warmed the trunk of the tree, and then that trunk is rapidly cooled upon sudden shading from a cloud, etc.  This condition results in elongated, dried and cracked areas of dead bark.  This can be prevented by wrapping the trunk with commercial tree wrap (available at most home and garden centers) or other light-colored material.  This will reflect sunlight and keep the bark at a more consistent temperature.  The wrap should be placed on the tree in the fall and removed in the spring, after the last frost.

Broadleaf evergreen foliage damage and frost cracks are influenced by many factors, including plant species, location, drainage, natural protection, and how well established a plant is in the landscape.  There is no specific temperature at which damage occurs, but if the forecast calls for temperatures below the average seasonal low (29-33°F for Washington, D.C.), it is best to utilize the protection methods outlined above.

Tree branches can be prone to breakage from heaving snow and ice loads and by strong winds.  Weakly attached, overextended and broken limbs should be pruned.  Trees with an upright form, such as juniper, arborvitae, and clump birch, can be wrapped in burlap, or held together by wrapping the branches collectively with twine or rope.  Any wrapping material should be removed in the spring.

When natural food sources grow scarce in the winter, rodents may feed on the young bark and cambial tissue of trees.  Plastic tree guards or a cylinder of ¼” wire mesh placed around the trunks of young trees will help prevent this damage.  Be sure to remove these guards once the spring has come so the tree does not wind up growing into them.

Trees possess an extraordinary ability to withstand severe winter weather, with some being more hearty than others.  However, with proper care and attention, your trees should come through the winter ready to show off their new flowers and foliage for spring.

-Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist & Tree Collection Manager

November 19, 2014 at 7:27 am Leave a comment

The Great Auk

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), now displayed in sculpture on the southeast corner of the Enid A. Haupt Garden, was a flightless bird that fell prey to exploitation. A fast and facile swimmer and diver, the auk was characterized by its stubby wings, high-contrast black and white feathers, tall body, clumsy waddle, and large ribbed beak.  It was initially found in dense colonies in the subarctic Atlantic, along the coasts of Canada, the United States, Iceland and Norway. But human predation caused its numbers to dwindle over the course of several centuries.

The Great Auk

A hand coloured lithograph of Pinguinus impennis from John Gould’s The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 5 (1873). Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum of London via eol.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History, on the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.

Great auks spent most of their lives in the sea, seeking out land only during the spring breeding season. Their breeding sites were limited: the only suitable areas were those with reefs or rocky ledges, where the birds could waddle ashore to lay their eggs.  Because the birds tended to concentrate in a few coastal areas, they were an easy target for hunters. Indeed, they were subjected to large-scale massacres, hunters killing them for their meat, oil, and feathers. The latter were used for clothes and pillows, the comforts of humans and profits of businesses taking precedence over the survival of the bird.

 Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain

The Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

The last two Great auks were killed in 1844, although there were reports of a single bird remaining in 1852. The remains of the last two confirmed birds are preserved in formaldehyde in a museum in Denmark, a sad reminder of the bird’s demise.

The Great auk inspired Ogden Nash’s A Caution to Everybody:

 

          Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.

Consider man, who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

 

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens Volunteer

 

November 12, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

A DAMS Good Internship at Smithsonian Gardens

scanning in the reference room

Jessica scanning in the Archives of American Gardens reference room at the Smithsonian Gardens offices.

Did you know Smithsonian Gardens does a lot more than just plant and maintain all the beautiful gardens around the Smithsonian properties? I know I didn’t!  That is until I became an Archives of American Gardens intern at Smithsonian Gardens. My name is Jessica Brode, and I am a graduate student at George Washington University beginning my final year in the Masters in Museum Studies program.

Before coming to Smithsonian Gardens, I interned with various institutions across the country and abroad. After moving to D.C. I began to specialize in collections management work within museums, mainly assisting in digitization efforts with museums like the Smithsonian’s American History and Natural History Museums. I applied to Smithsonian Gardens after a chance encounter demonstrated that there were opportunities to use my skills there.

Coming in as an Archives of American Gardens intern, I was able to really put my skills to use for Smithsonian Gardens while learning new skills along the way. The Archives of American Gardens (AAG) currently documents over 8,500 gardens throughout the United States, with images ranging from the 1870s to the present.  AAG maintains records on historic and contemporary gardens and gardening trends and contains over 150,000 images.

Hershey Rode Gardens, Archives of American Gardens

The Hershey Rose Gardens is just one of the garden history topics Jessica explored during her internship. (Hershey Rose Gardens in Hershey, Pennsylvania, c. 1936. Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection.)

I learned the Horizon cataloging system utilized by the AAG and cataloged often throughout my internship.  I was given the opportunity to research and write several exciting blog posts about gardening topics I would have never even thought of, including the Hershey Rose Garden, World Fairs’ gardens, and floral clocks.

The best part of my internship was the ability to take a project further than I ever thought I could.  Smithsonian Gardens uses a system called a Digital Asset Management System (or DAMS) in order to track digital images of its gardens and events.  I was given the opportunity to rename and reorganize the Smithsonian Gardens folder structure so that images could be filed by garden and year, making it more intuitive for a user to search numerous images.  The new re-organization of images will enable staff to easily create slideshows of the best garden images for each of its gardens to make them readily available to the public through the Collections Search Center and SIRIS.  It was really exciting to see how my skills could be used to help share garden history with the public!

I am really excited that I had the opportunity to spend the summer with Smithsonian Gardens, and even more excited to see what else is ahead.  My internship has been extended so that I can continue my work at the Archives of American Gardens this coming fall and spring, and I am really looking forward to continuing some of the work I began, and starting new projects as well.

-Jessica Brode, Archives of American Gardens intern

November 4, 2014 at 6:30 am 1 comment

Spooky Plants Week

BOO! In honor of Halloween, we are celebrating another #SpookyPlantsWeek.  Here’s our round-up of the weird, creepy, gross, scary, and wonderful plants that we featured on Facebook this week. All can be found growing in our gardens at the Smithsonian museums or in our greenhouses in Maryland.

Tacca chantrieri plant

Tacca chantrieri, also known as the bat flower, is a member of the yam family and native to Southeast Asia. It has unusual black flowers and long whiskers. The “spooky” part about this plant (the name kind of gives it away) is that it looks like a bat. So it’s perfect for Halloween, and the fact that it’s blooming this time of the year makes it even more special. See it on display inside the Ripley Center kiosk entrance.

Brassavola nodosa  orchid

Also known as the “Lady of the Night” or “Flor de la Noche,” Brassavola nodosa has ghostly white flowers that emit a heady, nocturnal fragrance to attract night-pollinating moths. We have a few of these ethereal plants in the Orchid Collection at our greenhouses.

Cliff banana plant

The National Zoo has megafauna, but we have megaflora! Watch out, the Ensete superbum looks hungry . . . lucky for us, the plant only looks like it might be carnivorous. This herbaceous banana is native to India and more commonly known as the cliff banana. The plant may reach ten to twelve feet while blooming. This banana, unlike many others, does not produce suckers and only reproduces by seed. Our cliff banana caused many visitors to the Enid A. Haupt Garden to do a double-take all summer long.

Actaea pachypoda fruit

Found in the Urban Bird Habitat: Actaea pachypoda ‘Misty Blue.’ It is also called white baneberry or doll’s eyes because the fruits look like a cluster of eyes on red stems watching your every move in the garden. Some birds find the fruit to be a tasty treat, but beware, they are poisonous to humans. (Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History Collections.)

Solanum quitoense (naranjilla)

Solanum quitoense, known as naranjilla (”little orange”) is scary in looks only. Spines and purple hairs along the stems give this member of the nightshade family an otherworldly appearance that would be more at home in the Addams Family garden rather than the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian. If you can get past the strange looks of the hairy, orange fruit, a fresh glass of naranjilla juice is a sweet treat.

 

October 31, 2014 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

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