Archive for December, 2013

The History of the Christmas Tree

What is the history of the Christmas tree? As far as common historical accounts are concerned, it all started with customs of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Scandinavians and other cultures that displayed evergreen trees, boughs and garlands during the winter. These decorations were symbols of everlasting life and reminders of the growth of spring, and they were also believed to ward off evil spirits, ghosts and illness.

The Christmas tree tradition as we now know it is thought to have begun in Germany in the 16th century when devout Christians began bringing trees into their homes and decorating them. Early decorations included nuts, fruits, baked goods and paper flowers. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther was the first person to add lights to the tree. During a walk home one evening, he was struck by the twinkling stars through the evergreen trees and decided to recreate that feeling at home for his wife and children by erecting a tree and decorating it with candles.

Victorian Christmas Tree

The Illustrated London News print of Queen Victoria and her family around the Christmas tree was revamped for America and featured in the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850.

In the early 19th century, the custom of the Christmas tree began to spread to European nobility. It wasn’t until 1846, however, that the tradition gained widespread public adoption. In that year, the popular British royals, Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, were sketched for The Illustrated London News standing next to a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle with their children. Being popular amongst the British people, the practice became very fashionable and soon spread to the east coast of the United States. Due to this rise in popularity, tree ornaments were manufactured in large numbers, and U.S. patents for electric tree lights (1882) and metal ornament hooks (1892) were issued.

Christmas tree on beach,

Underwood & Underwood. Santa Claus on beach with swimmers splayed around Christmas tree, 1927. Image courtesy of National Museum of American History Archives Center.

With their increasing popularity and acceptance, along with readily available ornaments and electric lights, Christmas trees began appearing in town squares and other public places and became commonplace in private homes.

Smithsonian Castle holiday tree, 2010.

Smithsonian Institution Castle holiday tree, 2010. Photo by Eric Long.

The most popular species of trees for the holidays are Scotch pine, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, balsam fir, and white pine. Although artificial trees are popular with some, growing, living trees clean the air and water, trap atmospheric carbon, and provide wildlife habitat. When they are ready to be discarded, they can be turned into mulch and recycled back into the environment.

-Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens arborist

December 18, 2013 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

The Pyramid in the Garden

"Ala" by El Anatsui

Ala
El Anatsui (1944- ), born in Ghana, based in Nigeria
Earthwork in “Earth Matters”
Site-specific, 2013

As part of its exhibition Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, the National Museum of African Art invited several African artists to do earthworks in the Smithsonian’s gardens. These are large sculpture works which use earth as material, motif, and/or message. One of these is ”Ala” by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui.

Ala is the Igbo goddess of earth, and is also associated with morality, fertility, and creativity. Although she is usually depicted as a voluptuous woman, El Anatsui has chosen shape and materials to allude to her powers. The pyramidal shape may be seen as emblematic of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. But for El Anatsui it reflects the ubiquity of mounds of earth in West Africa. There are termite mounds, and mounds may be used to mark the entrance of villages, serving as posts or guardians for those who live there. In addition, there are crops [e.g., yams] that are planted in mounds of earth.

The materials that sheath the pyramid are trade objects that come from the earth. The metal plates are graters made from flattened, repurposed large cans or drums. These are punctured with nails, leaving sharp ridges that are used for grating. These graters are used primarily for processing cassava, which is a staple food that was imported into Africa from Brazil. Cassava — also known by other names such as yuca, garri, manioc, and tapioca— is a very hardy and multi-purpose food which can be prepared in many forms: it can be boiled, fried, mashed into a paste, and ground into a flour-like substance. Depending on how it is cooked and used, cassava can be a main dish, a side dish, dessert, and even bread. Cassava has a long history as a trade object: it was carried on ships going from the western hemisphere to Africa and traded for human lives. It thus served as a kind of currency, with most of the cargo left in Africa. But enough was kept on board to feed those being taken as slaves to the Americas. Cassava therefore has a very mixed legacy: it was both the source of the slaves’ misery and the means of their survival and sustenance.

"Ala" by El Anatsui

“Ala” installed in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, behind the Smithsonian Castle.

The graters are interspersed with mirrors, which comes from silica and therefore from sand. In more formal terms, mirrors break up the shape, giving what the artist calls ‘buoyancy’ or lightness to the structure. In addition to being trade objects, mirrors are used in transportation to reflect where we’ve come from. For El Anatsui, these mirrors are a visual pun: they allude to the sankofa bird, which twists its neck to look back and is associated with a variety of Asante proverbs and meanings, including the following:
(1) It is never too late to turn around and start on a new path once one has recognized one’s mistake.
(2) Look at your past and you will recognize your future.
(3) You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from.

Combining different shapes, media, history, and metaphors, El Anatsui has created a tribute to Ala which brings her ‘down to earth’ and makes her accessible to many in a variety of ways.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian docent

December 10, 2013 at 8:30 am Leave a comment

Holidays at the Smithsonian

Most of us begin to think about holiday decorations as it gets closer to Thanksgiving. This is not the case for our Smithsonian Gardens Interiors staff! As soon as the holiday decorations are taken down in January, we’re already making plans for next year’s holiday decorations.

Poinsettias at the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouse facility.

Poinsettias at the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouse facility.

Poinsettia types and numbers have to be decided on by April so that the orders can be placed. Tree, wreath, and garland decorations have to be determined by May so that those supplies can be purchased. The poinsettia plugs arrive and are planted in July (taking a full 4-5 months for us to finish, the poinsettias are our longest growing annual crop in the greenhouse). Only a couple of the holiday trees on display are artificial, but the rest are real and are selected especially for us, coming from a tree farm in Pennsylvania. Sometimes our staff even travels to hand pick the trees.

Holidays decorations being prepared for the National Museum of American History.

Holiday decorations being prepared for the National Museum of American History.

Next there’s the holiday prep: all of the tags have to be removed from each of the new ornaments, wire hangers need to be attached, some decorations need to be assembled and wired together, bows need to be made, and wreaths and garland need to be decorated.

Some of this prep work starts as early as October. Then there’s the planning, which involves deciding which day to install the decorations, and coordinating with each of the museums to make sure that we will not interfere with what is going on in the museums on that particular day.

The Smithsonian Castle holiday tree.

The Smithsonian Institution Castle holiday tree.

Our first tree, the Castle Tree, was installed the week of Thanksgiving.  The rest of the decorations will be up this week.

Please take some time to walk around and visit each of our museums and appreciate all of the hard work and planning that goes into the holiday decorations.  All of this work would not be possible without the help of our volunteers and other Smithsonian Gardens staff who help with prepping the décor and decorating the trees.

-Alexandra Thompson & Shannon Hill

Happy Holidays from the Smithsonian Gardens Staff!

Smithsonian Gardens staff posing with the National Museum of American History tree.

Smithsonian Gardens staff posing with the National Museum of Natural History tree.

Festive decorations in the Ripley Garden.

Festive decorations in the Ripley Garden.

National Museum of American History holiday tree.

The holiday tree at the National Museum of American History features glass ornaments created by the Luke Adams Glass Studio of Boston, Massachusetts.

Poinsettia Tree

A tree made of pink poinsettia plants at the Smithsonian Castle.

December 4, 2013 at 12:59 pm Leave a comment

Exploring DC Water

Smithsonian Gardens’ Green Team had a unique opportunity to visit the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant (AWTP) owned and operated by Washington, D.C.’s Water and Sewer Authority or DC Water.  Serving the District and nearby suburbs, the plant takes in more than 330 million gallons of raw sewage daily.

We had the pleasure of meeting with General Manager George Hawkins before getting a tour of the facility.  After just a few minutes spent with Mr. Hawkins you could immediately appreciate not only his vast knowledge but his passion for what he does.  He touched upon several aspects of DC Water, from its many large construction projects to its water treatment process  to sustainability.

General Manager George Hawkins details various aspects of DC Water.

General Manager George Hawkins details various aspects of DC Water.

The Washington Aqueduct provides the public water supply system serving Washington, D.C., and parts of nearby suburbs and is run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  DC Water takes wastewater and runs it through cleaning processes using mechanical, chemical and biological methods like screening, aeration, polymer use and bacterial digestion.  Once cleaned to EPA standards, this treated water is then put back into the Potomac River and the cycle begins once again.

One way DC Water is becoming more sustainable is with a huge construction project to further the biosolids management program with a Thermal Hydrolysis Process (THP) and digestion facility.  Once completed, the project will not only be the largest of its kind in the world, but also save DC Water around $10 million a year in energy costs and cut its usage by a third.  (DC Water is currently the largest consumer of electricity in the District.)  It will also reduce the amount of carbon emissions by approximately 50,000 metric tons yearly.  DC Water hopes to have the process up and running by July 2014.

George Hawkins actively looks for ways for DC Water to be more sustainable instead of simply taking the tried and true (easier) way out. Currently, any excess water generated during a large rain event that the facility can’t handle overflows into the city’s rivers.  DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project is a colossal undertaking that will help alleviate that issue; a huge cistern-like cavity is currently being built to gradually treat storm-water that overwhelms the system.  George also sees other ways of dealing with excess water, such as a push for individuals and the government on all levels to build bioswales, green roofs and rain gardens to help mitigate the problem.

The Smithsonian  Gardens Green Team tours the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The Smithsonian Gardens Green Team tours the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant.

One way the public can help be more water smart is by drinking more tap water instead of using bottled water.  To this end, DC Water is directly involved with a project called TapIt that is also found in other cities.  TapIt enables you to locate eateries (via internet search, iPhone app, or restaurants labeled with a TapIt sticker) that will let you bring your own water bottle and fill it for free.

DC Water hopes someday to become net zero for energy consumption meaning it would produce energy equal to or more than its daily needs.  With future plans to double the Thermal Hydrolysis Process and digestion facility and talks of installing solar panels, DC Water thinks it can achieve this lofty goal.  If everyone uses water more consciously and tries to alleviate polluting through trash and water runoff we can make D.C.’s rivers a major highlight of the city.

-Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

December 3, 2013 at 6:30 am Leave a comment


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