Archive for February, 2014

It’s official: Spring is coming soon!

One of the most glorious harbingers of spring, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ is in full glorious bloom in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.  The blooming of the Witch hazels is a sure sign that the end of this dreadful winter is near.

Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise'

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’

You cannot miss these beauties—they are often referred to as trees, but in actuality they are mature shrubs.  The specimens in the Ripley Garden are probably over forty years old and are about twelve feet tall and fifteen feet wide and covered in small golden spider-like flowers.  What I find so magical is that the flowers will curl the petals up on a cold day and unfurl once again when the sun hits them.  Although they look dainty, they are built for cold temperatures.  I have often seen them blooming while covered in snow.

Witch hazel in bloom in the Ripley Garden.

Witch hazel in bloom in the Ripley Garden.

Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise' (with yellow flowers) and Acer 'Sangu Kaku' (with red stems)

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ (with yellow flowers) and Acer ‘Sangu Kaku’ (with red stems)

Oh, and did I mention the fragrance?  Exquisite, dreamy sweetness.   The entire south end of the garden is perfumed.

Also in bloom, but a little more subtle:

Adonis amurensis

Cheery Adonis amurensis

-A couple of newly-planted Adonis amurensis have recently bloomed. Golden two-inch flowers peak out just above the soil on naked stems. After the flowers start fading the lacy foliage will emerge for a few months then go dormant in the summer.

-Dainty little yellow Eranthus hyemalis—this ground-hugging Winter aconite looks like little yellow bubbles above a ruff of foliage.  The “bubbles” are actually the five-petaled flowers curled up before they fully open.

-The first signs of Daffodil ‘Rinjvelt’s Early Sensation’ –not a prize daffodil, but one of the earliest, so thus it is very special to me!

-And a few Crocus tommasinianus, the sweet, self-sowing, little ‘Tommy Crocus’ which I have planted under a mature Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana).

Come on out – I am sure every day something new will be emerging from a snowy slumber. We will post more photos of the Ripley Garden soon.

-Janet Draper, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

AFTERNOON UPDATE:

Did I jinx myself by saying that I had seen the Witch hazel in the snow?  Guess what is happening in Washington, D.C. right now?. Yep,  More snow. YUCK.  (But, I must confess, right now it is pretty magical out there.)

Just of few things that caught my eye:

Galanthus (Snowdrops)

Galanthus (Snowdrops)

Hamamelis 'Arnold Promise' braving the snow.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ braving the snow.

Young stems of Acer 'Sangu kaku' -(Coral Bark Maple)

Young stems of Acer ‘Sangu kaku’ -(Coral Bark Maple)

Ripley Garden wit ha dusting of snow on February 25, 2014.

Ripley Garden with a dusting of snow on February 25, 2014.

Eranthus hymalis flower "bubbles"

Eranthus hymalis flower “bubbles”

February 25, 2014 at 10:30 am 2 comments

A Second Life for a Tree

In the summer of 2013 a specimen lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) at the National Museum of Natural History had been in decline for several months. An investigation by Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens arborist, found very large girdling roots growing just below the soil surface. In his report Lacebark Pine # 122 Evaluation at NMNH he determined there was little to no chance that the tree could be rehabilitated. Within two months of issuing the report the tree turned completely brown and it was clear that it need to be removed.

Or did it? Could the once stately pine on the corner of Madison Drive and 9th Street that formed the border between the Butterfly Habitat Garden and the newly established Urban Bird Habitat find a second life?

As a mature specimen of this slow growing pine the tree exhibited extraordinary exfoliating bark in a patchwork of white, olive, light purple and silver. The multi-stemmed trunk was a striking structural element in the landscape that would be a significant loss. Luckily, there was a way to save this feature and in doing so support wildlife enhancing the value and educational lesson of the space. The tree was the perfect candidate to become a snag.

By turning the soon to be rotting trunk and branches into a snag it gains a new purpose in the Urban Bird Habitat serving as a space for nests, nurseries, storage, foraging, roosting and perching for birds, small mammals, and other wildlife in the city.

Here is how we did it:

Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana)

By September the tree had turn completely brown. Alas, it was dead and we sat early in the morning waiting for a professional tree crew arrive.

Creating the snag.

To create our snag we removed the top third of the tree and half the remaining side-branches. This method facilitates the inside-out decay process best for attracting cavity-nesting birds.

Removing the top third of the tree.

The jagged top and broken side branches give a more natural look to the snag. Furthermore, they speed up decay and provide hunting perches for hawks, eagles, and owls. (Note: this is the only instance when this is desirable pruning – don’t be surprised when your tree care professional gives you a strange look and makes you repeat your request several times to make sure that he or she is hearing you correctly).

Putting the finishing touches on the snag.

The tree crew puts the finishing touches on their masterpiece which quickly became an attention grabbing feature at Smithsonian Gardens.

Snag, before and after

The before and after images of the tree show how we were able to maintain the great bark and interesting structure of the tree as a structural feature in the garden. (Perhaps our snag is some competition for Graft, the 45 ft. stainless steel tree installed by Roxy Paine in the neighboring National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in 2009)

The garden is a dynamic landscape and one must be prepared to deal with the changes that nature brings.  Through creative thinking the Smithsonian Gardens’ staff discovered a great opportunity to turn what could have been a significant loss to gardens into a valuable resource.  Today many museum visitors stop to look at this unique tree along the National Mall.  Most seems puzzled by its presence but their questions are answered by the Snag interpretive panel.

So what do you think?  Does your garden have a spot for a snag?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

-James Gagliardi, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist

Further Reading:
Living with Wildlife: Snags – The Wildlife Tree from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

February 17, 2014 at 7:30 pm 2 comments

Ever Thine: A Sailor’s Valentine

Sailor's Valentine

“Sailor’s Valentine” octagonal shadow box with shells, Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection.

Despite the name “sailors’ valentines,” these sentimental treasures have nothing to do with February 14th or Valentine’s Day.  Instead, these tokens of love and friendship were given to wives, mothers, sisters, and friends upon a seafarer’s return from a long voyage at sea.

Sailors’ valentines are octagonal wooden boxes often made from Cerdrella (Spanish Cedar) that range in size (when closed) from about 8 to15 inches across. They were made between 1830 and 1880, and are now extremely rare. The box, which opens like a book, reveals an intricate mosaic created mostly from shells. The shells used were in a variety of shapes and colors to create intricate motifs such as hearts, anchors, and flowers, or they could be arranged in complex geometric patterns. The mosaics are protected by a glass pane; when closed these boxes could be easily stored, making them ideal for the voyage home by sailors in the navy or aboard whaling ships.

In addition to being a colorful and decorative souvenir from their travels, these boxes had sentimental motives. Messages were often incorporated into the shell design such as: “To a Friend,” “Think of Me When Far Away,” “Remember Me,” “With Love,” “Forget Me Not,” and “Home Again.” These love tokens could be personalized by including a photograph or even initials or names worked into the shell design. The sailor’s valentine in the Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection is a fine example of these sentimental objects. With the message “Ever Thine” accompanied by a heart and rose, this valentine was surely sent to someone who was dearly loved.

Further Reading:

  • Fondas, John. Sailors’ Valentines. New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 2002. pp. 7-12.
  • O’Brien, Tim. “Collectibles, The Sailors Valentine: Sea Shells for Sweethearts…” Victorian Homes, Winter 1984.  pp. 18-19, 91.

 -Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

February 10, 2014 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

Smithsonian Gardens’ Orchids Receive North American Plant Collections Consortium Accreditation

Maxillariella Mexicana orchid

Maxillariella mexicana, one of Smithsonian Gardens’ thousands of orchids.

It is indeed an honor to announce that the Smithsonian Gardens’ Tropical Species Orchid Collection has received accreditation from the  North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC).

The North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC) is a network of botanical gardens and arboreta working to coordinate a continent-wide approach to plant germplasm preservation, and to promote high standards of plant collections management. The NAPCC is a program of the American Public Gardens Association (APGA) in partnership with the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

Smithsonian Gardens now stands among a prestigious group of gardens and arboreta that have committed themselves to the conservation and care of specific plant collections curated at the highest professional level.

Receiving this recognition could have only been made possible through the leadership of Sarah Hedean with support from Julie Rotramel who both put a considerable amount of time and effort into the preparation of the application and development of a benchmark survey of public orchid collections across North America.  I would also like to recognize Tom Mirenda and Cheyenne Kim for their preparations of the orchid collection for the site review;  their participation in the evaluation process; and the care that they, Sarah and the orchid collection volunteers give the orchid collection day-in and day-out to make it worthy of this recognition.

Please join me in congratulating this team in this exciting achievement which supports the Smithsonian Gardens’ strategic goal of a public garden of national recognition.

-Barbara Faust, Associate Director of Smithsonian Gardens

February 4, 2014 at 7:30 am Leave a comment


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