Posts filed under ‘Collections’

Museum Pests

As a Structural Entomologist, I primarily deal with pests found in any typical urban environment, including cockroaches, ants, flies and rodents; however, working in a museum, I also encounter a completely different classification of pests that provide their own unique challenges.

Wood infesting insects, stored product pests and fabric and paper pests can destroy museum objects in a relatively short amount of time. A carpet beetle or clothes moth that might put a few holes in a $40 sweater could completely decimate an artifact like a wool cap from the Civil War. It’s important to identify pests correctly and to know the early signs of an infestation before an object is irreversibly damaged.

Fur hat destroyed by webbing clothes moths

Fur hat destroyed by webbing clothes moths at the “Museum Pests 2014: Integrated Pest Management for Museums, Libraries, Archives and Historic Sites” conference at Colonial Williamsburg.

Museum pests are not a topic that is typically covered at pest management conferences or in industry journals or websites. This is why I was so excited to have the opportunity to attend “Museum Pests 2014: Integrated Pest Management for Museums, Libraries, Archives and Historic Sites” in Colonial Williamsburg, thanks to the Smithsonian Gardens travel grant program earlier this year.

There was an overwhelming number of presentations, workshops and tours to choose from during the two day conference including topics such as pest identification, treatment options, record keeping, Integrated Pest Management policy, and health and safety. Workshops that I attended included tours of the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area and the Collection and Preservation Facilities.

Revolutionary War red wool coat damaged by carpet beetles

A Revolutionary War red wool coat damaged by carpet beetles at “Museum Pests 2014.”

It was reassuring to meet with museum professionals from all over the world and to learn that all of us experience the same basic challenges regardless of whether we work in large complexes or small, historic homes. The information that I gathered in two short days has been indispensable in my encounters with museum pests.

-Allison Dineen, Smithsonian Gardens Entomologist

July 17, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Explore Smithsonian Gardens’ Orchids Online!

At the end of April, after ten months of planning, coordinating, and troubleshooting, the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) went live. No, we didn’t kill off all of the plants over the winter and revive them for this announcement . . . I mean live as in on-air, online, and freely accessible! SGOC is now available for the world to explore on the Smithsonian Collections Search Center and is the only living collection to join the multitudes of objects, specimens, and archival records that are contained within the site. Below is a snapshot of what an individual catalog record looks like:

Collection, Orchid record sample

Example of a Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection record in the Smithsonian Institution Collections Search Center.

Records are updated twice a month and contain basic information about each accession, such as scientific name, flower color, range (if a species), and taxonomy. One of the best parts of having the collection online is being able to peruse the beautiful images taken by our talented volunteers Gene Cross, Bryan Ramsay, and James Osen.  So far, about a third of the records have images associated with them. We only photograph the orchids when they are in bloom, but many of our orchids (especially the species) are either too small to bloom, or haven’t yet bloomed during their time at the greenhouses.

SGOC’s presence on the Collections Search Center is serving as motivation to improve Smithsonian Gardens’ collection records in BG-BASE and correct plant identification errors.  Our hope is that these records can be a valuable resource for educators, students, researchers, and curious individuals, and a source of orchid inspiration year-round.

-Julie Rotramel, Smithsonian Gardens Living Collections Contractor

July 9, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Auto Vases: an Accessory Born from Necessity

Tiffin glass auto vase

Auto vase, probably manufactured by the Tiffin Glass Company, Tiffin, Ohio. Collection of Smithsonian Gardens.

Imagine yourself after a long day outside; you are driving down the road on a hot summer day with temperatures in the upper 90s. Now imagine there is no air-conditioning in the car; immediately a pungent odor of battery acid hits you and mingles with the stench of the other passengers’ sweat. This experience is not common today thanks to temperature controls that are standard in most cars, but it would have been the case whenever you rode in a car until air conditioners were installed in automobiles in 1939.

There were no pine-scented cardboard trees to dangle from the mirror during this time, and many car owners desperately wanted a reprieve from the foul smell. The auto vase, a term coined by auto magnate Henry Ford, was the solution to the problem. As early as 1895, small vases, which held one or two flowers that emitted a sweet fragrance, became the first automobile air-fresheners.

The auto vase is comprised of a small bud vase with a bracket that allowed it to be mounted inside the car either on the dashboard or by a passenger side window. Vases came in many designs and colors, in a variety of price ranges. They not only improved the smell but also added a touch of elegance to the car interior.  Pressed glass, cut crystal, metal, porcelain, ceramic, and even wood were used for the vases, which were often paired with brackets that were fancier than the vases themselves. The fixtures could be made of silver and some were even gold plated. Smithsonian Gardens preserves three examples of these auto vases in its Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifacts Collection. One of the three is made from Depression glass with a sky blue satin finish, and is encircled by a nickel-plated bracket.

Auto vases were sold in jewelry stores, auto parts stores, and catalogs from companies such as Sears. Henry Ford was so pleased with these simple solutions that he offered them in his parts department and added them to his system of mass production. The service these vases provided made them a desirable feature to add to any car. With improvements in car batteries and air-conditioning becoming standard in vehicles, the auto vase was no longer necessary. In recent years, however, there has been resurgence in these novelties. Cars such as the Volkswagen Beetle revived these little vases for a fresh twist on their interiors, and drivers of other cars have caught on to the trend.

 

For more information about auto vases:

Steele, Evie. “For your Limousine.” Classic Car, vols. 23-25. Michigan: Classic Car Club of America, 1975. p. 22-23.
Stout, Sandra. Depression Glass Price Guide. Wayne, PA: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1980.
____. “Origin of automobile bouquet holders.” Popular Mechanics, May 1913. Hearst Magazines, 1913. p. 678-679.
Lounsbery, Elizabeth. “Some Automobile Accessories.” American Homes and Gardens, Vol. 10.  Munn and Company, 1913.
____. “Flower-Decorated Motor Cars the Vogue.” Automobile Topics, Vol. 18. E.E. Schwarzkopf, 1909. p. 386.

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

June 24, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Magic of Rain Lilies

The common name rain lily comes from this plant’s tendency to bloom after a good soaking from Mother Nature.  They are native to tropical and semi-tropical regions of the Americas.   There are 3 genera commonly known as rain lilies – Zephyranthes, Habranthus, and Cooperia.  Rain lilies are a perennial bulb with a hardiness of USDA Zones 7 to 11 for most species.  They come in various colors, mostly ranging from pinks, yellows, and whites and new colors are popping up through hybridizing and breeding all the time.  Although the common name would suggest that they are in the Liliaceae (lily) family, they actually fall under Amaryllidaceae.

Zephyranthes candida

Zephyranthes candida (Kai Yan, Joseph Wong, photographers. Image via eol.)

Rain lilies are often grown in containers where they can be placed on a front porch or around a deck and will reward all season long.  I have found that if grown in containers, they seem to prefer being slightly crowded and even somewhat pot-bound.  They also look great along a pathway or in the front of a sunny border and are often used in rock gardens.  To get the finest show, Rain lilies look best planted in masses.  Most Rain lilies will bloom several times a season, usually after a good downpour.

If you live in a zone where Rain lilies are not hardy they are easy to overwinter.  When it starts getting cooler, simply bring them indoors (either the container or, if planted, the dug up plants – if possible give them a quick potting) and keep them dry all winter, then set them outside again in the spring.  You can pull off the foliage as it dies to keep them clean.  You may want to either add soil or rough the edges of the pot prior to setting them outside if the soil has shrunk over the winter.

Habranthus tubispathus

Habranthus tubispathus, also referred to as Habranthus texanus (Stan Shebs, photographer. Image via eol.)

Rain lilies grow best in full sun to partial shade.  They prefer to be kept evenly moist but can tolerate periodic dry spells without problem.  During summer months use a well-balanced fertilizer (either liquid or slow release).  The bulbs produce offsets which can be divided and planted in spring or you can sow seeds if you wish.  If you are collecting seeds, sow right away before they dry as they tend to lose the ability to germinate and may take extra time to do so.  Rain lilies are very gardener-friendly as they have no serious pest or disease issues.  I have had problems with mealy bugs, however, but that is because I start watering them earlier in the season than normal and I keep them in the greenhouse for a fuller plant come spring.  Be aware that all parts of the plant can be toxic if ingested.

After reading this, you may be eager to see some Rain lilies for yourself, so please stop by the Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian Institution this summer and enjoy their beauty.  Some of the ones we display are Zephyranthes flavissima, Habranthus robustus ‘Russell Manning’, Habranthus texanus, and Zephyranthes candida.

 

-Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

May 25, 2014 at 4:00 pm Leave a comment

Historic Images of Early Olmsted Designs Digitized

This article was originally published in the National Association for Olmsted Parks online newsletter. April 26th is Frederick Law Olmsted’s birthday; celebrate by visiting a local park!

The Riverway

The Riverway in the Emerald Necklace, Boston, Massachusetts. Thomas Warren Sears, photographer, 1907. Archives of American Gardens.

Several hundred photographic images dating from the early twentieth century and taken by Olmsted Brothers’ employee Thomas W. Sears were digitized recently thanks to a project funded by the Smithsonian Institution.  The glass plate negatives are part of the Thomas Warren Sears Collection at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens (AAG).

The historic images include unpublished views of early Olmsted design projects including the Emerald Necklace in Boston and Roland Park in Baltimore.  There are even a handful of images of Fairsted, the Olmsted firm’s office in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Sears started his design career with the Olmsted firm and later went into private practice in Philadelphia.  Among his most noted commissions are Reynolda, the R. J. Reynolds estate in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (now part of Wake Forest University) and the Colonial Revival gardens at Pennsbury, William Penn’s country estate in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Fairsted, Massachusetts

Fairsted, the Olmsted office in Brookline, Massachusetts. Thomas Warren Sears, photographer, 1910s. Archives of American Gardens.

An amateur photographer, Sears documented several projects of the Olmsted firm, his own design work, and numerous gardens and landscapes in the U.S. and Europe that he visited.  The Sears Collection at AAG includes over 4,500 of his images, dated approximately 1900-1930.

The 900 Sears images digitized for this pilot project are all available on the Smithsonian’s online catalog at www.siris.si.edu .  Their resolution is truly remarkable: it is possible to read the caption of a framed photograph seen in the background of Sears’ dorm room at Harvard University!

Approximately 20% of the Sears Collection was digitized during the rapid capture digitization project.  The time needed to capture a high resolution digital scan of each fragile glass plate negative was under a minute as compared to 9-14 minutes per scan that AAG staff had been averaging with a flatbed scanner.  The Archives of American Gardens hopes to secure funding in the future to digitize the remainder of the collection which includes Olmsted gems like New York’s Central Park, Buffalo’s Delaware Park, and Branch Brook Park in New Jersey.

-Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist 

April 24, 2014 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Hope for the American Elm

American Elm

The American elm at the intersection of Constitution Ave. and 9th St. on the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History. Eric Long, photographer.

Smithsonian Gardens manages the health and maintenance of 1,873  trees in the Washington, D.C. area. As you walk around the Smithsonian gardens and museums you may notice a common theme: many of these trees are mature specimens with historical context and connection to the museums they surround. This is extremely evident as you walk the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History, where the extensive American elm plantings bring us back to a time when Ulmus americana was the predominant street tree in America. In fact, the large specimen on the corner of 9th Street and Constitution Avenue predates the museum, which celebrated its centennial in 2010.

As Dutch Elm Disease (DED) has wiped out the majority of stately American elms throughout the U.S., we at Smithsonian Gardens work diligently to monitor and manage our trees in order to prevent the spread of this lethal disease.

NMNH, 1909. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Center Market vendors outside of the National Museum of Natural History in 1909. Dutch Elm Disease wiped out many of the majestic elms that predate the museum. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

It is with this management strategy in mind that we carefully select replacements when elm trees at the Smithsonian need to be removed. When one of the younger elms on the north lawn of the National Museum of Natural History was critically damaged during a storm, we once again debated and discussed which “resistant” elm to replace it with. One of the best choices for a true Ulmus americana replacement is the ‘Jefferson’ Elm (Ulmus americana ‘Jefferson’), selected through the collaborative efforts of the National Park Service and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

This tree was selected for its excellent DED resistance and the fact that as a true species, it exhibits the classic American elm form, unlike some of the resistant hybrids.

‘Jefferson’ elms leaf out earlier in the spring and maintain their green color better in the summer than other U. americana specimens. We were very lucky to receive this tree from the National Park Service as it is just becoming available in the commercial trade at this time, and can be difficult to find. The National Park Service propagates ‘Jefferson’ by cuttings from the original tree, located on the National Mall, and grows the seedlings for six years at its National Capital Region Nursery. It is a long process and a difficult one, as only about 5% of the cuttings live to become mature trees. Hopefully this selection will become more common in the nursery trade so that we can once again plant these majestic trees with confidence. Until that time, we are very thankful for the ongoing collaboration between the National Park Service and Smithsonian Gardens to ensure that the American elm still graces the Washington, D.C. landscape.

-Jonathan Kavalier, Smithsonian Gardens Supervisory Horticulturist 

March 20, 2014 at 2:22 pm Leave a comment

Orchid Oddity: Habenaria medusa

Anyone who’s seen specimens from the Smithsonian Orchid Collection knows that this most diverse and species-rich plant family can display truly bizarre yet strangely beautiful forms. Literally every day, some improbable flower comes into bloom in our greenhouses. But there is one plant that invariably causes jaws to drop when viewed in full bloom. Most onlookers agree it is among our most spectacular and prized orchid species in the collection.

Habenaria medusa

Habenaria medusa via eol.

Habenaria medusae is a terrestrial orchid from monsoonal habitats in Indonesia and mainland southeast Asia. Producing a basal rosette of leaves from a subterranean corm, the plant is fairly nondescript until it sends up a 20-inch inflorescence bearing ten to twenty or more truly astounding flowers. Most prominent is the outstanding lip, composed of finely dissected, radially arranged fringe reminiscent of Medusa’s head of snakes, from which it gets its name. One might ask why such a lip evolved in the first place; in this case it is still somewhat of a mystery. Thought to be moth-pollinated because of its white color, sweet evening fragrance and nectar spur, the deep fringe is actually a fairly commonplace feature of moth flowers. Though no one knows exactly why, something about these deeply fringed flowers acts as a highly effective attractant to moths.

Habenarias are known for being difficult to cultivate, intolerant of poor or chemically treated water, and needing a strict, dry winter dormant period. They rot easily if watered during their dry season. Despite its sensitive nature, the Smithsonian’s specimen has proven to be more amenable than most to cultivation and has bloomed three times since being purchased as a small bulb from a vendor from Singapore at the World Orchid Conference. This year the plant was selfed (pollinated with its own pollen) to create more seedlings of this delightful species and also crossed with a related species with a deep coral pink lobed lip in the hopes of producing flowers with a colorful medusa lip.

-Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens orchid specialist

Visit our orchids at the United States Botanic Garden’s exhibit Orchid Symphony, a collaboration between Smithsonian Gardens and USBG, now through April 27th, 2014!

March 10, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

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

Remembering the Medal of Honor Tree on Veterans Day

Medal of Honor Tree planting ceremony at NMAH

Medal of Honor Tree planting ceremony at the National Museum of American History on Veterans Day, 2010.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “We cannot consecrate-we cannot hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” In honor of Veterans Day in 2010, Brian Thacker, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor was joined by representatives from the Medal of Honor Foundation, the National Air and Space Museum, and many veteran Smithsonian staff and volunteers to dedicate The Medal of Honor Tree on the grounds of the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Traditionally, red oaks (Quercus rubra) lined the north side of the museum. However, over time many of these trees were lost. To fill in the spaces left by the missing trees, Smithsonian Gardens collected trees from placed of historic significance to the United States such as the Lexington Green, the Trail of Tears, and the Manassas Battlefield. Brett McNish, Supervisory Horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens, originally had the idea to seek out these historic trees and in conversation with a close friend in the museum community came up with the idea for the Medal of Honor Tree.

Congressional Medal of Honor

The Congressional Medal of Honor.

The tree commemorates recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. This award was created on July 12, 1862 when the bill S.J.R. No. 82 was signed into law by President Lincoln. The law designated that Medals of Honor were to be “presented, in the name of Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities.” Following the establishment of the Medal of Honor, soldiers quickly began receiving the medals for their valiant efforts in battle. The largest number of Medal of Honor recipients in one day of battle (120) took place at the Battle of Vicksburg on May 22, 1863. Since its creation, 3,463 service men and women have received the Medal of Honor. A variety of individuals have received the Medal of Honor representing the complex fabric of our nation. Medal of Honor recipients include one woman (Mary Walker), eighty-seven African Americans, forty-one Hispanic-Americans, thirty-three Asian-Americans, and thirty-two American Indians. Since 1918, Medals of Honor can only be given to members of the U.S. Armed Forces. However, exceptions have been made in special circumstances. Sixty-one Canadians, for example, hold the Medal of Honor, many of them from actions in the American Civil War. While the Medal of Honor now must be given to a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, they do not have to be U.S. citizens. The most recent Medal of Honor  was awarded to Captain William D. Swenson on October 15, 2013.

Soil samples collected for the Medal of Honor Tree.

Soil samples from 16 battlefields relating to 11 different wars collected for the Medal of Honor Tree planting.

To dedicate the Medal of Honor Tree, consecrated ground from 16 battlefields relating to 11 different wars that the United States was involved in were collected and added to the soil at the base of the tree. McNish discussed the immense task of collecting soil samples from these battlefields: “My goal was to get at least one soil sample from every war the US fought. Then it came down to what was possible to obtain. I think I came close to getting most of them. It took me about six months to get everything.” The process of collecting the soil involved many helping hands from the USDA, Department of State, Department of Defense, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and others, along with “a hefty FedEx bill” McNish noted. He created little collection kits made out of heat-resistant plastic containers.

U.S. Ambassador, Honorable Kathleen Stephens collects soil from the Pusan Area of the Republic of Korea

U.S. Ambassador, Honorable Kathleen Stephens, collects soil from the Pusan Area of the Republic of Korea, Courtesy of Brett McNish.

A number of interesting stories grew out of the soil collection project. The soil collected from Luxembourg was from General George Patton’s grave at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial. The soil from Iwo Jima had its own history; it had been previously been collected by a Marine who visited the island on a pilgrimage. The soil then made its way to numerous veterans who took a little of it for themselves. McNish received the remaining soil from a retired Air Force officer in an airport VIP lounge. Then U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Honorable Kathleen Stephens, collected Korean War soil from the Pusan Perimeter, an area that witnessed some of the first fighting of the Korean War. Soil from Haiti was collected by a group of Smithsonian curators working on post-earthquake relief for Musée National d’Haiti (the National Museum of Haiti). Because of difficulties mail, obtaining soil from Afghanistan was very difficult. The soil went through numerous hands before it was finally spread under the tree by an SI employee who had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Since its planting in 2010, the Medal of Honor Tree at NMAH is decorated every Veterans Dhistoay with a large red, white, and blue ribbon with a yellow center to highlight its significance in remembering the sacrifices of our nation’s service men and women.

-Mattea Sanders, Smithsonian Gardens intern

November 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm 3 comments

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