Posts filed under ‘Collections’
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.
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
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 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!
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.
- 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Here at Smithsonian Gardens we are celebrating American Archives Month throughout October. In August 2013, we participated in the first of a series of pilot projects, funded by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, to create high resolution images of archival, museum and library collection items at a rapid speed. The pilot project included a week-long open house for Smithsonian staff, fellows, interns, volunteers and contractors, to showcase the rapid digitizating of over 900 historic glass-plate negatives from the Thomas Sears Collection at the Archives of American Gardens. The open house demonstrated all stages of digitizating a glass-plate negative collection, from moving each fragile plate in a custom carrier, capturing it, and performing quality control on the resulting image, to making the digitized output accessible to the public online. The overall process involved an outside contractor performing the image capture and image processing and two staff members from the Archives of American Gardens prepping the images, handling the glass-plate negatives, ingesting the images into the Smithsonian’s Digital Asset Management System and linking them to pre-existing catalog records in the Smithsonian’s online catalog, SIRIS.
The 8×10 negatives, which had previously been digitized in the 1990s on a video disc at 640 pixels on the image’s longest side, were obviously pixelated in SIRIS. New scans of the negatives created by the vendor through rapid capture were digitized with an 80 megapixel camera. The quality of the new scans, measured at roughly 10,000 pixels on the longest side, ensures that the Archives will likely never have to scan the glass plates again. Rapid capture is not new, but the tools to measure the quality that can be achieved through rapid digitization are. For any large scale digitization projects of like materials, the Archives of American Gardens hopes to secure funding to digitize archival images through the rapid capture process instead of its current method of digitizing on a flatbed scanner.
To put it into concrete terms, the time that it takes to scan one image on a flatbed scanner is roughly 12 to 15 minutes. To digitize one image using rapid capture, it takes less than one minute. Rapid capture has opened our eyes to a highly efficient method that enables an entire collection to be digitized in a quantifiable time frame. The piece of the puzzle that remains to be addressed is the time-intensive process of cataloging that is needed to make the collections readily searchable online.
Background on Thomas Sears
Thomas Sears graduated with a degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University’s Lawrence Scientific School in 1906, where he also studied photography. He worked for Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects in the 1910s out of their Brookline, Massachusetts office before establishing his own landscape design office.
A set of images scanned during the rapid capture digitization project included the Edgewood estate in Baltimore, Maryland, photographed by Thomas Sears and designed by Sears and Wendell of Philadelphia.
Learn more about the Thomas Sears Collection.
Click here to learn more about the Archives of American Gardens.
-Kelly Crawford, Museum Specialist
We’re used to looking at Detroit as a symbol of economic collapse and decline, especially after the city filed for bankruptcy under the direction of a state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager in July. Factories, cars, and images of abandoned buildings remain powerful symbols of the city’s past and present. Yet often against the odds, generations of residents and city leaders have also imagined Detroit as a “green city.” Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1880s was one of the first environmental visions to imagine the landscape of Detroit as a space valuable for more than the products and byproducts of manufacturing and industry.
The project to turn Belle Isle, a long, narrow island of approximately 700 acres in the Detroit River into an urban park became official in 1879. After years of debate over the location of a large city park, members of Detroit’s Common Council voted to purchase the site from private owners for $200,000. As George Lothrop, chairman of the Detroit Park Commission wrote, this park was needed “alike for beauty and salubrity…the rich cannot afford to overlook a great popular need like this. In no way can they so well check the spread of communism and the growing hatred of poverty to wealth as by taking a hearty interest in every rational project for the promotion of the health, comfort and enjoyment of the people.” Lathrop and other advocates imagined a park might change relationships between classes by offering residents the opportunity to temporarily leave the city and experience a different kind of environment in relatively close proximity to their homes.
Situated upriver from the docks and disarray of Detroit’s downtown waterfront, Belle Isle had a long history of informal use by residents during the nineteenth century prior to becoming an intentionally designed park. Even so, the suitability of the site for a park was less than ideal. It was marshy, and nearly all of the areas were prone to becoming water-soaked or even completely submerged. When Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to transform the island into a park in 1881, he was not all too pleased with the site the city had selected. As Olmsted noted in one of his preliminary visits to the island,
Conditions could not be more favorable to the breeding and nursing of mosquitoes…the pools, in September, I found discolored, and covered by bubbles and a green scum; and there was putrescent organic matter on their borders. They are thus available to the propagation of typhoid, malarial, and other zymotic poisons; and it may be questioned whether the city is justified in allowing, not to say inviting, ignorant people and children to stray near them.
As it was, the island would require much thought and human labor to transform it into an intentionally designed, manicured, and managed city park.
Although a relatively minimalist design from an aesthetic standpoint, Olmsted’s carefully crafted plan sought to make Belle Isle a more pleasant place for residents of Detroit to enjoy the outdoors, while also preserving some of the island’s important natural features. It was complete with picturesque views of the surrounding landscape and city, walking paths, a grand promenade, fields for sports, and idyllic arched bridges over a network of gently curving canals, which assisted with drainage in addition to their use by canoeists. Until a bridge was built in the 1890s, visitors used ferry boats to reach the island park. Olmsted consolidated the ferry docks and major activity sites at the western end of the island. From the moment visitors stepped off the boat, they entered into a choreographed experience that took them from the more highly designed area of activities to the eastern end of the park that Olmsted left in a more natural appearance, including an old-growth forest that remains today.
Belle Isle Park quickly became the city’s most popular gathering spot for residents and visitors alike. In 1894 alone, some sixty one thousand persons patronized the bathhouses for the three months they were open. While Olmsted’s general design theme still remains relatively intact, the city gradually altered the park over time. To more directly advance an educational mission, the city built an aquarium and horticultural conservatory (both designed by Albert Kahn) in 1904. Now, in addition to the leisurely activities of the park, visitors could also learn about nature through curated displays of plants and aquatic life.
In line with the architectural design tastes of the City Beautiful Movement in the early twentieth century, a beaux-arts style fountain and gathering space designed by architect Cass Gilbert was added to the lower end of the island during the 1920s, which replaced Olmsted’s more organic design with one of rigid symmetry and geometric forms. Over the years, the city’s projects also increased the park’s landmass to its current size of some 985 acres.
When the city purchased Belle Isle in 1879, the swampy island may not have been the best suited place for a park. Yet through careful human design and continued use, generations of Detroiters transformed Belle Isle into an enduring piece of Detroit’s urban fabric despite the city’s rise and fall. Today, amidst the city’s precarious financial situation, non-profit organizations have partnered with the city to help maintain and preserve the park, which remains a popular spot for residents and visitors to the city today.
Although the park’s meaning, design, and use have changed since Olmsted’s time, and the city’s bankruptcy may change the park’s relationship to the city (plans in recent years have included leasing or selling the park to the State of Michigan, charging an entrance fee, and one individual who has proposed selling it to private developers), preserving the legacy of Belle Isle Park remains important to understanding the city’s past in addition to changing tastes and styles in landscape design. Belle Isle’s lasting significance in the present is a reminder that the historic, natural, and human resources that come together in the design of parks and gardens are key ingredients to sustaining Detroit and cities like it into the future.
- Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow, Smithsonian Gardens.
Collecting and preserving plants has always been a popular pastime, especially in the 19th century. Both men and women pressed flowers and foliates (leaves) to keep in botanical scrapbooks. This activity served a variety of interests, both scientific and sentimental.
Whatever their purpose, plants that were collected were prepared and added to scrapbooks in a similar fashion. Flowers typically were pressed in between the pages of a book by the amateur hobbyist while the more serious collector often used a field press. The field press was superior because of its ability to preserve a plant’s color and create a more precise specimen. Field presses were composed of two boards of wood, leather straps and sheets of blotting paper. The process was simple: a plant or flower would be placed between two pieces of paper, then placed between boards. Leather straps would be tightly wrapped around the packet and firmly secured. When sufficiently dry, the specimen would be removed from the field press and glued, sewn, or attached with thin gummed strips to a scrapbook page.
The way in which these items were displayed depended on the type of book the collector wanted to create. Scrapbooks for botanical study usually included a taxonomic description (family, genus and species), a physical description of the plant as well as the date and location of when and where it was collected. Scrapbooks created for sentimental reasons might have been created as a craft project or to serve as a memento in remembrance of a person, event or place.
The Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furnishings and Horticultural Artifact Collection includes three examples of 19th and early 20th century botanical scrapbooks.
Scrapbook as Herbarium for Botanical Study
A botanical scrapbook (FJP.1987.364) dated 1905 was created by Margaret May Hill and is an example of an herbarium or collection of dried flowers that are labeled and described for botanical study.
Botanical Scrapbook as Memento
The botanical scrapbook titled “Flowers of Remembrance” is a sentimental travel log of visits to sites all over Italy during the 1850s. Instead of a travel journal with written entries, the pages are filled with flowers and plants collected from various sites as mementos. One page shows pressed flowers collected at the Roman Coliseum in 1853, 1854 and 1856 all on the same page.
Botanical Scrapbook for Study and as Memento
A book of dried water ferns (Salviniales) is both scientific and sentimental as it illustrates both the incredible variety and beauty of water ferns. The front of the book reveals that it was a gift from a grandmother to her grandson (Hester Schell to Howard Schell) on November 11, 1900.
For further Reading:
Puckett, Sandy. Fragile Beauty: The Victorian Art of Pressed Flowers. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1992
Whittingham, Sarah. The Victorian Fern Craze. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd., 2009.
-Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University
This post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.
Like any number of inventions, the origins of the armillary sphere are debated, credited to everyone from an ancient Greek philosopher to a Roman mathematician to a Chinese astronomer. The one commonality: it was created with the faulty supposition that the earth was the center of the universe!
Armillary spheres served as a model of the heavens with intersecting rings marking everything from latitude and longitude to the tropic of Cancer. (No wonder the name was derived from the Latin word ‘armilla’ meaning bracelet or ring.) Early spheres were fabricated out of wood but as they became more complex they were made of brass which withstood the elements out of doors. As with most objects of science, armillary spheres progressed as new discoveries were made. The Chinese used them to make calendar computations and calculations. During the Middle Ages, they served as sophisticated instruments used to map the solar system. Soon rings were added to mark the equator and the rotation of the sun, moon and known planets, making these spheres some of the first complex mechanical devices.
Because they were used outside where the sky was visible, armillary globes have become a common decorative feature in gardens. Today’s armillary spheres for garden use are strictly decorative in nature and much more streamlined than their ancient counterparts (think fewer rings inside the globe). While they no longer serve as a way to monitor the stars, they remain a symbol of progress and ingenuity throughout time.
The flower frog is a handy tool used in flower arrangements made by professionals and amateurs. The metal cage flower frog–such as this recent acquisition by Smithsonian Gardens–is the most functional type of frog. Glass and ceramic versions were generally purposed for decoration rather than utility. You may wonder how a little cage came to be called a frog—so do we. The etymology of the name ‘frog’ for these flower-holding devices does not appear in dictionaries. Just as a rose by any other name will, in fact, smell as sweet, the importance of metal caged floral arrangers does not diminish with its ‘froggy’ anonymity.
In 1916, William R. Struck of Dazey Manufacturing patented the first metal cage flower frog. It was designed to be camouflaged by the stems and leaves of a floral arrangement, letting the bouquet speak for itself. Frogs were produced in a wide variety of sizes; some included multiple tiers of cages that allowed for more complex displays. Stems were inserted into the different holes, which anchored them to the device and held them at the same level, giving them equal access to water. The metal cage flower frog could achieve these feats, all while remaining virtually unseen.
Garden clubs quickly embraced the metal cages because they permitted more artfully arranged flowers than had been previously possible. Many had complained that vases and decorative frogs made the flowers stick up straight; the metal cage addressed this limitation by allowing flower stems to be inserted at various angles. Publications also promoted these devices over their decorative predecessors because the design of the cage enabled even the amateur floral artist to create dynamic arrangements quickly and easily.These little cages were the dominant type of flower frogs used by both professional and amateur floral artists until 1954 when Oasis was invented. This water absorbent foam developed by Vernon Smithers nearly drove the metal cage flower frogs to extinction. Smithsonian Gardens is fortunate to have a number of them in its Horticultural Artifacts Collection. Though meant to be hidden, they remain an example of one of the greatest innovations in flower arranging of their time.
For further reading: Bull, Bonnie. Flower Frogs for Collectors. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2001.
Janie R Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative Arts
The Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University