Just because it is winter does not mean that our gardeners or gardens get a rest. Smithsonian Gardens welcomes visitors year-round. These visitors include many tourists but also wildlife, as our gardens serve as an important urban habitat for birds, insects, and mammals.
Within our gardens you will find many plants that add winter interest beyond our impressive annual displays of pansies, violas, and kale. Important garden features in this bleaker season include berries, grasses, seedheads, stems, bark, evergreens, and even some flowers.
Fruit and berries are a great way to brighten up a winter landscape and many serve as an important food source for birds.
When selecting plants for winter berries note whether they are deciduous or evergreen. The pointed rich green leaves of the American Holly above create a great contrast to the bright red berries while the Winterberry (Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’) below looks better with a solid backdrop like an evergreen to best stand out.
Grasses and sedges add texture to our gardens in winter and some add great color as well. Many of the grasses also provide seeds for birds in winter and nesting materials come spring.Seedheads create interest with varying shapes and textures and make a dynamic feature in winter as they mature and disperse.
Remember these seedheads are the result of earlier flowers from plants that have multiple seasons of interest. Some of these seeds are now food sources for birds, but their flowers were nectar sources, or some had foliage that fed caterpillars, in earlier seasons. Take the Wild Senna (Senna marilandica) below, for example. It is a wonder native plant with nectar-providing pea-like flowers and is a host plant for sulfur butterflies in the summer.
Differing barks and branches also play a significant role in enhancing our gardens in winter. Peeling barks of birches, brightly-stemmed twig dogwoods, and the towering dry stems of perennials can all become dominant features in the winter.
Evergreens are a key element to add structure in gardens during the winter. There are a variety of evergreens available with a myriad of shapes, textures, and even colors. Evergreens can be needled conifers but also broadleaf trees and shrubs and even some perennials hold their foliage in the winter months. They also provide important cover and shelter for many species in winter.
Lastly we can’t forget about winter flowers. There is not much that blooms at this time but those flowers that do truly give us reason to celebrate. They are also important nectar source for late and earl- season pollinators.
I encourage you to take a walk through our gardens on a nice winter day and see what interesting plants you spot.
-James Gagliardi, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.
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.
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
Now that tomatoes have lost their summer pizzazz it is time to look to other fresh vegetables to punch up salads. Tossing winter squash with greens may seem odd, but when the squash is roasted, it adds sweetness to salads similar to fresh fruits. Chopped pears add another layer of sweetness and make the salad juicier. Pomegranate seeds and walnuts add crunch; cayenne pepper is necessary to balance their sweetness.
Peeling winter squash so it can be cubed and roasted is always a bit of a challenge. Smooth-skinned butternut squashes are so appealing to cooks because they are easy to peel with a vegetable peeler. But don’t let ribbed, bumpy and warty skins thwart experimenting with other squashes. Relax and take the time to carefully peel the tough skin. A vegetable peeler is still the best tool; you may have to cut the squash into smaller, more maneuverable pieces to remove the skin from all the nooks and crannies. The abundance of varying flavors is worth the effort.
Don’t take the easy way out and just cut the squash in half and roast it. Cubed, roasted squash can be used in so many different recipes: tossed with pasta, sage, garlic and parmesan cheese; sautéed with onion and served as a winter bruschetta; or combined with pancetta, rosemary and ricotta cheese and used as a pizza topping.
Roasted winter squash makes saying goodbye to summer a little easier! This fresh salad is a perfect way to celebrate the harvest on Thanksgiving.
Autumn Farmer’s Market Salad
Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appetit October 2008
Makes 6 servings
4 1/2 to 5 cups, 1/2-inch cubes of peeled and seeded winter squash (about 2 pounds, I used Tetsukabuto and Honey Bear Squash, both are orange-fleshed moist squashes.)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon cayenne red pepper
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons orange juice
3 tablespoons walnut oil
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 bunch arugula (about 6 cups), torn into pieces
1 small head Bibb lettuce (about 4 cups), torn into small pieces
2 Bosc pears, cores removed; cut into bite-size pieces (to prevent browning, put pears in lemon water until it is time to construct the salad)
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses*
Preheat oven to 450°F. Toss squash, olive oil, and cayenne pepper on large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Roast 15 minutes. Using spatula, turn squash over. Roast until edges are browned and squash is tender, about 15 minutes longer. Sprinkle with coarse salt and let stand at room temperature while making the salad dressing and putting the greens together.
Whisk orange juice, walnut oil, and lemon juice in large shallow bowl. Season to taste with salt and coarsely ground pepper. Add arugula, Bibb lettuce, pear, walnuts, and pomegranate seeds; toss to coat. Season greens to taste with coarse salt and pepper and then add cooked squash. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses and serve.
* I found the pomegranate molasses at Whole Foods, but it can also be found at groceries specializing in Middle Eastern cookery.
-Cindy Brown, Manager, Horticulture Collections Management and Education
Ghada Amer, (1963 – ), born in Egypt, based in New York
Earthwork in “Earth Matters”
Ghada Amer is one of a selected number of artists invited by the National Museum of African Art to take part in the exhibit Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor by creating an earthwork in the Smithsonian’s gardens. Earthworks are large sculptural works which use earth as material, motif, and/or message. Several of these earthworks have been installed in the Enid A. Haupt Garden in the vicinity of the Sackler and African Art Museums.
Amer works in a variety of genres: painting, sculpture, film, photography, installation. In much of her work she has appropriated two media that are usually associated with domestic arts or “women’s work”: embroidery and gardening. She therefore uses thread and plants to express messages that are highly political, focusing on a range of themes, including gender roles, women’s sexuality, and human rights. In the work currently on display in the Smithsonian Gardens, Amer has chosen the subject of hunger as her topic. She thus highlights a worldwide problem at the same time that she alludes to a specific issue: the fact that politicians in her native Egypt and elsewhere prey on the hungry by promising food in exchange for votes. Bags of rice and other edibles are therefore bartered for political support.
The current earthwork began with the delineation of large letters spelling the word “Hunger” along a strip of land at the north entrance of the Haupt Garden. Once the letters were outlined as furrows, they were planted with rice. The work has therefore evolved through different stages, reflecting the initial carving of the land and the growth of the ‘crops’ growing in the designated space.
Initially, the viewer could read the word “hunger” spelled out in earth. Then, the stenciled letters were filled in with small tufts of rice plants. Over the summer months, the plants grew very noticeably, and the edible rice began to emerge. This in turn attracted birds, who saw the grain as a bonus meal. As the plants grew and became bushier, the word was ‘hunger’ became less readable. The letters re-emerged once the crop was harvested. In keeping with the original idea of crop rotation, the letters will be planted with kale, which can survive colder temperatures. During fall and winter, the letters will become greener and denser.
In “Hunger,” as in some of her other work, Amer combines medium and message, and urges us to read both the ‘writing on the wall’ and the letters on the earth.
-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian volunteer