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

Wildlife in the Winter Garden

Holly

American holly (Ilex opaca).

Did you know Smithsonian Gardens joined Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program? The goal is for the gardens and greenhouses at the Smithsonian to be designated as a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. To become certified, Smithsonian Gardens has developed, implemented, and documented the results of an environment management plan in five key areas: site assessment and environmental planning, wildlife and habitat management, water, resource management, and outreach and education. We believe that Smithsonian Gardens has met (or in some cases exceeded) Audubon International’s environmental management standards in all five areas. We are looking forward to a site visit from an Audubon International staff member to verify Smithsonian Gardens submission.

Below is a list of plants that you can find in the Smithsonian Gardens that are native to the mid-Atlantic region and provide food and shelter to wildlife during the winter months.

  • Ilex glabra, also called inkberry, is an evergreen shrub with black fruit called drupes. The fruit, attractive to birds, appears September through March. You can find this shrub in the Urban Bird Habitat Garden at the National Museum of Natural History.
  • Ilex opaca, known as American holly, can be found on the south side of the Smithsonian Castle in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. This large evergreen tree provides nesting opportunities for birds and small mammals as well as bright red berries to sustain our feathered friends during the cold winter months.
  • Ilex verticillata is a deciduous holly often called winterberry. Birds really seem to enjoy these beautiful berries so don’t forget that winterberries are dioecious, meaning that the berry-producing female plants need a male winterberry nearby to produce fruit. Look for Ilex verticillata on the north side of the National Air and Space Museum due east of the entrance.
  • Lindera benzoin is called spicebush because of the spicy smell of the leaves when crushed.  We grow this tree for its year-round wildlife value. This tree is a host plant for the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly and the fruit is eaten by songbirds. You can find this understory shrub in the landscape of the National Museum of the American Indian as well as in the Butterfly Habitat Garden at the Natural History Museum.
  • Rhus typhina ‘Dissecta’ or staghorn sumac as it is commonly called is not only a picturesque plant but a source of reddish brown seeds that are consumed by many birds and small mammals throughout the winter months. The staghorn sumac is also a host and nectar plant for both moths and butterflies which is why you can find it in our Butterfly Habitat Garden.
Rhus typhina 'Dissecta'

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Dissecta’)

For more information on native plants for wildlife habitat: http://www.nps.gov/plants/pubs/chesapeake/pdf/chesapeakenatives.pdf

For more information about the Audubon International’s Cooperative Sanctuary Program:
https://www.auduboninternational.org/acsp 

-Shelley Gaskins, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist, Green Team Member 

January 24, 2014 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

Janet and the Beanstalk

Some things start innocent enough—and that is how this story begins.

Last year, the horticultural staff from Monticello came up from Virginia for a tour of the Smithsonian Gardens and brought me a goody bag of seeds they thought I might find interesting.  Somehow they knew I have “a thing” for plant oddities. The goodies included things like Medicago or ‘Snail Clover,’ which has these BEAUTIFUL spiral seeds which look like beads, and Mimosa pudica – a sensitive plant that folds up when you touch it, and something mysterious called ‘Guinea Bean’ or ‘Snake Gourd’.

I had never heard of Guinea Bean so I looked it up and learned that it is actually a gourd, native to Mediterranean areas.  In Italy it is known as “Cucuzza” which translates to something like ‘super long squash’. The descriptions all say it is edible and looks like a zucchini, gets 15” to 3’ long and is treated much like a zucchini.  Harvest it small and it tastes like green beans, harvest it later and has more solid flesh. Unlike a zucchini, it does form a hard outer shell when left on its own.

Armed with that information, I was willing to try it, especially because part of the Mary Livingston Ripley garden is behind the construction fencing for the Arts and Industries Building restoration project so I could grow it on the fence, out of public view.

I really did not think much of these little squash-like plants when I put them out in early spring. I honestly forgot about them until the weather got warmer and the plants started putting on growth, which required me tying them to the lattice fencing. I thought they would get to the top of the 6’ fence and stop there. Boy, was I ever wrong!

I first noticed sometime in July that a couple of the plants had reached out and grabbed onto the protective netting beyond the fence that was surrounding the scaffolding on Arts and Industries Building. I thought it was cute, and would add ammunition to my perpetual prank battle with the construction crews. It took just a few days until I started getting  ’threats‘ of a bill coming from the scaffolding company for use of “their” trellis.  And the plant kept growing. Soon I started getting all kinds of inquiries from the construction guys asking what it was. They could actually measure the growth of the vine from morning until the end of their shift! It was literally growing 1-3 feet a DAY! Everyone wanted to know what it was and how big it would get. I relayed what I had gleaned from my quick search, but noticed that no one was saying how big the plants grew . . . hmm . . . wonder why?

Guinea bean on the side of the A&I building

The Guinea Bean plant shot straight up the side of the Arts & Industries building scaffolding.

As the summer progressed the guys continued to report in their findings, including a baseball bat-sized gourd hidden on their side of the fence. Wow – it was a honker – much larger than the 3’ maximum . . . how much bigger could it get?  So of course, we left it to grow.

By August the plants had almost reached 30 feet tall, and I saw that the scaffolding crews were removing the netting from the scaffolding.  Bummer!  The plant would not have the chance to make it to the top of the building.  But I was delighted that, without even consulting me, they removed all the netting except the one with the gourds! They wanted the plants to make it to the top also!

So . . . did the ‘Snake Gourd’ make it? Yes! Our Jack-and-the-beanstalk plant climbed to 50 feet to reach the top of the scaffolding.

Janet with Guinea Bean gourds.

Janet poses with three of her very long Guinea Bean gourds grown in the Ripley Garden.

Only three gourds actually made it—the big honker we found early in the season matured to a little over 5 feet long, with a solid outer shell, plus a skinny wobbly 5’ long one plus a soft tender 3’ gourd.  All of which I dragged home on the Metro which caused much bewilderment to all who saw me and information and education for those who were curious enough to inquire.

And this all started with the sharing of some innocent looking seeds. Thanks for the adventure to my friends at Monticello! Remember, January is National Mail Order Gardening Month. What are you ordering to plant in your garden?

-Janet Draper, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

January 16, 2014 at 7:30 am 4 comments

Winter Interest in the Garden

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.

Winter berries

Berries you will find in our gardens include (clockwise from upper left) Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia); American Holly (Ilex opaca); Firethorn (Pyracantha ‘Mohave’); Southern Bayberry (Morella cerifera); Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma); Carmine Crabapple (Malus x atrosanguinea); and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

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.

Winter berries

Winterberry (Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’)

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.

Winter grasses

Some of the grasses and sedges you will find on our gardens include (clockwise from upper left) Leather leaf sedge (Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’); Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Cloud Nine’) [close-up and full plant]; Orange New Zealand Sedge (Carex testacea); and Pink Muhlygrass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) [pictured in November and January]

Seedheads create interest with varying shapes and textures and make a dynamic feature in winter as they mature and disperse.

Seeheads

Seedheads and pods that draw attention in our gardens include (clockwise from upper left) False Indigo (Baptisia australis); Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea); Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus); Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Goldenrod (Solidago spp.); Whitehair Leather Flower (Clematis albicoma); and Upland Ironweed (Vernonia glauca)

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.

Wild Senna (Senna marilandica)

Wild Senna (Senna marilandica)

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.

Bark and Branches

Some of our most striking stems in the gardens are seen with (clockwise from upper left) Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera ‘Renci’); River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’); Hollow Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum); Tatarian Dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Bud’s Yellow’); Coral Bark Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’); Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia ssp.); Red Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Baileyi’); and Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)

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.

Evergreen Perennials

A small sampling of our many needled evergreens include (clockwise from upper left) Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana ‘Burkii’); Umbrella Pine (Sciadopitys verticillata); Irish Yew (Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’); Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica); and Scotch Pine (Pinus Sylvestris ‘Burghfield’)

Broadleaf Evergreens

Some of the more dominate broadleaf evergreens in our gardens are (clockwise from upper left) Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora); Lantanaphyllum Viburnum (Viburnum x rhytidophylloides); Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana); English Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus ‘Otto Luyken’); Common Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens); and Oregon Grape (Berberis aquifolium)

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.

Winter Flowers

Blooms you can spot in Smithsonian Gardens in winter are (clockwise from upper left) Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus); Common Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana); Sasanqua Camellia (Camellia sasanqua ‘Jean May’); Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha); Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus); and Beale’s Mahonia (Berberis bealei)

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

January 7, 2014 at 7:30 am 2 comments

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

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