Posts tagged ‘National Museum of American History’

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 4 comments

Function & Beauty: My Landscape Architecture Internship at Smithsonian Gardens

Sarah G., 2013 Intern

Sarah on site at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Hello! My name is Sarah Gorney, and I was the Landscape Architecture Intern for the Smithsonian Gardens this summer. I am studying Landscape Architecture at Texas Tech University and will be a senior this fall. Despite attending school in Texas, I am actually from the DC Metro area, so it was great to be home for the summer!  And even better was being able to work for the Smithsonian Gardens.

Before I get into some of the many projects I worked on, I’d like to share a small bit about Landscape Architecture. Many people I have run into have been confused as to what Landscape Architecture really is or what we do. Landscape Architecture is defined by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) as,

“…the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environments. Types of projects include: Residential, parks and recreation, monuments, urban design, streetscapes and public spaces, transportation corridors and facilities, gardens and arboreta, security design, hospitality and resorts, institutional, academic campuses, therapeutic gardens, historic preservation and restoration, reclamation, conservation, corporate and commercial, landscape art and earth sculpture, interior landscapes, and more. Landscape architects have advanced education and professional training and are licensed in 50 states” (

Arts and Industries Building under renovation.

On a tour of the inside of the Arts and Industries Building during renovations.

I am thrilled to be studying in a profession that is this diverse, and I was able to see all this in action at the Smithsonian Gardens.

This summer has truly been an amazing experience. Landscape Architecture is a synthesis between the built and natural environment, and the Smithsonian Gardens embody this concept to the fullest.  Studying under this organization has allowed me to glean insight into an extremely successful set of on- going designs and what they entail; things such as what factors and issues impact design, the upkeep and daily maintenance of the grounds, cultural requirements, how the gardens relate to specific architecture or time periods, horticultural practices, sustainability, and storm water management.

Rendered Calder Plan

My design concept for the Calder area outside the National Museum of American History.

My work this summer included projects for every museum at the Smithsonian, including the new National Museum of African American History and Culture slated to open in 2015. I worked on planting plans for multiple museums, coordinated with and prepared documents for professionals from multiple disciplines, completed square footage studies, updated AutoCAD plans for the new bike racks around the Mall, helped coordinate and create cost estimates, develop design concepts for the work and storage area at the Ripley Garden, put together plans for a grant proposal for a bird garden outside the National Museum of Natural History, and much more. I also developed design concepts for the re-design of the Alexander Calder sculpture area (the area outside of the National Museum of American History that used to house the Gwenfritz sculpture). The sculpture was relocated in 1983, but is now being re-installed in its original location on the west side of the museum. In addition, I have gone to more meetings than I can count with professionals all over the Smithsonian and was able to work one-on–one with my boss to really get a feel for what he does.

Getting to experience the issues, specifications, requirements, construction, and coordination that these projects entail has given me extremely valuable insight into the process of how a design is actually constructed. This knowledge will be integral as I grow as a Landscape Architect to design projects that are just as feasible to construct and functional as they are beautiful.

-Sarah Gorney, Summer 2013 Landscape Architecture Intern 

September 12, 2013 at 8:00 am 1 comment

Ruby Slippers Make the Plant

Ruby Red Slippers

Judy Garland’s Ruby Red Slippers from the film The Wizard of Oz (Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History.)

At some point in most people’s lives they wish they had a pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Who wouldn’t want the ease of getting home with just a click of the heels? Travel just became ten times easier. Plus, some women just can’t say no to a pair of killer red heels. But here’s the kicker: in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s slippers were actually silver. The creators of the 1939 film made the now iconic change from silver to red. Designers dyed the shoes red and then overlapped them with burgundy sequined organza netting. There are an estimated 2,300 sequins on each shoe! The pair on display in the National Museum of American History had felt placed on the bottom to muffle the sound it made against the yellow brick road during dance scenes.

So why were the shoes such a big deal?  Why was the color change so important? Besides the fact that ruby red looked great in Technicolor, it added a whimsical feel. It transformed the farm girl from Kansas into a  self-empowered young woman. Red can change not only the look of a person, but plants as well. The Oakleaf Hydrangea ‘Ruby Slippers’ on the National Museum of American History’s grounds is a perfect example. Located on the north side of the museum on either side of the half circle drive, Hydrangea quercifolia is a great addition to the area. These hydrangeas can grow in Zones 5 through 9 and are well suited for Washington, D.C.’s Zone 7. In 2011, the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C. gave the Oakleaf Hydrangea a makeover and introduced this lovely cultivar.

Oakleaf Hydrangea ‘Ruby Slippers’

Oakleaf Hydrangea ‘Ruby Slippers’ at the National Museum of American History.

The ‘Ruby Slippers’ cultivar borrows quite a few attributes from Dorothy and her infamous shoes. Like Dorothy, the plant is a United States native. Like the shoes, its blooms are nine inches long. The blooms start out silvery white, like the slippers in the book, but gradually change to a deep, rich ruby like the slippers in the film. The plant is altogether more petite than its parent plant, which can grow to a typical height and width of eight feet. While these qualities might not seem like a major change, this cultivar takes on a whole new look, with a major dose of pizzazz. Its oak leaf-shaped leaves and brilliant red-orange autumn color are only improved by the changing flower color. The National Arboretum was so fond of the plant that they stuck with the Wizard of Oz theme, introducing Oakleaf Hydrangea ‘Munchkin’ in 2011. Who knows, maybe they’ll introduce ‘Wicked Witch’ next? Whatever they decide it’ll be exciting to see.

 -Katie Hix, Horticulture Intern

August 14, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

The Tomatillo (tohm-ah-TEE-oh)

*Note: This blog post from Smithsonian Gardens’ Horticulturist Joe Brunetti originally appeared as part of the National Museum of American History’s “O Say Can You See?” Blog as part of NMAH’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

“What is a tomatillo?” “What sort of recipes use tomatillos?” “What do they taste like?” These are just a few of the questions I get asked when I show visitors the tomatillos growing in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.  Simply put, tomatillos are small fruits ensconced in a papery husk.  These beauties belong to the nightshade family – yes, the same nightshade family that contains the usual scene-stealers – tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, tobacco and even petunias. The tomatillo is like the distant cousin that doesn’t make it to the family get-togethers, and it’s high time you two got to know each other.

Tomatillos (Physalis ixocarpa) are a summer annual originating from Mesoamerica and therefore grow best under similar conditions as a tomato plant. In the spring, when the danger of frost is no longer at hand, plant tomatillos in full sun and in rich organic soil. Provide a supporting structure like a tomato cage as it grows.  A ripe tomatillo looks and feels much like an un-ripened tomato – typically firm, with a green and/or yellow hue. They vary in size from one inch in diameter to plum-sized.  You want to harvest your tomatillos when the husk has not browned and the fruit is still firm to the touch.

Speaking of the husk (which most people associate with corn), it is botanically known as the calyx. Think of it as a paper-like shield protecting your produce from ravenous varmints. Thank you calyx! When this shell is peeled off of the tomatillo a sticky resin is left on the skin, but it washes off easily.

The taste of a tomatillo combines the heartiness of a tomato with the citrus zing of a lime.  It is sure to get your taste buds dancing. The texture is like an under-ripe, spongy tomato.  Trust me, it’s cool. 

Tomatillos have been cultivated for millennia and were a staple food in ancient Mayan and Aztec communities. In fact, the Aztecs are credited with domesticating the tomatillo. To this day, this peculiar fruit is a constant component of Mexican and Guatemalan diets. Traditionally, tomatillos are combined with chili peppers to make sauces, with the coolness of the tomatillo balancing out the hot flavor of the pepper. Have you eaten salsa verde (green sauce)? Well then, you’ve probably eaten tomatillos since they are typically the main ingredient in salsa verde. Other uses for the tomatillo include chopping them and adding them to salads and salsas, or pureeing them into gazpacho and guacamole. Less commonly, but still worth mentioning, tomatillos are used to flavor rice and tenderize red meats. 

Right now in the Smithsonian’s Victory Garden grows a tomatillo that demands attention. Instead of the familiar green, this variety’s fruit and husks are tinted midnight purple. Come by sometime and have a look!

Tomatillo Tortilla Soup with Ground Bison
Makes 4 – 6 servings.  Prep time: 15 minutes.  Cook time: 20 minutes)

Olive oil

1 lb. ground bison (or any other ground meat or meat substitute)

1 red onion, diced

A dozen tomatillos, de-husked, rinsed, and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 cups chicken broth

1 15-oz can diced tomatoes

1 15-oz can black beans, rinsed

1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp chili powder

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp dried oregano

Salt and pepper to taste

Sour cream or Greek yogurt with a splash of lime juice (that’s what I always use!)

Cheddar or Mexican blend cheese, for garnish (plus some on the bottom of your bowl, of course)

Tortilla chips, broken

In a soup pot, heat about 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the ground bison, reducing the heat to medium after about two minutes of browning.  Cook through.

Meanwhile, put the tomatillos and about 1 cup of the chicken broth in a blender.  Blend thoroughly, until all of the tomatillos are pureed.

Add the tomatillo mixture to the browned bison.  Add the diced tomatoes, black beans, remaining, chicken broth, and spices.  Season with salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to medium low.  Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding either more broth or water as necessary, so it keeps the consistency you want.  Taste it a couple times during the cooking process so you can adjust the seasonings if you want.

To serve, sprinkle a little cheese in the bottom of the bowls, then add the soup, then top with more cheese, tortilla chips, and sour cream/Greek yogurt-lime juice mixture.  Enjoy!

Recipe: from

September 21, 2012 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

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