Recently, I was fortunate to receive a Smithsonian Gardens Travel Grant to visit gardens and natural spaces in the San Francisco area. This grant gives Smithsonian Gardens staff the opportunity to expand their knowledge about public garden functions and industry trends by funding visits to other public gardens or conferences throughout the nation.
Until my visit, I did not realize how much acreage Golden Gate Park (GGP) encompasses or know about the history of its creation. GGP is one of the largest man-made parks in the world. Host to the 1894 Midwinter International Exposition, it was created on 1,017 acres consisting mostly of sand dunes. Many at that time were skeptical the park would come to fruition especially considering its location. The monumental undertaking was extremely successful, however. It is hard not to be impressed when you see how lush the current landscape is and think back on how brutal the winds and drifting sands in the area must have been before its creation. Today, the park is enjoyed by millions of visitors each year and is a great place to exercise, connect with nature, and rejuvenate the soul.
One trend I came across repeatedly during my travels through the San Francisco area was the use of foliage, form, and texture. My stop at Flora Grubb Gardens turned up some excellent examples of how color echoes can give a harmonious feeling to any number of design principles. The image below illustrates how flowers alone don’t necessarily create a beautiful landscape.
Try toning things down in your garden with a monochromatic color scheme. Select plants of one color but with differing tints, shades, and hues. The focus is then on the juxtaposition of textures and shapes.
I was truly inspired by the innovative plant combinations, great color harmonies, and textures I observed on this trip, and have no doubt that learning more about these design elements will improve my annual plant displays at the Smithsonian. I look forward to incorporating some new ideas into the landscapes surrounding the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, Freer Gallery, and the Smithsonian Castle. Hopefully you are inspired to create a new vignette in your own garden too.
– Rick Shilling, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist
The sight of fresh blooming encyclias is one to tease the eyes. Generally small flowered and often less than an inch in diameter, encyclias pack a punch with their unending shape and color variations. Orchid lovers could spend days observing these species and hybrids. This hardly comes as a surprise when you take into consideration that there are over 150 species in the genus.
Originating from the Greek word, enkylein, the name encyclia refers to the way the lateral lobes of the flower encircle the column. Found from central Florida to Brazil, these orchids grow in warmer climates and produce psuedobulbs in clumps. Each clump sends up several flower spikes at a time and each variety of encyclia has flower spikes that range in a length from a foot to several feet long. Since each spike can produce many flowers these spikes make for quite a spectacular show.
I find these orchids very pleasing to observe. Their small flowers make them manageable to view, but contain subtle details that are a delight to discover. These flowers have great depth to them, so changing your angle of view can reveal more interesting characteristics.
Encyclias are often crossed with the genera Cattleya and Epidendrum to create lovely hybrids. Encyclias are desirable for their interesting flower shapes and Encyclia cordigera in particular often is selected for hybridization for its darker colors and intoxicating aroma. Encyclia cordigera has received over 40 awards from the American Orchid Society, so why not pass along some of these winning characteristics to other orchids?
In the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, there are currently over 60 examples of these encyclia species and hybrid combinations. Their flowers last up to a month sometimes longer, so they regularly make their way to the display cases in museums around the Smithsonian. Be sure to swing by the orchid cases downstairs in the National Museum of American History sometime in the next few weeks to see one of these incredible orchids on display.
– Alan Marcus, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Intern
The Smithsonian Gardens’ tropical plant collection includes approximately 1,000 plants. This number fluctuates on a fairly regular basis as some plants die from natural causes while others grow so large that they outgrow their display space or even the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouse facility. As the caretaker of this collection, I have a special relationship with the plants and, though I care for them all, I do have a few favorites. Here is a list of my personal top 5 favorite plants in the Smithsonian’s tropical plant collection (in no particular order) along with where to catch them on display this summer.
First up is Caladium schomburgkii ‘Skula.’ This relatively unknown caladium is subtle, but for some reason is a favorite of mine. Could it be the interesting leaf shape, or perhaps its various hues of green leaves, or simply its ease of care? I honestly don’t know why I like this plant so much but see for yourself and make your own decision. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden
Once you see Aristolochia gigantea ‘Brasiliensis’ flowers you will know why this tropical made my top 5 list. It took me a few tries to cultivate this plant. I previously obtained two specimens and both times when they flowered they ended up being straight A. gigantea. My third attempt was well worth the trouble, however. This plant produces flowers nearly year-round and what a display they make! The flowers measure nearly 12 inches wide and before opening they have a fascinating side profile that resembles a smoking pipe. Aristolochia ridicula was close to making my list as well (check out its flowers). Location: Mary Livingston Ripley Garden
Dioscorea mexicana, also called Mexican Yam, is one of the coolest looking plants you will ever see. The plant’s caudex (stem base) looks like a tortoise shell. The glossy heart-shaped leaves are attractive and can grow 15 feet in a single growing season. While pretty, the flowers are small so it’s best to enjoy this plant for its foliage and oh so interesting caudex. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden
Combretum indicum ‘Flora Plena,’ the second vine on my list, is certainly a show stopper. This doubled flowered cultivar is not only visually breathtaking but also pleasantly fragrant. The flowers start out white and as they age change over to various hues of pink and red. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden
Alsobia dianthiflora is also known by its common name, Lace Flower. A simple plant with fuzzy green leaves and a dark midrib, it looks nice year-round but really shines when it’s shredded-edged white flowers start to bloom. This plant also makes for a great house plant. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden
A bonus plant to add to this list is expected to make its appearance in the Smithsonian Gardens during the summer of 2016 or 2017. Encephalartos horridus is an amazing blue cycad. I acquired a small offset in the fall of 2012 and have been caring for it ever since. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists this plant as Endangered. It is native to South Africa. E. horridus has spectacular blue fronds that make it a truly special specimen.
So there you have it–my current top 5 plants under my care here at Smithsonian Gardens. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do and please stop by our gardens and check them out in person if you have a chance.
– Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist
Last year I tried out a new thing in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden – growing a green wall! Like all things the first attempt is often a learning experience. Happily, last year’s wall turned out well enough that I decided to repeat it again this year.
I’ve received many questions from garden visitors regarding the construction of the wall so I thought I would share how it was built. This is by no means the only way to grow a green wall, just my own experience with the project.
I started by selecting frames specially designed to hang vertically. The individual cells or containers of these frames slant downward to minimize soil loss. Last year I planted the cells with things like Creeping Thymes and Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ which root in wherever they touch the soil making them perfect in this situation.
Since I can’t do the same thing two years in a row, this year decided to try succulents. I ordered an assortment of succulent plugs (small rooted cuttings) and selected a variety of plants we were already growing at the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouses to augment the purchased plants.
To begin, I filled all of the containers with a well-draining potting mix and laid them out flat on a table to plant. I really was looking for dramatic color and texture in this year’s wall so I tried to “paint” with the plants by creating patterns through my placement choices. After I finished planting, I marked each tray with a label so I would know the proper layout when the containers were transported down to the Ripley Garden.
The frames were planted in early March and allowed to grow flat on tables at our greenhouse until the roots were fairly established and the plants had grown enough to start holding in the soil. This took about four months due to my plant selection and the fact that I started with small plugs.
Hanging the containers was fairly simple. Each tray came with a metal cleat to attach to the hanging surface, in this case the Ripley Garden fence. My co-worker and mechanical mastermind, Rick, helped me run two-by-fours along the fence and then attach the cleats. Since I decided to do three rows of the frames, we spaced things accordingly.
Next came the fun part – installing the trays! The back side of each container had an indentation which allowed us to hang the containers directly on the cleats. We could have stopped there, but we wanted to be sure the containers would not fall off so Rick ran a screw through the side of each tray. We started adding the trays from the bottom and continued to fill each level, adding a screw to each tray. It took less than 30 minutes to install the trays once the cleats were in place. To hide the hanging hardware, we reused some bits of twig screen we had left over from last year’s garden holiday decorations.
Now that the wall is up, watering is a bit of a challenge. It is possible to purchase little water boxes that sit on top of instillation and allow water to slowly trickle down through the wall. I found last year, however, that watering this way did not provide enough moisture to the lowest row of trays. This year I’m watering by lightly misting the wall with a fine spray of water and taking care not to disturb the soil and cause it to fall out of the containers.
I’ve found growing a green wall a fun experiment, but one that does require more skill and attention than growing things horizontally. But hey, why not try something different!
I really like the way it turned out and hope it lasts through the season. Since I used non-hardy succulents, the wall will be taken down in the late fall and returned to our greenhouse where it may undergo a new transformation for next year!
-Janet Draper, Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Horticulturist
The summer season brings new life to the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouses. As you might expect, much of this new life is the result of staff work to produce plants for our gardens. However, there are also a surprising number of winged, chirping occupants on the greenhouse property this season. As a part of the Bluebird NestWatch effort organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Smithsonian Gardens has set up ten specially-designed bluebird houses around the greenhouse property. The greenhouse staff visits each birdhouse weekly and unscrews a side wall to make notes of the visitors and nest progress. Often times they find other species of birds occupying the houses, so it’s really a fantastic glimpse at a variety of bird life. During the past several weeks of collecting data, we’ve seen Bluebirds, Wrens, Tree Swallows, and Robins making their nests in these houses.
We also regularly see ground-nesting Killdeer around the greenhouse. Preferring ground mobility to flight, these birds are fast runners from an early age. This makes them difficult to approach especially as they are easily spooked. Though not one of our birdhouse residents, the Killdeer nest quickly became a weekly checkpoint for our observation tours and we were able to see four chicks this year.
It’s easy to imagine that the parents of these chicks were not particularly pleased with our weekly interruptions. As a result, we rapidly learned each bird’s defense strategy. Bluebirds are often shy creatures and the parents would fly to a vantage point to watch us with a keen eye while we conducted our research. Tree Swallows, on the other hand, are a little more aggressive and would dive-bomb us to get us to leave their nest alone. Adult Robins and Wrens would often just flee the coop entirely and wait for a quiet time to revisit their brood.
Killdeer, on the other hand, have developed a pretty impressive show to protect their young which uses camouflage, predator calls, and distraction performances. Killdeer often hang out near our gravel walks or driveways where, as seen in the picture below, their neutral colored feathers help them blend into the background. Under the cover of camouflage, the adults would use alarm calls to attract attention to themselves and away from their babies when we approached the nest. When that failed, the adults would lay down and stretch out their wings like they had been injured to make themselves appear an appealing victim to the perceived predator. Once the threat (in this case the greenhouse staff) was fooled by the adult Killdeer’s show and moved to approach, the adult would wait for the the chicks to be safely out of reach before miraculously “recovering” and flying away to safety. There’s nothing more humbling than being duped by the oldest trick in the book.
All in all, it’s been a terrific and refreshing few weeks for the greenhouse staff to get outside and witness the beauty of avian life. During this project we’ve not only seen countless chicks and eggs, we’ve also seen the these young birds develop from day-old hatchings into fledglings ready to fly. Despite being attacked by adults aggressively protecting their young and mocked by flawless Killdeer performances, it’s been a pleasure seeing the diversity of bird life out at the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses.
– Alan Marcus, Smithsonian Gardens Intern
We’re bringing our month of wedding-themed #ThrowbackThursdays to a close with tips for caring for roses at home from Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist Shelley Gaskins. Shelley manages the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden next to the Smithsonian Castle.
June is one of the most popular months for weddings, and it’s also National Rose Month! Roses are a traditional and elegant flower choice for wedding bouquets and decorations. Did you know that Tricia Nixon was married in the White House Rose Garden in June of 1971? The White House Historical Association has a new exhibit exploring the Rose Garden during the Kennedy administration opening on July 16th. “The Kennedy Rose Garden: Traditionally American” features a few photographs and letters from the Archives of American Gardens. Did you choose roses for your wedding? Share your story in the comments!
Rose Tip #1: Do your research! Roses are rated on several characteristics. Choosing roses that are rated as resistant to fungal diseases such as black spot and powdery mildew should top your list.
Rose Tip #2: Roses require at least 6 hours of full sun (preferably in the morning), a well-drained and nutrient-rich soil, and moderate amounts of water. Water should only be applied directly to the root zone, not to the leaf surface. Adequate sunlight and water will help decrease the spread and incidence of fungal diseases.
Rose Tip #3: When pruning roses in early spring, prune with the understanding that opening up the center of the plant allows for light penetration and air circulation. Allowing light and air into the center of the plant will create an environment that is less favorable to fungal diseases. Be sure to clean the edge of your pruners with alcohol to avoid spreading viruses.
Rose Tip #4: Eliminating dead, dying and diseased plants and plant parts from your garden will help to keep your garden healthy. This includes cleaning up potentially diseased rose leaves that have fallen from the plant. Fungal spores can overwinter and return to the plant from the fallen leaves.
Rose Tip #5: Not all bugs are bad! get to know the insects that visit your garden. Find out which insects truly pose a threat to the health of your plants (pests). Find out if the pest has any natural predators (beneficial insects). A healthy garden should have both. If necessary, you can introduce mail-order beneficial insects into your garden.
Rose Tip #6: Beneficial insects are often beneficial only at certain stages in their life cycle. For example, the syrphid fly only feeds on prey while they’re in their larval stage. Adult syrphids don’t eat other insects, they eat nectar and pollen. You should plant flowers that provide a variety of nectar and pollen sources throughout the growing season.
Rose Tip #7: Last one! Plant families that will help attract beneficial insects to your rose garden, including:
- Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) -Carrot Family- attracts lady bugs, parasitic wasps, and predatory flies.
- Lamiaceae or Labiatae -Mint family
- Asteraceae -Daisy Family- attracts hoverflies, lacewing, lady bug beetles, minute pirate bugs, and spiders.
We continue our June #ThrowbackThursday theme of mid-century matrimony with a fun project that combines two of our favorite trends from the 1950s: DIY and classic backyard flowers. Melanie Pyle, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist, shows us how to create a do-it-yourself wedding bouquet. We peeked into the special collections of the Archives of American Gardens, finding inspiration in the bright and cheery seed catalogs of the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection. Melanie carefully chose classically beautiful flowers reminiscent of those found growing in grandma’s backyard garden, such as snapdragons and football mums. Our new traveling exhibit Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the do-it-yourself trend, flowers, and outdoor living in the years after World War II. It opens at the Tampa Bay History Center this Saturday, June 20th.
Flowers have played an essential role in weddings throughout history as symbols of love, chastity, hope, and beauty. The practice was not truly institutionalized as a marriage custom until Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Victoria wore a simple headdress of orange blossom, with additional blossoms trimming her dress, which in turn became a favorite flower for Victorian and Edwardian brides. Though she was not the first bride to wear white, her wedding cemented the popular and ubiquitous tradition of wearing of white for brides in the Western world.
Of course, many brides have taken the traditional bouquet and made it their own, with unique twists. The June 22, 1942 cover of Life magazine featured a bride carrying a bouquet composed of ten-cent to five-dollar war stamps, which could be used to buy a twenty-five dollar bond. According the article on “furlough brides” the bouquet was first popularized in the Midwest and became all the rage nationwide—they sold for the cost of stamps plus the time taken to craft the bouquet or bridesmaid corsage. It was just one of the many ways wartime brides made-do and supported the war effort, from dresses with shorter hemlines that used less fabric to hurried weddings between deployments.
Bouvardia, white orchids, and gardenias were popular choices for wedding bouquets in the 1940s and 50s, as well as a simple palette of white and pink. Shirley Temple carried both bouvardia and orchids in her 1945 wedding and Jacqueline Kennedy carried orchids, gardenias, and stephanotis in her 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy. Our bouquet runs with the white and pink palette, but subs out the fancy flowers for the more down-home feel of backyard blooms. Hippie culture loosened up the traditional formal bouquet in the 1960s and 1970s, favoring “common” flowers such as daisies. Today, anything goes, from a farm-fresh locavore bouquet to one made of felt flowers to no bouquet at all.
Flowers: Melanie chose flowers that were commonly grown in backyard gardens in the 1950s and 1960s, taking inspiration from the vintage W. Atlee Burpee & Company seed catalogs in the Archives of American Gardens. Wholesale flower sellers and farmers’ markets are great places to start when sourcing flowers for your bouquet.
Dusty pink stock
White football mums (chrysanthemums)
Pale pink carnations
Small pieces of tulle
- Prepare your flowers by removing the bottom leaves from the stems.
- Wrap flowers with larger blooms and floppier stems (the mums and stock) with floral wire, starting at the top, and hiding the mechanics by wrapping the stems with floral tape. Leave four to five inches of exposed stem at the bottom.
- Trim the stems. Using a pen knife, rest the stem on your index finger with your thumb on top and carefully cut the stem from bottom upwards at angle and away from you. The angle allows the stems to soak up more water. Trim about two inches off the stem.
- Choose two or three favorite flowers to anchor the bouquet.
- Begin to make a bunch around the anchor flowers by adding more flowers and greens, turning your bouquet as you add more flowers or greens. This is an opportunity to play with texture, height, and color based on your flower choice! A looser bouquet will have a more informal feel, and a tighter, rounder bouquet a more classic look.
- Pause for a moment and take a look at your bouquet from all angles. Do you need more flowers? More greenery?
- When you are happy with the size of the bouquet, surround the base of the arrangement with pieces of white tulle and secure with floral tape.
- Starting where the tulle is attached to the stems, wrap the stems with floral wire, leaving about two inches of exposed stem at the bottom. Conceal the mechanics with floral tape.
- Take your satin ribbon and starting at the topmost part of the floral tape, making sure none is showing, tightly wrap the ribbon down the length of the stems. Secure with a pin two inches from bottom, hiding all floral tape. Push the pin towards the stems at a slight angle. It may take a few tries to get it to stick.
- Using a second piece of satin ribbon, tie a bow around the base of the bouquet and attach with a pin.
There you go! A beautiful backyard bouquet, inspired by the gardens of the 1950s. What types of flowers were growing in your backyard in the 1950s? Do you remember the flowers from your wedding bouquet or boutonnière? Did the flowers you chose have a special significance to you?
-Kate Fox, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard curator and Melanie Pyle, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist