An Exploration of the Fringe: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Winter is one of the most prolific bloom times in the Smithsonian Gardens orchid greenhouses and each year I am astounded by the diversity that is on display. I have a predilection for miniature orchids, for bizarre traits and unique stories and the two orchids featured today will not disappoint.

Bulbophyllum saltatorum var. albociliatum is an exquisite species found widely across Central Africa. Its winter-blooming flowers are no bigger than a thumbnail, and like many Bulbophyllums, the lip has been dramatically modified. In this case, the modification takes the form of a bright pink fringe, which acts as a lure for small flies who end up inadvertently pollinating the flower.  This species is also rather unique for a Bulbophyllum because its scent is quite pleasant (at least to my olfaction).

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Fringe is not purely used for deceptive purposes. This characteristic, along with colorless flowers and night fragrance is a pollinator syndrome for Hawk Moths. Various species of Brassavola and Habenaria exhibit a unique variation of this morphological adaptation, and offer nectar rewards to their nocturnal visitors. It is not certain what characteristic of this fringed lip appeals to the Hawk Moth, but the convergence of this trait across unrelated orchid genera implies that it is pollinator specific.

In their infinite diversity, orchids always manage to deconstruct the carefully deduced generalizations scientists make about their biology. The Clowesia below, Clowesia Grace Dunn is a hybrid between Clowesia rosea and Clowesia warzewiczii and as you can see, has an arresting display of fringe on its lip as well.

IMG_7585

These flowers are NOT moth pollinated, rather they are visited by crepuscularly active Euglossine bees that collect their fragrances in the form of oils to woo lady bees. Typically, Euglossine bees are generalists, and will collect fragrances from a number of different species. It has been theorized that the fragrances of Clowesia species change throughout the day, with an “optimal fragrance” either before dawn or just after dusk when their pollinators are most active. This may seem like a wild concept, but many biological functions occur in a cyclical fashion, and solely night fragrant orchids are commonly referenced. It makes sense that the same mechanism would be at work in crepuscularly, diurnally and nocturnally fragrant plants.

Daily fragrance fluctuations are not unique to Clowesia, and have been studied previously in Arachnis, Vanda, Spathoglottis and Oncidium (Goh, 1983), among others. The variation in fragrance could be influenced by changes in acidity due to CO2 production during Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (Goh, 1983) and is decidedly affected by photoperiod, an indication that fragrance is regulated by a circadian rhythm (Altenburger & Matile, 1990).

I never considered the importance of physiological constraints playing such a vital role in the evolution of plant-pollinator relationships, but evidence for this “biological clock” of fragrance emission throughout the plant world is incredibly fascinating. Orchid pollination is a beautifully complex fabric of not only interactions (deceptive or otherwise), but the timing of these interactions. As I am often reminded, NOTHING is coincidence, but the intricacies of evolution often seem astoundingly fortuitous.

 

Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

References:

Altenburger, R., & Matile, P.. (1990). Further observations on rhythmic emission of fragrance in flowers. Planta,180(2), 194–197. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23380097

Goh, C. J.. (1983). Rhythms of Acidity and CO2 Production in Orchid Flowers. The New Phytologist, 93(1), 25–32. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2431891

February 5, 2016 at 12:18 pm Leave a comment

Chasing the Meadow: A Trip through Midwest Gardens

This past October I had the wonderful opportunity to visit public gardens in the Midwest thanks to the Smithsonian Gardens Staff Travel Grant Program.  I planned an amazing chlorophyllic journey from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, hitting as many gardens as possible in 7 days. I think I could churn out a book based on all of the details that I saw, but two places really stood out to me – Lurie Garden and Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Lurie Garden is a 3-acre garden designed by Piet Oudulf and nestled within Millennium Park, a 25-acre public space adjacent to Lake Michigan in Chicago.  It is a magnificent setting literally humming with people enjoying all aspects of the park—from selfies at ‘The Bean’ to wandering the gardens or just hanging out on the lawns, this is a space that is obviously beloved by all. And me? Mesmerized.

Lurie Garden

Looking up the slope in the Lurie Garden to the Chicago skyline.

The garden is divided into a full sun area and a shade area; Oudulf calls them the light and dark planes. I found the light plane captivating from every angle. This completely herbaceous garden is on a gentle slope. When viewed from the bottom of the slope, the naturalistic garden leads the eye up to the reflective skyscrapers creating a stunning juxtaposition. The garden belongs here. It is like a small portion of prairie has been overtaken by the city. The plantings are all relatively low so you can look over the space from every angle.  The plantings are complex with featured plants intermingling as they do in the wild.

During my visit I was able to meet with Lurie Garden Director Scott Stewart and Horticulturist Laura Ekasetya who were very generous with their time and answered my plethora of questions.

The other garden which stood out to me during my trip was the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin which is a shared undertaking between the city of Madison and the non-profit Olbrich Botanical Society. Even before you enter the front door of the visitor center for this 16-acre garden you know it is different. The parking lot and the beds surrounding the visitor center feature drought-tolerant gravel gardens rather than the riot of exuberant color that normally frames entry spaces.

The garden prides itself on being sustainable and earth friendly—something especially evident when you enter the conservatory since it not only highlights awesome plants but also houses canaries, waxbills, and tropical quail. No chemicals could possibly be used in here! I saw quite a few lust-worthy plants impeccably displayed. My nerd senses were piqued!

Olbrich’s outdoor garden is arranged with themed “rooms” radiating off a circular lawn area. In addition to traditional favorites like herb, rose and perennial gardens, Olbrich also features gravel gardens, a prairie drop-seed meadow, and a sedge meadow. Some of these areas are quite small – for example, the sedge meadow is a narrow pathway leading to two chairs. The space is a sweet, intimate nook showing an attractive alternative to the typical American Lawn. The meadow’s simple signage identifies the species used to create the low maintenance lawn and the seating area invites you to sit and absorb the bucolic environment. It really did show that you can live large in a small space and do it beautifully while respecting the environment.

Gravel Garden - Olbrich

One of the cutting-edge gravel gardens at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

The gravel gardens at Olbrich might look like normal perennial gardens, but they are actually some of the most cutting edge of gardens. Olbrich’s Horticulture Director Jeff Epping starts these gardens with an application of 5-6 inches of gravel over the planting soil and then plants drought-tolerant species in the gravel so their roots just touch the soil.  Not only do these gardens require up to 80% less maintenance than a typical perennial garden, they also need less water and weeding since any weed seeds normally dry out in this environment before successfully establishing. Maintenance involves an annual cutback and removal of all material to keep the soils lean.  This may prove to be a great way to expand the hardiness of many more drought-tolerant things here in the D.C. area since we often lose plants due to winter wet rather than cold temperatures. The process really sparked my curiosity and interest.

Overall, what are the big impressions I came away with?

  • Integrate more grasses! Molinia, Sesleria, Bouteloua and Sporobolis can add movement, texture, and depth without being overpowering.
  • Tropical plantings are fun to play with, but–for me–well designed ‘naturalistic’ plantings trigger a more emotional reaction.
  • A garden does not need to be large or complex to be moving and contemplative.

– Janet Draper, Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens

January 22, 2016 at 10:16 am Leave a comment

On Display: Highlights from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

One of the best things about working for a botanical garden like Smithsonian Gardens is that part of our mission is to produce splendiferous specimen plants. What makes it even better is that we often get to exhibit these specimens at the peak of their glory!

Alex and Melanie of our interiorscaping staff make sure that many of these extraordinary orchids are on display for the public to see in Smithsonian Gardens’ three display cases at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH). This week is no exception. A superbly bloomed Cattleya alliance hybrid, Brassocatanthe Julie Morrison (Brassanthe Maikai X Brassocattleya Morning Glory), is almost bursting out of one of the cases!

NMAH-brassocatanthe

Brassocatanthe Julie Morrison (Brassanthe Maikai X Brassocattleya Morning Glory), Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

This hybrid is a combination of three species from three different genera; the hearty, purple Guarianthe bowringiana which contributes a large flower count and lovely amethyst color; the Cattleya purpurata from Brazil which contributes a large flower size and tremendous vigor to the hybrid; and the fragrant, white Brassavola nodosa.

Top (L to R): Guarianthe bowringiana and Cattleya purpurata, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Bottom: Brassavola nodosa, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Top (L to R): Guarianthe bowringiana and Cattleya purpurata, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Bottom: Brassavola nodosa, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Brassavola nodosa may be the least colorful of the hybrid’s three parents, but it displays a tremendous variability. Small, barely-discernable spots deep in this orchid’s lip turn into brilliant, spotted patterns when it is used to create a hybrid with a more colorful species, as in the case of this Brassocatanthe. The flower form of the Brassavola also dominates in this type of breeding. No matter what it is crossed with, the resulting hybrids almost always have narrow segments, spots, and a flaring lip.

Brassavola hybrids are always vigorous and charming with wonderful color and are therefore highly recommended for use in tropical gardens and in home orchid growing. Smithsonian Gardens has several clones of Brassavola hybrids and their species parents in its orchid collection; many of them are displayed at NMAH as they bloom. You can also see these and other beauties from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection starting February 27, 2016 at this year’s Orchids in Focus exhibition hosted in partnership with the United States Botanic Garden. Stop by and see these glorious orchids if you’re in Washington, D.C.!

– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist

January 15, 2016 at 9:09 am Leave a comment

An Iconic Avian: the Pink Flamingo

Pink Flamingo at the Smithsonian

Our pink flamingo lawn ornament (c. 1990s) decided to take a little vacation from storage and visit our gardens at the Smithsonian.

We had a holiday visitor to Smithsonian Gardens – no, not the bearded one in a red suit, but a small hot-pink friend that decided to escape from our storage facilities in Maryland to see the sights in Washington, D.C. The halls have been decked and yards across the country decorated in their holiday finest. As a new year begins, and lights are put away with hopes they will not tangle between now and next December, we have a different kind of ornament on our minds—the lawn ornament. A very American invention which holds a special place in our hearts, right between their European cousin the garden gnome and classier sibling the armillary sphere, the pink flamingo is an icon of mid-20th century kitsch and consumerism.

In the landscape architecture world of the 1950s, designers sought minimal ornament and flowers, instead preferring expanses of grass, textured ground covers, and green, green, green. Poured concrete, fieldstone, hardscape, and geometric swimming pools provided a contrast to the verdant (and chemically-enhanced) lawns. However, this was also the decade of plastic everything as new materials and products flooded the market after World War II. Hula hoops, vinyl covers for lounge chairs, and yes, plastic lawn ornaments, were all within reach for the middle-class consumer eager to make their backyard a paradise for outdoor family living. Surprisingly, the pink flamingo lawn ornament was not invented in Florida, but by sculptor and designer Don Featherstone for the Massachusetts-based Union Products in 1957. Read more about the history of the pink flamingo here and here.

Decorated pink flamingoes at Louisiana's Old State Capitol

Pink flamingo lawn ornaments creatively decorated by visitors to Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard at the Louisiana Old State Capitol. A+ for effort and camp!

Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard is a collaboration between the Archives of American Gardens and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Services. The exhibit explores the rise of outdoor living and modern garden design in 1950s-1960s United States. In December, the exhibit wrapped up a run at the Louisiana Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge. The museum curators asked visitors to decorate pink flamingoes to display throughout the Old Capitol during the length of the exhibit, and boy did adoring fans of the fuchsia fowl deliver in creativity. Look for the exhibit at two locations in Illinois, the Elmhurst Historical Museum and the Glen Ellyn Public Library, beginning in March 2016.

Patios & Pools exhibit at Louisiana Old State Capitol

Curators at the Old State Capitol added objects from the museum and local collections to supplement the traveling exhibit panels from the Smithsonian. From bathing suits and sundresses to party decorations and barbecue tools, these artifacts colorfully illustrate what life was like in the American suburbs in the decades after World War II.

Pink flamingo lawn ornament at Oldgate garden

Oldgate garden in Farmington, Connecticut. Nora O. Howard, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Garden Club of America Collection.

Did you have pink flamingoes decorating your yard as a kid, or do you have them now? We’d love for you to add your story or a neighbor’s story to our digital garden history archive, Community of Gardens. Anyone can add a story about gardens and gardening in America. Help us preserve our garden heritage, especially the history in our own back (and front) yards, lawn ornaments and all.

-Kate Fox, curator, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard

January 8, 2016 at 8:00 am 7 comments

Community of Gardens: History in our Gardens

Collage of Community of Gardens stories

Stories from Community of Gardens, clockwise from top left: Urban Garden with HoneybeesThe Gardens at Chewonki, Camy & Larry’s Backyard Wedding, and The O’Donnell Garden.

Note: the January 23rd program at Purcellville Library has been canceled due to inclement weather. See you on February 6th!

As you kick back with your seed catalogs and a mug of hot tea this winter, dreaming of summer blooms and bounty, take a moment to think about the important role gardens play in our lives. Gardens are a place to relax, enjoy nature, exercise, express our artistic sides, and spend time with family and friends. Whether it’s roses, heirloom string beans, or perennials you’re growing, gardens tell us something about ourselves and our personal history. If you’re itching to get outside but the ground is frozen solid, consider taking a moment during the down season to share your garden story with our digital archive, Community of Gardens. It could be an interview with a neighbor who gardens, the memory of your grandfather’s peonies, the history behind the apples grown on a family orchard, or the retreat in your own backyard.

Local gardeners, join us in preserving our garden history for future generations! Smithsonian Gardens and the Purcellville Library are teaming up for the first-ever Community of Gardens story drive. Join us for two events at the Purcellville Library this winter:

Community of Gardens logo

Community of Gardens: History in our Gardens

  • Saturday, January 23, 2 p.m. Cynthia Brown, Smithsonian Gardens education manager,  will give an overview of the Community of Gardens program and how gardeners can help the Smithsonian preserve everyday garden history at this kick-off event.

Community of Gardens: Harvest

  • Saturday, February 6, 2 p.m. Bring your photos and memories of gardens, family farms, and orchards. In collaboration with the library we will be scanning photos and saving stories to capture personal stories of gardens and their importance in American life.

Both of these free events take place at the Purcellville Library: 220 East Main Street, Purcellville, Virginia, 20132.

Not able to make it? You can participate by submitting your garden story (or your neighbor’s, your mother’s, or your grandfather’s) online at communityofgardens.si.edu.

January 5, 2016 at 8:00 am 8 comments

On Display: Highlights from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

In keeping with my greatest goal in life of turning everyone into an orchid lover (I believe we would achieve world peace if that actually happened), I am starting a series of blog posts about the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. I’m excited to share images and stories about our incredible orchid collection with you.

Last week, I convinced Alex, one of Smithsonian Gardens’ interiorscapers, to exhibit some really special orchids in display cases at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. If you are in Washington, D.C., I hope you’ll visit the cases on the first level of the museum near the Warner Bros. Theater before the display is changed the week of December 21st. If you’re too far away, I hope you’ll enjoy the images of these beauties orchids included here.

Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium

Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium on display at the National Museum of American History.

Angraecum sesquipedale may very well be the most famous of all orchids. This beauty is written up in every botany textbook due to its compelling pollination story. A native of Madagascar, this outstanding species bears truly lovely, white, star-shaped blooms that emit a delicious fragrance to attract its moth pollinator on moonlit nights. Not just any moth, but the equally famous Xanthopan morganii praedicta, so named because its existence was predicted by Charles Darwin before it was known to science. Darwin theorized upon seeing the flowers’ prodigious 12-inch long nectar spurs that a moth with an equally long proboscis had to exist in order for the plant to be pollinated. It will always be one of my favorite orchids because, well, it’s just plain cool! The variety on display, Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium,  is a bit more succulent and smaller in stature than the typical form, but it is easier to grow and quite floriferous.

Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium and a hawk moth

L to R: Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection; Illustration of a hawk moth visiting an Angraecum sesquipedale by Emily Damstra for the Smithsonian Institution; a Xanthopan morganii praedicta (hawk moth) with extended proboscis © kqedquest

A couple of well-bloomed plants from a sister genus, Jumellea, grace the display case opposite the Angraecums. Even though their flowers are smaller, they are plentiful and have an outstanding fragrance. Jumellea flowers are similar in all of their species, even though the plants can vary wildly. They, like the Angraecums, exhibit a moth pollination syndrome, bearing flowers of the purest white color with strong nocturnal fragrance and nectar spurs. This time the spurs are much shorter, about an inch or so in length, indicating a very different moth species as its pollination partner. Jumelleas are also used to make a kind of aromatic tea, known as Faham tea, which was once very popular in Europe.

Jumelleas

Jumelleas from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection on display at the National Museum of American History

These are remarkable orchids that Smithsonian Gardens proudly displays to encourage and educate Smithsonian visitors. We hope you will visit the National Museum of American History and see these botanical marvels for yourself!

– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist

December 18, 2015 at 10:00 am 2 comments

Beguiling Bulbophyllums: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Bulbophyllum is one of the largest orchid genera with around 2,000 species. This genera’s name refers to the leaf-bearing pseudobulbs that are characteristic of plants in this group. An encounter with a Bulbophyllum for the first time can be a rather unexpected olfactory experience, potentially unpleasant, but ultimately a fascinating example of brood site deception between plants and their pollinators.

Bulbophyllum echinolabium

One of the best examples of the odoriferous Bulbophyllum is Bulbophyllum echinolabium is a beautiful, large-flowered specimen with a putrid and pervasive stink. While the smell makes me want to get away fast rather than stick around to take more photographs, the plant’s fly pollinators are wooed closer by the ripe suggestion of rotting meat.  Obviously they are deceived (beguiled, you could say) into pollinating the flower for no reward, and they leave without laying their eggs.

Not all Bulbophyllums exude such a foul odor. Many have a more floral or fruity scent to attract fruit fly pollinators. Others, like Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis ‘Joe Palermo’ have no detectable smell but are equally compelling with impressive rachises of flowers that curve towards the sky like cobras rising from the ground.

Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis 'Joe Palermo'

Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis ‘Joe Palermo’

Another beautiful specimen in bloom is the otherworldly Bulbophyllum medusa, named after Medusa the Gorgon. The flowers’ sepals have evolved dramatically over time to mimic fungal mycelia which attract fungus gnat pollinators.

Bulbophyllum medusae

Bulbophyllum medusae

It is exceedingly difficult to choose just three Bulbophyllums to feature since there is such a diversity of form and color in this genus. We recently accessioned a large number of Bulbophyllum species into our collection and below are two others I couldn’t leave off this post. Bulbophyllum guttulatum, from section Cirrhopetalum, displays an arc of speckled flowers with bright purple lips. The much larger, green and brown mottled specimen is one of our current mysteries. It could be one of three similar species, B. arfakianum, B. frittilariflorum or B. burfordiense. Each species exhibits wide variation in phenotype, therefore an exact species determination must be made by comparing specific parts of the flower anatomy.

Bulbophyllum guttulatum

Bulbophyllum guttulatum

Bulbophyllum sp.

Bulbophyllum sp.

There is always something blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Stay connected with us to see more plants from the collection!

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

November 20, 2015 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

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