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

How the Smithsonian Gardens Tree Collection Benefits the Environment and Our Well-Being

The Smithsonian Gardens Tree Collection currently consists of over 1,900 trees spread across the Smithsonian’s downtown Washington, D.C. campus as well as at the Institution’s support facilities in Maryland.  These trees add great aesthetic value to the grounds, and complement the flowers, shrubs, and other plantings in the gardens here.  However, and perhaps more importantly, these trees offer a myriad of environmental and health benefits.


Trees along Constitution Avenue at the National Museum of Natural History create a cool, green tunnel for pedestrians. Photo by Greg Huse.

During the summer of 2015, information on all of the collection trees was run through i-Tree, a software program developed by the U.S. Forest Service to calculate the benefits of trees.  The results were eye-opening, and it was encouraging to see how much our trees benefit our campus, city, and planet.

Poor air quality, especially in urban areas, can lead to decreased human health, poor visibility, and damage to plants.  Trees in urban forests help improve air quality by capturing air pollutants, reducing air temperatures, and decreasing energy consumption in buildings which reduces overall air pollutant amounts by lowering demand on power plants.  The SG Tree Collection was calculated to remove 2,700 pounds of air pollutants (carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter) annually with an associated monetary value of $31,185.  This is the equivalent of taking ten cars off the road for a year!

Trees leafing out in spring at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Eric Long.

Trees leafing out in spring at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Eric Long.

One of the most important environmental challenges we currently face is global climate change.  Trees can help mitigate this problem by capturing atmospheric carbon and storing, or sequestering, it for many years.  As trees grow, they continually store carbon in the new wood they produce.  The trees in the SG Tree Collection store an estimated 37,877 pounds of carbon annually.  The large majestic oaks, elms, and other trees found at the National Museum of American History sequester twice as much carbon as the trees found in any other Smithsonian garden or landscape.

Surface runoff of stormwater is a cause for concern in urban areas because it can contribute to pollution in streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and oceans.  Precipitation that reaches the ground and does not infiltrate the soil becomes surface runoff, which carries pollutants into waterways.  Urban trees reduce this runoff by intercepting the water in the tree canopy and allowing it to evaporate over time.  Additionally, water that lands on trees may run along the branches and down the trunks which helps it reach the ground more slowly and infiltrate the soil.  Smithsonian trees intercept 383,705 gallons of rainfall annually, thereby preventing it from becoming surface runoff.


In addition to these environmental benefits, many recent studies show how trees, especially in urban areas, contribute to better health for people.  Areas that have many trees can lower blood pressure, have a calming effect on teens and adults with ADHD, improve breathing for those with asthma and other lung conditions, decrease healing times for sickness and injury, contribute to overall emotional and psychological health, and even improve birthweights of newborns!


An oak transformed by autumn color at the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Greg Huse.

We appreciate trees for their beauty and grandeur, especially at this time of year when they come ablaze with autumn colors.  Beyond appreciating their beauty, it’s important to remember all of the environmental and health benefits they provide as well.  Planting and properly maintaining trees are important steps to take to continue to improve the world in which we live.  We here at Smithsonian Gardens are proud to do our part in contributing to that goal.

Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist and Tree Collection Manager

November 13, 2015 at 9:45 am 1 comment

A Trip to the “Holy Grail” of Irrigation Systems

When I was awarded a Smithsonian Gardens travel grant I knew that I wanted to make the most of it by going to Orlando, Florida to visit the “holy grail” of centrally-controlled irrigation systems like the one here at the Smithsonian. So, in late September I spent time in the Orlando area visiting Walt Disney World, John Deere Green Tech, an area of Orlando named Lake Nona, Universal Orlando, and a green industry trade show called “The Landscape Show.”

The “holy grail” that I referred to is the Maxicom irrigation system at Walt Disney World. It is the largest system of its type here in the United States and also the oldest. Many of the features of this system came about because of requirements that Disney had over the years. It was quite interesting to see Disney from behind the scenes and to get access to the inner workings of their massive system. I was surprised to discover that the Smithsonian’s irrigation system is actually a bit more modern than theirs and that we are really state-of-the-art when it comes to how our system communicates. I found it very reassuring that the last two and a half years of hard work (plus another two and a half years by my predecessors) has done wonders to rehabilitate our aging system.

Maxicom irrigation controller

One of 750 Maxicom irrigation controllers in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Smithsonian Gardens uses about 20 similar controllers to irrigate the Smithsonian Institution’s gardens and grounds.

Point of connection in the Disney irrigation system

One of the irrigation system points of connection in the Maxicom irrigation system at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The Maxicom system was invented by Rain Bird in the early 1980s.

On this trip I was able to see irrigation systems that are just like ours as well as systems that are quite different. I often tell people that irrigation is like a big erector set. You just need to know what pieces to put in what order. The big difference between our system and most others is that ours is a centrally controlled “smart” system. Without using too many long and boring irrigation terms, that basically means that our irrigation system tells itself when and how long to run by using data from an on-site weather station and pre-programmed schedules. Click here for more on how the Smithsonian Gardens’ irrigation system and weather station work.


Smithsonian Gardens’ on-site weather monitoring station in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. Data collected at this station helps regulate irrigation here at the Smithsonian.

For me this trip was truly valuable in many ways. I was able to gauge the state of the Smithsonian’s irrigation system, see some of its competitors in action, and–most importantly–meet my counterparts in the Orlando area as well as a few of the real innovators who developed and implemented the irrigation system that we use here at the Smithsonian. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with the folks that I met to keep our system moving in the right direction.

-Mike Guetig, Irrigation Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens

November 4, 2015 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment

Little Seeds, Big Stories.

Community of Gardens logo

Community of Gardens is a digital archive of stories about gardens and gardening in the U.S.—anyone can add their story to this Smithsonian collection!

Archives can be intimidating. The first time I truly spent any time with an archive was graduate school, researching Gilded Age costume balls in New York City as part of an internship. Flipping through the folders of hundred-year-old photographs inspired both a sense of awe and terror. I was so conscientious, never laying a finger on a photograph, turning the photos just the way I had been told to by the nice (but firm) archivist, and making sure not one thing was out of place when I returned the boxes. Having the opportunity to be so close to history, and the physical trail of documents, photographs, and objects that comes along with it, was both thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time.

It can be hard to see how archives connect to our everyday lives, or even to see how our very own stories and lives could be important enough to be included in a museum. The Smithsonian Institution is home to amazing and Important (with a capital “I”) treasures, such as a letter from Galileo and Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. But also hidden in these archives and collections vaults are small gems, such as a promotional flower seed box from the mid 1800s to family photo albums.

Our family histories—and our gardens—can seem like just the tiniest, most ephemeral seeds in the vast forest of history, but our memories of “everyday” history have the power tell big stories. A story of grandma’s Victory Garden during World War II and her recipe for sweet canned peaches is also a tale of perseverance and making-do during a time of adversity. Memories of backyard barbecues and Tiki parties on the patio in the 1950s speak of a time of newfound prosperity for the middle class in the postwar years. Your story of the tiny herb garden and cucumbers growing on the balcony of your city apartment? Someday, it could show future historians how individuals contributed to the greening of America’s cities in the early 21st century.

October is American Archives Month, and the theme for 2015 is the “Power of Collaboration.” Our Community of Gardens digital archive depends wholly on collaboration to exist—we are collecting your stories and memories about gardens and gardening! Anyone can submit a memory, story, photograph, or video about a garden in America. You can help us preserve garden history and become a part of the Smithsonian by sharing your story with us on the website.

Collage of Family Stories on Community of Gardens

Garden—and family—history comes alive on Community of Gardens.

Here are a few of our favorite family stories submitted by the public from the Community of Gardens digital archive. From left to right:

  1. Four Generations of Gardeners. This story spans three centuries, and many bountiful crops of ripe tomatoes:
  2. Grandmother’s Garden. A granddaughter shares her memories of her grandmother’s love of roses and gardening:
  3. Camy and Larry’s Backyard Wedding. Recollections of a 1970’s hippie backyard wedding in a woodland setting, with Super 8mm footage. Check out those vintage dresses!

What is your family’s garden story? Get inspired by Archives Month and interview a family member about their garden memories or share your own. It’s a great excuse to dig into those family photos and videos and start asking questions! Share your story this month, or any month of the year.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens Educator

October 22, 2015 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Plants in the Ripley Center: Design for Small Spaces

Next time you visit the Smithsonian museums, take some time to venture into the Ripley Center concourse underneath the Enid A. Haupt Garden. You’ll find the planters lining the walkway there feature a temporary exhibit showcasing gardening styles for small spaces. Five planters host unique interior and exterior vignettes that illustrate a variety of small gardening options. They require little space and are low-maintenance, but add BIG style to any garden.

In selecting a new theme for the plantings in the Ripley Center, I chose to highlight gardening styles that fit urban settings – traditionally smaller spaces for plants – that can be adapted to accentuate any size area. I worked closely with Smithsonian Gardens’ (SG) team of education specialists and collection curators to design this exhibit which features pieces from SG’s historic Garden Furnishings Collection.

Fairy garden

Fairy garden

Whimsical, magical, fantastic – these are words I think of to describe a fairy garden. My daughter is very much into fairies, princesses, and gnomes – all that wonderful stuff of the Disney variety. For her, this form of gardening in miniature that incorporates fairies and other fantasy creatures IS magic. To me, these gardens have a tale to tell through their use of characters and scenery and spark the imagination of young and old.

Assorted terrariums


My family shares a 1950’s ranch-style house. While there isn’t a lot of room for interior plants, we’re able to fit in some of the styles on display in the modest space. Terrariums are what we use the most at home–on the dining-room table, in the bathroom and bedrooms. Since they can be almost any size, the possibilities are almost endless. A small terrarium can really brighten up a space and add a natural touch, as it has in our 1950’s galley kitchen!


Green wall

My colleague Janet Draper wrote an interesting post about her planting of a green, or living, wall in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. The green wall installed in the Ripley Center is much smaller and less tricky to cultivate than the lovely and large exterior wall that Janet maintains. Green walls have become popular in offices and homes as a way to liven up a wall and provide possible health benefits; they clean the air and increase positive moods.



A stumpery is a garden feature I wish I had known about every time a tree fell in my nestled-in-the-woods childhood home. Utilizing the remains of a tree in inventive ways would have saved my father a lot of chainsaw blades. Through the creative arrangement of stumps and the incorporation of ferns and other shade-loving plants, old stumps can themselves become a focal point within a garden. This style was extremely popular during the Victorian era (1837-1901) and has experienced a resurgence recently.

Dish garden of succulents

Dish garden of succulents

Dish gardening enables a gardener to create an environment that might otherwise be difficult to sustain. For instance, in the Washington, D.C. area desert plants are not able thrive during our cold and sometimes snowy winters. The desert dish garden in our home has successfully survived multiple harsh winters. Watering and sunlight needs vary depending on the plants one chooses to use in a dish garden, but it’s a great way to grow plants you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

I’ll be sharing some behind-the-scenes and DIY tips in future blogs. Be sure to catch these plant vignettes in the Ripley Center before exhibit closes on January 31, 2016. I and everyone at Smithsonian Gardens hope you enjoy the exhibit and take away some ideas you might be able to use in your own indoor or outdoor garden.

– Alexandra Thompson, Horticulturist, Interior Plants, Smithsonian Gardens

September 18, 2015 at 9:25 am Leave a comment

The Botany of Survival – Plants that Saved Arctic Expeditions

The heyday of arctic exploration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries represents a significant period in our national history and helped to shape our identity as Americans. While a series of expeditions marked a time of scientific advancement, a deep sense of international competition also fueled the age. Many attempts to push further north resulted in shipwreck and disaster. However, many more of these missions would have failed if it were not for a handful of plants that played an important role in saving them.

Saskatoon berries

Saskatoon berries. Lynette Schimming, photographer.


The Polaris Expedition of 1871 faced ruin after adverse weather conditions and the sudden death of the captain, Charles Francis Hall, left nineteen crew members stranded on a drifting ice floe. Fortunately for the sailors, their late captain’s foresight gave them a fighting chance. For six months they floated through the Arctic, surviving on a ration of biscuits, chocolate, and pemmican—a mixture of dried meat, animal fat, and berries. Pemmican was a traditional American Indian food renowned for its nutritional content and ability to last without refrigeration. The dish was high in protein, and its berries (usually Saskatoon Serviceberry Amelanchier alnifolia or chokecherries Prunus virginiana) provided necessary vitamins and flavor. Captain Hall, a seasoned explorer, prudently equipped each of his expeditions with a large stock of pemmican. Even though Hall did not survive the journey (and was possibly murdered by his own crew), his pemmican sustained the men of Polaris until they were rescued.

Pemmican is still used today! Its high-energy value has made it a go-to food for backpackers, hikers, and survivalists. Do you have a pemmican recipe to share?

Pemmican container

This pemmican container was discarded by the Lost Franklin Expedition of 1845 and recovered by the Polaris Expedition decades later. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Brett McNish, photographer.

Moss from Bennett Island, Russia

Moss specimen obtained from Bennett Island, Russia, by the crew of the Jeanette Expedition. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Brett McNish, photographer.


The 1881 Lady Franklin Bay Expedition was led by Adolphus Greely—a man with no arctic experience. After multiple failed resupply missions, Greely and his crew waited three years for rescue as their food stores dwindled. The crew survived on foraged material, including moss (Polytrichum sp.) and lichens—some of the only things able to grow in the severe environment in which they were stranded. Though starvation seemed certain, this plant enabled Greely and five of his crew to return home. Greely and his men were not the only explorers to dine on moss. The moss specimen in the National Museum of American History collection was obtained from Bennett Island, Russia by the crew of the doomed Jeanette Expedition during their attempt to reach the North Pole from the Bering Sea.

SS Proteus

SS Proteus of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Brainard Collection of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, 1881-1884. College Park, Maryland: National Archives.


In 1908, seasoned explorer Robert E. Peary began his final expedition to the Arctic. Peary’s lifelong obsession paid off, and he became the first man to reach the North Pole. Though recent historians believe he fell a few miles short of the actual pole, Peary’s feat marked a great success for America during the height of arctic exploration. Peary’s team required highly nutritional food that could also remain fresh for months on end. Among the supplies, Peary brought 608 pounds of dried plums, better known as prunes (Prunus domestica). Prunes provided an excellent source of fiber for the crew, ran little risk of spoiling, and added a sweet relief to a monotonous diet of meats and fats. Peary and his men returned from the expedition the following year, successful in their goal.


Robert Peary. 1908-1909. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.93.353.

Crate for transporting prunes

Prune crate similar to the ones used by Peary on his exhibition. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, 1979.0441.336.

– Brett McNish, Supervisory Horticulturist and Sara Kuhn, Smithsonian Gardens Intern

September 10, 2015 at 3:13 pm Leave a comment

Rare and Beautiful Orchids (and a Horticulturist) Find Home at Smithsonian Gardens

Imagine opening an innocuous cardboard box and finding this inside!

Paphiopedilum Chiu Hua Dancer

Paphiopedilum Chiu Hua Dancer

I was fortunate to have this pleasure on one of my first days on the job as a horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens. Already amazed (and slightly overwhelmed) by the diversity of orchids in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, my first week on the job included helping my colleagues unpack a tractor trailer full of boxes containing a major donation of orchids.

Anne, a Smithsonian Gardens volunteer, assists Emily and the other greenhouse staff unpack boxes of donated orchids.

Anne, a Smithsonian Gardens volunteer, assists Emily and the other greenhouse staff unpack boxes of donated orchids.

Hundreds of specimens were added to the orchid collection at the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility in Suitland, MD. The plants were part of an extensive collection owned by the late Denis Roessiger of Penobscot, ME, that have been generously donated by his wife, Lucybelle.

Horticulturists from the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses journeyed to Maine to select and carefully pack up the orchids, which then travelled overnight by truck to the Suitland greenhouse facility. There, greenhouse staff and volunteers eagerly unloaded and unpacked the vast array of plants. “This donation is exceptional in that 99% of the orchids are species orchids or rare hybrids,” commented Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Specialist, Tom Mirenda.  The donation is a major addition to the Smithsonian Gardens’ collection, adding entirely new genera to it and increasing the species abundance and overall diversity.

I asked Tom Mirenda to give me a walk-through of the highlights of the donation. Here are his top picks:

(L to R) Bulbophyllum claptennse and Bulbophyllum cocoinum

(L to R) Bulbophyllum claptennse and Bulbophyllum cocoinum

Over 200 new Bulbophyllum specimens now complement the already extensive collection of this genus maintained by Smithsonian Gardens. Bulbophyllum is one of the largest and most ancient genus of orchids; found in tropical forests around the world, they are often odd-looking plants with peculiar, sometimes foul, fragrances.  “One of my favorites currently in bloom is Bulbophyllum cocoinum, which has a coconut fragrance,” says Mirenda.  The donation also included fifteen species of Trichoceros, a new genus for the collection. Trichoceros are epiphytic and terrestrial orchids native to the Andean Mountain range in South America.

(L to R) Lycaste deppei Superb and Phrgmipedium Fritz Schomberg

(L to R) Lycaste deppei Superb and Phrgmipedium Fritz Schomberg

The donation tripled Smithsonian Gardens’ collection of hard to find Maxillaria orchids, and added 50 to 70 species of Restrepia and several large specimen Coelogyne and Dendrochilum. Also new to the collection are several Lycaste and Dracula species.  Rare color forms of Laelia and Cattleya now grace the collection. Orchid enthusiasts will swoon at the large addition of South American Slipper Orchids (Phragmipedium), particularly the controversial Phragmipedium kovachii—the orchid at the heart of the book, Scent of a Scandal.

(L to R) Vanda Hiyasmin 'Korat' and Vanda Pachara Delight

(L to R) Vanda Hiyasmin ‘Korat’ and Vanda Pachara Delight “Isabella’

Large, brilliant, purple flowers of an eight-foot Vanda were one of the showiest surprises during unpacking. One of the Smithsonian greenhouses has been transformed with the addition of roughly 40 Vandas now hanging from the ceiling and suspended racks.

Vandas hanging in one of Smithsonian Gardens' orchid greenhouses.

Vandas hanging in one of Smithsonian Gardens’ orchid greenhouses.

With the acquisition of these plants, our orchid collection now has well over 10,000 specimens. “By continually building our collection in this way, we have made the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection a true scientific resource,” says Mirenda.

– Emily Cook, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens

September 4, 2015 at 10:00 am 2 comments

Older Posts

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 197 other followers

Visit our Website!

Recent Posts

November 2015
« Oct    


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 197 other followers

%d bloggers like this: