On Display: Spectacular Spider Orchids

The Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection contains an amazing assortment of species and hybrids. I come to work each day with great anticipation of what new marvel has unfurled overnight. I am never disappointed. Our interiorscape staff selects the most stunning plants for our orchid display cases outside the Warner Bros. Theater on the first floor of the National Museum of American History (NMAH). This week’s display features a group of orchids from one of my favorite genera, the fascinating Brassia.

Brassia Rex ‘Sakata’

Brassia Rex ‘Sakata’ from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection on display at the National Museum of American History.

Better known as spider orchids, Brassias are beloved for their long, narrow, ribbony sepals and petals. One of the orchids currently on display is Brassia Rex, a hybrid of Brassia verrucosa X Brassia giroudiana, which is known to have greater vigor and larger flowers than either parent. Created in the 1960s by the venerable orchid breeder Goodale Moir, this exceptional hybrid is a wonderful addition to every collection that has space for it. Beware, however, as it can grow into a monstrously large plant.

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Brassia Rex, 2009-1460A, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection.

It has long been believed that Brassias evolved flowers which—through a strategy known as brood site deception—mimic the appearance of spiders in order to attract female parasitic wasps of the genera Pepsis and Campsomeris that target spiders as hosts on which to lay their eggs. This ‘imitation’ strategy is evident in many types of orchids that use flower smell, color, and texture to appear to be suitable places for pollinators to deposit their progeny. Ecologists in Central America, however, have recently noted that while parasitic wasps do indeed visit Brassias and pollinate them, they do not appear to lay eggs on these orchids. As a result, this finding disproves brood site deception as the reason for Brassias’ spider-like appearance. While the true reason for the spider orchid’s form remains unknown, discussion at a recent orchid conference brought up the possibility that these wasps simply like the look of these flowers.

This raises a fascinating question I’ve been mulling over recently: Is it possible that there is an aesthetic component to orchid evolution? Charles Darwin thought this to be the case and pointed to the sexual selection of mates in various animal species as evidence. Perhaps pollinators also select showy flowers such as Brassias for their ‘attractiveness.’ This question has yet to be answered and is just one of the many reasons I find the mysterious field of orchid ecology so fascinating.

-Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist

May 13, 2016 at 8:50 am Leave a comment

Let’s Talk Gardens!

Good gardeners aren’t born – they’re cultivated! Next week our horticulture staff kicks off a series of free lunchtime talks and demonstrations on gardening basics designed to help turn your thumb green. Join us Thursdays this summer from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. on the East Walk of the Enid A. Haupt Garden to explore home gardening topics, ask questions, and grow your gardening skills.

Let's talk gardens series logo with time and location

May 12, 2016 – Spring and Summer Tree Care Tips

Keeping a tree looking great in bud, blossom, and leaf can be a challenge. Join us for tips on how to care for your trees during the spring and summer seasons.

May 19, 2016 – Starting Veggies, Herbs and Flowers from Seed

Growing gardens from seeds increases variety choices and helps your budget. We’ll show you how to start plants from seed, save money, and still have a bountiful, beautiful garden.

May 26, 2016 – Tools of the Trade

Spring is here!  You’re ready to garden, but are your tools? Join us to learn about the must-have tools for every gardener and how to care for them.

June 2, 2016 – Growing, Drying and Freezing Herbs

Herbs, spices, and everything nice! We’ll delve into how to grow and keep a few favorite culinary herbs. Leave inspired to create an herb garden in your yard or windowsill.

June 9, 2016 – Small Space Food Gardens

If you’re eager to add some flavor to your meals but short on space we’re here to help. We’ll share strategies for creating a productive food garden even when space is at a premium.

June 16, 2016 – Pollinator Gardens

One in three bites of food you eat depends on pollinators. From butterflies and bees to flies and beetles there are many different types. Discover the unique relationship between pollinators and flowers and learn tips on creating beautiful pollinator-friendly gardens.

June 23, 2016 – Let’s Talk Hops

Hop into home brewing with our horticulturists. We’ll cover how to grow hops at home and take them from bud to beer in this introductory session.

June 30, 2016 – Top Native Plants for the Home Landscape

Nothing beats a native! Discover 15 native plants perfect for home landscapes. From perennials to shrubs and trees, native plants are a great way to beautify a garden and support healthy ecosystems at the same time.

July 7, 2016 – Getting Your Orchid to Re-Bloom

If you love orchids but have trouble getting them to bloom again, make room in your schedule for this session. We’ll share the secrets to mastering the art of beautiful blooms year after year.

July 14, 2016 – Home Irrigation

A home irrigation system can help save water and money while keeping your plants and grass looking great. Our irrigation specialist shares different approaches to planning, installing, maintaining and troubleshooting a system suited for your needs.

July 21, 2016 – Composting Basics

Curious about how you can turn garbage into gardens? From food waste and lawn clippings to worm work and soil amendments, we’ll get down and dirty with composting basics.

July 28, 2016 – All Things Lavender

The scent of lavender has been cherished for centuries. Come learn all about the Mediterranean plant that inspired a namesake color and leave with your own lavender sachet.

August 4, 2016 – Orchid Repotting

To repot or not? Learn what potting materials and techniques you can use to ensure your orchids have a comfortable home so they’ll reward you with beautiful blooms.

August 11, 2016 – House Plants 101

We’re bringing it back to basics with this session for hopeful house plant gardeners. Take away tips on watering, light, soil, and container selection that will help get you get growing indoors.

August 18, 2016 – Floral Design: Building a Winning Arrangement

Prepare to wow your friends with your next floral arraignment. Our speakers will highlight the elements of a winning display. This session will meet on the East Walk of the Enid A. Haupt Garden and then walk over to the nearby Sackler Gallery to see a breathtaking example.

August 25, 2016 – Rose Care

Join us for tips on rose care appropriate for budding and seasoned rose enthusiasts alike. Our rose expert will also talk about how to choose companion plantings for your rose garden.

September 1, 2016 – Turf Renovation

The grass doesn’t always have to look greener on the other side of the fence. Join us to learn what you can do this fall to get your lawn into shape.

September 8, 2016 – Beneficial Insects in the Garden

Beneficial insects can help support garden health in many ways. Curious to know who you should host in your garden and how they can help? Join us for bug basics.

September 15, 2016 – Fall Soil Preparation for a Fertile Spring

Does your soil need a boost? Fall and winter are the perfect time to promote fertile soil. Learn about the importance of soil testing and strategies for creating healthier garden soil organically.

September 22, 2016 – Rain Gardens

Beautiful landscapes can be good at fighting pollution and solving drainage issues too! Find out how installing an attractive rain garden can help absorb over 10 times more stormwater than the average lawn and filter pollutants at the same time.

September 29, 2016 – Fall Tree Care Tips

Trees need TLC too! Learn how to prepare your trees for the coming winter months. We’ll cover pruning, mulching, watering, and more.

 

 

May 6, 2016 at 10:31 am Leave a comment

Celebrating Trees: Inspiring Arbor Day Stories

It’s Arbor Day! That means it’s time to celebrate all of the wonderful benefits that we get from trees, and to plant trees to increase those benefits. Newspaper editor J. Sterling Morton is usually credited with first proposing the tree-planting holiday called “Arbor Day” in Nebraska in 1872. While Morton’s Arbor Day was a first in the United States, the celebration of a day devoted to trees actually has roots hundreds of years earlier.

The first documented celebration of an Arbor Day was organized by the mayor in the Spanish village of Mondoñedo in 1594. Today, a small marker commemorating this event can still be found in the town (now known as Alameda de los Remedios). The first “modern day” Arbor Day happened in Spain in 1805 in the village of Villanueva de la Sierra and was organized by a local priest, Don Ramón Vacas Roxo. According to author and professor Miguel Herrero Uceda, Don Ramón was “convinced of the importance of trees for health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment and customs” and decided “to plant trees and give a festive air.” After celebrating Mass on Carnival Tuesday, Roxo, accompanied by other clergy, teachers, and villagers, planted a poplar tree. The celebration and plantings lasted three days. The priest was so moved by the importance of trees that he wrote a manifesto in their defense and sent it to neighboring towns to encourage people to protect nature and establish tree plantations.

Villanueva de la Sierra Arbor Day monument

A monument commemorating the first modern day Arbor Day in the village of Villanueva de la Sierra, Spain. Photo by Miguel Herrero Uceda.

Many decades later, the message and spirit of Arbor Day had spread throughout the world. In 1977, Kenyan political and environmental activist Wangari Maathai started a grassroots movement known as the Green Belt Movement. It organized women in rural Kenya to plant trees in order to combat deforestation and erosion and provide future food and firewood, all the while empowering the women involved. The movement has planted over 50 million trees, and tens of thousands of women have received training in environmentally sustainable trades. Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Women planting trees

Kahuro Women’s Group planting trees in Kiharu, Kenya as part of the Green Belt Movement. Photo courtesy of the Green Belt Movement.

One of the most inspiring stories about people and trees comes out of India. In 1979, a local teenager named Jadav Payeng began noticing that on the island of Majuli, his home, erosion was taking vegetation and land away, and many of the native animal species along with it. Majuli is the largest river island in the world, located in the middle of the Brahmaputra River, and is vulnerable to the tides of many tributaries. Seasonal flooding was leaving large areas of the island barren, while washing other areas away completely. Payeng was concerned by what he saw, so he planted twenty bamboo seedlings on a sandbar to help prevent this erosion from continuing. He was so inspired to save his home in this way that he continued to plant trees and scatter tree seeds to help reforest the island. Today, he is responsible for planting a forest that is now approximately 1,400 acres, more than one and a half times larger than New York City’s Central Park! Deer, tigers, rhinoceroses, and elephants have moved into the dense forest, along with returning bird species that had not been seen in the area for decades.

Jadav Payeng standing in the forest

Jadav Payeng, known as “The Forest Man of India,” looking over his forest. Polygon Window Productions.

This Arbor Day, let’s be inspired by these stories of how individuals can make a large and lasting impact on our world. If you can, plant a tree (or several), care for the trees that you already have, or volunteer for a neighborhood tree advocacy group. We can all make a difference and improve our world with trees!

-Greg Huse, Arborist, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist and Tree Collection Manager

The Smithsonian Tree Collection is maintained by Smithsonian Gardens and features close to 1,900 accessioned specimens throughout the Smithsonian museum grounds and gardens surrounding the National Mall, the Anacostia Community Museum, and the Smithsonian support facilities in Maryland. Click here to learn more about the Smithsonian Tree Collection.

April 29, 2016 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Smithsonian Gardens Receives Grant Award to Fund a Water Conservation Project

In honor of Earth Day, Smithsonian Gardens is proud to announce a $146,200 grant award from Smithsonian Institution’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund for a water conservation project at our Suitland Greenhouse Facility.  The award supports the purchase and installation of a rainwater harvesting system to irrigate the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection by collecting and using rainwater to water the collection rather than municipally-treated water as we use now. This project is a collaboration between Smithsonian Gardens and the Smithsonian Facilities Energy Management Branch of the Systems Engineering Division which is responsible for Smithsonian’s energy use and conservation techniques.

Rainwater harvesting is a technique used for collecting, storing and using rainwater for landscape irrigation and other uses. The rainwater is collected from hard surfaces such as rooftops and is a cost effective method of water conservation.  Rainwater is superior for plant watering because it is free from pollutants like dissolved salts, minerals, and chemicals such as fluoride and chlorine.

Water quality is of critical importance when it comes to successful orchid cultivation and maintenance. Orchid species exposed to municipal water often show detrimental physical manifestations caused by accumulated salts building up in the orchid growing medium. These adverse effects include leaf tip burn, decreased plant vigor, reduced blooming, discoloration, and even death.

Many of the best orchid collections and commercial growers in the United States, Europe, and South America use either purified water or rainwater for irrigating orchids. Switching from municipal water to rainwater is like ‘flipping a switch’ with regard to orchid growth. Seedlings irrigated with rainwater grow two to three times faster and the plants often have cleaner, unblemished foliage. A resent comparison of Atlanta Botanical Garden seedlings sired at the same time as ones grown by Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection show they are more than triple the size of those being grown by Smithsonian Gardens. Clear evidence of the need to implement better water quality for the over 8,000 orchids in our collection. We hope to have the new water harvesting and irrigation system installed by the end of this year.

This project celebrates innovation and supports sustainable collections care which will have a direct, substantial, and permanent impact on the health and preservation of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. This project received Federal support from the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund, administered by the National Collections Program and the Smithsonian Collections Advisory Committee.

-Sarah Hedean, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

April 22, 2016 at 8:00 am 1 comment

A Floral Firework Display: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Sunday is the final day of the 2016 orchid exhibit, Orchids In Focus, at the United States Botanic Garden (USBG). It has been an interesting season to say the least, with seventy degree weather in January and gusting winds throughout March. Most of our show plants are bloomed out and will start their recovery for next year’s blooming cycle. Our species orchids are not on such a rigid schedule and are still living the slow life in the greenhouses, blooming when they please and offering visual fireworks of color amidst the overwhelming background of green foliage.

Scaphyglottis bidentata is a dazzling miniature orchid from Central and South America. This species exhibits spectacular red-orange flowers, a pollination syndrome for ornithophily, or bird-pollination. Several other Scaphyglottis with large (relatively), bold flowers were previously classified under a distinct genus, Hexisea but were morphologically similar enough to the former Scaphyglottis grouping to be lumped together. One of the major defining morphological characteristics of species in this group is that the pseudobulbs are stacked (see inset photo).

Capture

(left) Scaphyglottis bidentata, (right) illustration from Edwards’s Botanical Register

Another striking pop of color found in our species greenhouse comes from Dendrobium bracteosum var. tannii. If you look this one up, you won’t find tannii mentioned anywhere because the name has never been formally published. This variety is a miniature form of the species. To give you an idea of the size difference the flowers on our specimen are no longer than a centimeter in diameter, which is less than half of the typical size.

2014-0324_A_JR

Dendrobium bracteosum var. tannii

Dendrobium sanguinolentum is a pendant growing epiphyte found in Thailand, Western Malesia and the Philippines. This species is known as “The Blood Stained Dendrobium” because the flowers typically have splotches or stains of violet at the edges of the sepals and petals. The plant below may be an alba form of this species since there are no stains evident on the pale yellow flower.

2015-1774_A_JR

Dendrobium sanguinolentum

This week’s grand finale is Myrmecocattleya Claudia Elena. This fantastic hybrid with such vivid coloration is a cross between Myrmecophila tibicinis and Cattleya dowiana. In the wild, the ranges of these two species do not overlap, but since they are both part of the Cattleya alliance, hybridizers are able to successfully interbreed them. Myrmecophila flowers are typically one to two inches in diameter, but when crossed with a large flowered Cattleya, they almost triple in size!

2009-0946_A_JR

Myrmecocattleya Claudia Elena

Photographs are a wonderful way to explore nature’s diversity, but nothing compares to experiencing it in person. If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, make sure to take a final trip to the USBG to see our orchids on display before the exhibit ends on the 17th!

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

April 15, 2016 at 8:41 am Leave a comment

Preserving Our Garden Heritage One Pixel at a Time

What better way to celebrate National Garden Month in April than to spend some time enjoying historic garden images from the J. Horace McFarland Company Collection!  Thanks to a Smithsonian preservation grant, thousands of images from this collection at the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) were digitized recently and are now available online through the Smithsonian’s Research Information System (SIRIS).  These images–produced by McFarland’s publishing firm which specialized in printing horticultural publications–are just some of the treasures found in AAG which is administered by Smithsonian Gardens and tasked with collecting historic and contemporary garden documentation as a means of preserving our garden heritage.

Very much a renaissance man, J. Horace McFarland (1859-1948) of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,was a publisher, author, lecturer, horticulturist and authority on roses.  As the first President of the American Civic Association—a position he held for 20 years—McFarland also advocated for effective civic planning and improvements throughout the U.S. during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) when living and community conditions called out for significant reforms.

McFarland looking over the gardens at his home.

A newly digitized photograph from the J. Horace McFarland Collection showing McFarland looking over the gardens at his home, Breeze Hill, in Harrisburg, Penn. 1942. (PA083039)

McFarland’s printing company, Mount Pleasant Press, published many of the seed and nursery trade catalogs in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century.  The J. Horace McFarland Company Collection at AAG includes over 3,000 of the firm’s images, many of which were published in books, catalogs, newspapers, and journals.

The images document an extensive variety of gardens across the U.S. dating from the 1900s to the 1960s, everything from popular parks to small flower patches planted behind crowded urban row houses.  Thanks to the broad range of private and public gardens photographed by the firm, the J. Horace McFarland Company Collection provides glimpses into historic trends and events of the times including World War II’s victory gardens and post-war neighborhood development.  Images that show people working in or enjoying these gardens are especially captivating.  In many cases the photographs are the only evidence left of certain gardens and public spaces.

OFEO-SG-PA083362

A World War II-era victory garden at Breeze Hill in 1944. The gardens at Breeze Hill were often employed to stage photographs used by McFarland’s firm, Mount Pleasant Press. (PA083362)

This digitization project was timely since the photographs—which had been pasted onto brittle cardboard mounts –are fragile and subject to continued deterioration.  Rather than scanning the thousands of photographs on a flatbed scanner—both a time-consuming and potentially damaging procedure—each was photographed with a Phase One digital camera under controlled lighting conditions.  High resolution digital images are now readily available for research use and the need to handle the originals has been significantly reduced.  We hope you get a chance to search the McFarland Company Collection online and enjoy the garden history that it documents.

– Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist, Archives of American Gardens

April 8, 2016 at 9:00 am 2 comments

Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden Expansion and Renovation

The Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden has been a treasured component of the Smithsonian landscape since 1998. For nearly two decades it has served as a place to enjoy beauty, learn about modern roses and showcase gardening. This year, the garden will undergo an expansion and renovation to continue that legacy. This exciting project is made possible through a generous grant from the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund.

Axonmetric sketch Rose Garden 10-15

Sketch of the forthcoming Folger Rose Garden renovation and expansion.

In addition to physically increasing the garden’s footprint by developing existing turf areas in front of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, the renovation will include the installation of interpretive signage highlighting information about roses as well as the important roles that beneficial insects and companion plants play in the garden. The signage will encourage visitors to more fully appreciate the garden’s four-season design and understand the advantage of variety and balance in nature and in garden design. Smithsonian Gardens will also install a custom-designed garden feature that complements the garden’s Victorian cast iron fountain and urns and ties in with the beautiful architecture of the historic A & I Building.

Many people envision a rose garden as a formal, symmetrical design consisting solely of roses surrounded by tightly-clipped boxwood edges — a near monoculture. While this type of design can be beautiful, it can also lead to an imbalance in the garden. Smithsonian Gardens wanted to design a rose garden that reflects balance as found in nature complete with structural complexity and plant diversity which allows for both pest and pest predator (a.k.a. benefi­cial insect) populations. By taking this approach we hope to cultivate a healthier garden with a lesser reliance on pesticides.

2010 Garden Fest Long XV4A0120 Graham Davis & sons, SI staff

Young visitors to the Folger Rose Garden learning about the use of beneficial insects for pest management.

The redesigned Folger Rose Garden will embody the best practices in modern rose care and culture. When planning for this project, Smithsonian Gardens staff spent months carefully selecting rose varieties that are fragrant, disease resistant, and–whenever possible–“own-root roses” meaning they are grown from cuttings rather than grafted onto another rootstalk. Good selection is critical to maintaining a beautiful and scented garden without constant disease pressure and pesticide application.

When the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden was originally designed and installed in 1997-1998, the vision was to create a four-season garden with year-round interest. That vision guides this redesign as well. Roses will bloom in the spring, summer, and fall. A few specimen conifers and evergreens will punctuate and anchor the garden during the winter months but also supply some of the desired structural complexity. A variety of groundcovers and other perennials will add to the display and ensure plant diversity. These companion plants have been chosen specifically for their ability to attract a variety of beneficial insects into the garden, thus aiding in a natural balance and rose protection.

It is our hope that when the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden reopens in the summer of 2016 it will give visitors the opportunity both to surround themselves with beauty and better understand roses as a part of a larger ecosystem.

-Shelley Gaskins, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens 

March 30, 2016 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

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