Archive for June, 2012

Interest-driven Learning Makes Garden History Digital

Funded by the Pearson Foundation, the Smithsonian’s Mobile Learning Institute seeks to find new ways for teachers and students to create, explore, and learn. Mobile Learning Institute educators at the Smithsonian EdLab encourage “interest-driven learning,” facilitating collaboration between teachers and students within informal settings, sharing ideas in person and online utilizing social networks. Earlier this week, teachers were assigned an important task: to share a story about our Heirloom and Victory Gardens as well as our Medal of Honor Tree.

On Tuesday, teachers met at the Hirshhorn Museum to share their projects. Many of the groups created innovative multimedia presentations, using Voice Thread, Animoto, and Prezi to produce animated, narrated stories. The subjects of these tales ranged from a short film illustrating the  medicinal properties of Echinacea (found at the Heirloom Garden) to a monologue sourced from informal interviews that teachers had with visitors to the Medal of Honor Tree. Through sharing not only their presentations, but also their digital resources and their research process, visiting teachers will be able to take new learning methods and tools back to their own classrooms.

To view the group’s facebook page, see

To learn more about the Smithsonian EdLab, visit

Kristina Borrman, Katzenberger Art History Intern

June 29, 2012 at 12:18 pm 2 comments

William Woys Weaver: Trading Bees for Seeds

If you’ve been following our twitter and facebook page, you’ve been learning about our newly planted vegetable garden at the southwest corner of the National Museum of American History. The Gillette Family Garden is an important adjunct to the current exhibit, “Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.”

Fish Peppers

Fish Peppers

Out of all the vegetables in the garden, the fish pepper is likely to have the most interesting history. Fish peppers are dated to the early nineteenth century, where they were popularly grown as an heirloom vegetable by African Americans in Philadelphia and Baltimore. The green, inconspicuous fish pepper was often the secret ingredient in fish and shellfish cookery, passed down in recipes communicated through oral history.

The story of these peppers’ mid-twentieth century rediscovery may be traced to an important barter made by men trading bees for seeds.  In the 1940s, Horace Pippin of West Chester, Pennsylvania, sought a unique remedy for his war wounds. Learning that bee stings may relieve the pain of his wounds, Pippin bought bees from H. Ralph Weaver.

NMAH Garden's Wattle Fence

NMAH Garden’s Wattle Fence

In exchange, Pippin offered what he had – tons of interesting vegetable seeds, including the rare fish pepper, for what would become the Roughwood Seed Collection, run by Weaver’s grandson, William Woys Weaver. For the first time, the fish pepper was advertised to the public on a grand scale when William Woys Weaver offered the seeds in the 1995 Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook.

The garden will be on view during the length of the new exhibit, ending October 14, 2012. For more info on the exhibit, see

To purchase your own fish peppers, go to

Kristina Borrman, Katzenberger Art History Intern

June 22, 2012 at 2:00 am 3 comments

Garden History and Design: Sundials

Visitors to the Smithsonian Castle may stumble upon a nice surprise as they peruse the Enid A. Haupt Garden: a handmade horizontal sundial. Sundials date back to the ancient Egyptians who used obelisks to track the shadow the sun cast which measured time in relation only to the length of the shadow. These sundials acted in a limited capacity; however, they only divided the day in half by marking noon as the middle of the day.

Enid A. Haupt Garden Sundial

Enid A. Haupt Garden Sundial

These ancient “sundials” do not remotely resemble what we picture when we think of the sundials that grace so many gardens today. The latter kind weren’t invented until 300 B. C. when a Babylonian priest cut a half-sphere into a cubical block and fixed a bead at its center which would cast a shadow in an arc marking the time of day. These delineated hours were called temporary hours since the shadow lengths changed with the seasons.

Sundials became more accurate when it was discovered that a slanted object capable of casting a shadow gave a more accurate reading regardless of the season. The time system we use today, called equal hours, was not created until the mechanical clock was invented in 1300 A. D.

Haupt Garden Sundial Close-up

Haupt Garden Sundial Close-up

It goes without saying that sundials require a sunny place to mark time, though they are often sited at the center of flower beds or the intersection of axial paths. Accuracy is fleeting as the sun agrees with the clock only one day each season! The rest of the time, sundials can by off as much as a quarter of an hour.

Although sundials are no longer needed to tell time, they still remain in the garden as a decorative fixture that symbolizes the passing of time.

Brittany Spencer-King, Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens

June 15, 2012 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment

Summer Crops from Monticello: A Gillette Family Garden Update

The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s current exhibition Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, may be found in the in their gallery on the second floor of the National Museum of American History and outside at the southwest corner of the terrace. There, you’ll find a vegetable garden, replete with plantings which will be rotated throughout the time of the exhibition. Jefferson’s estate was known for growing cash crops, chiefly tobacco and wheat. So what do all these vegetables have to do with Monticello?

USDA Farmer's Market with Leni Sorenson on Friday, June 8

USDA Farmer’s Market with Leni Sorenson on Friday, June 8

The Gillette Family Garden  is a representation of the garden cultivated by the Gillette family, individuals in the enslaved community on Jefferson’s estate. The Gillettes were truly entrepreneurs; they gardened in their limited free time and sold the produce to improve their situation. The plants growing in the NMAH garden were carefully selected based upon the research of Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, who examined the estate’s account books and researched plants typical of contemporary nineteenth-century gardens.

Out with the turnips, in with the okra! We just changed out the crops for the summer. The harvested turnips were shared with the chef, and turnips, beets and cabbage were displayed at Monticello culinary historian Leni Sorensen’s cooking demonstration at Friday’s USDA Farmers Market.

Summer plantings


Fish Pepper

Fish Pepper

Okra: Cow’s Horn Okra, Abelmoschus esculentus

Peppers: Fish Pepper, Capsicum annuum ‘Fish’

Sesame: Bene, Sesamum indicum

Strawberries: Wild Strawberry, Fragaria virginiana


Gherkins: West Indian Gherkin, Cucumis anguria var. anguria

Squash: Sweet Potato Pumpkin, Cucurbita moschata

Cymling or Pattypan Squash, Cucurbita pepo variety

The exhibit is on view until October 14, 2012. For more information and to see how the garden was made, go to

June 15, 2012 at 8:28 am Leave a comment

Explore the Science of the Butterfly Habitat Garden

Butterfly Habitat Garden

Plants aren’t the only thing growing at Smithsonian Gardens. We have expanded our Garden Interpreter program to include the Butterfly Habitat Garden adjacent to the National Museum of Natural History. Our garden interpreter volunteers can be found in the garden facilitating fun activities that help teach our visitors about the unique aspects and design of the Butterfly Habitat Garden.

The garden was designed to support the different stages of the life cycle of the butterfly. Our garden interpreter activities reflect this emphasis. Visitors can learn about the butterfly’s life cycle and explore how the garden supports and sustains it. They can also delve into the differences between host and nectar plants and why each type of plant is essential to creating the ideal habitat for native butterflies.

Butterfly Habitat Garden

The garden interpreters give our visitors the opportunity not only to enjoy the beauty of the Butterfly Habitat Garden, but to get a sneak peek into the science behind its design. They peel away some of the layers of the spaces and allow visitors to explore in a whole new way.

Join our garden interpreters and become a lepidopterist (scientist who studies butterflies and moths) too!

Bridget Sullivan, Education Intern

June 8, 2012 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment

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