Archive for February, 2013

The American Bottle Tree

Have you ever caught a glimpse of a bottle tree shimmering in the sunlight of your neighborhood? Made from brightly colored bottles placed over the branches of a tree (or in more recent years a metal frame), these garden sculptures catch attention in any space, such as the one pictured below in the Gibson Garden in Dallas, Texas. Although they are not a particularly common sight, they have a long history as an element of spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic significance in American history and garden design.

[Gibson Garden]

A Bottle Tree in the “Oak Lawn” garden room of the Gibson Garden. Although this garden in Dallas is typically noted for its Japanese-inspired design, the presence of a bottle tree demonstrates how this garden feature of African and African American origin has evolved to become a component in a range of garden designs. Image from the Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution. David H. Gibson, photographer.

Folklore and written sources from as early as 1776 indicate that this centuries-old custom originated in the kingdom of Kongo on the West African coast, where vessels were combined with tree branches.  When Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves, some were able to continue this practice, using whatever resources they had available. Variations appeared on islands in the Caribbean. The more familiar bottle trees we recognize today were likely a Creole invention, becoming particularly prominent in the southern United States from eastern Texas to South Carolina, where bottles were often placed on the branches of crape-myrtle trees.

While the  meaning of bottle trees continues to evolve as it has for centuries, one of the more common interpretations is that they protect the home and garden by catching evil spirits, which some say are attracted to the bottles by their bright colors (sometimes made by swirling paint on the inside of a clear bottle). Once inside, the sunlight destroys the spirit.   Other interpretations suggest the spirits are trapped inside the bottles in the evening. Then, the morning sunlight destroys them. If you pass by and happen to hear the wind blowing across the bottles, it is thought to be the sound of the spirits trapped inside. Bottle trees have also been thought to bring rain, luck, and to make trees bloom.

Writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) took the bottle tree from the landscape onto the pages of American literature in her short story “Livvie,” giving her work a distinct sense of place in the American south. As she described the scene,

Coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue.  There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there  could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house…Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house…

This story, as Welty said in a 1987 interview, was inspired by bottle trees she saw and photographed in rural Mississippi during the 1930s and ’40s: “it was the place, really. And it was the bottle tree that made me write it.” In the same interview, she lamented that “there are hardly any anymore because of the highways. You know, the interstates have come through….They have vanished now, and the roads have come in…But there probably still are some away back in somewhere.”


Writer Eudora Welty photographed this house with bottle trees in Simpson, County, Mississippi during the time she worked for the WPA in the 1930s and ’40s. It appears in her book of photographs, “One Time, One Place: Mississippi in the Depression” (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996,pg. 45).
Image © Eudora Welty Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Although they continue to take on varied forms and uses today, bottle trees still have a presence in gardens and cultural landscapes across the United States, such as those photographed by Vaughn Sills and in the Gibson’s garden in Dallas. Through a long journey encompassing slavery and freedom, and into the Archives of American Gardens, the bottle tree continues to be a garden feature with an American story to tell.

– Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow

February 28, 2013 at 9:00 am 8 comments

Smithsonian Orchid Collection: Introducing our Species Orchids

Encyclia selligera- one of the collection's many beautiful species orchids

Encyclia selligera- one of the collection’s many beautiful species orchids

The Smithsonian Orchid Collection’s species orchids represent over 30% of all accessions and the collection contains approximately 2500 individual plants and 800 different species, most of which are rarely used for public display. As a contractor for the Smithsonian Orchid Section, I am working to provide accurate and up to date collection information to several different online collection sites, where scientists, researchers, conservationists, and the curious explorer alike can access data about the orchid species that are cared for in the Smithsonian Gardens Suitland Greenhouse complex. Ultimately, our hope is that the assessment of the orchid collection, along with a review of collections management policies and virus protocols, will lead to the submission of an application to join the North American Plant Collections Consortium (NAPCC), an organization comprised of botanic gardens and arboreta across the country dedicated to plant conservation and germplasm preservation.

The SOC's collection profile on the Encyclopedia of Life

The SOC’s collection profile on the Encyclopedia of Life

The most publicly available of these collection sites, which will be actively utilized for the duration of the annual orchid exhibit, is the Encyclopedia of Life. The Encyclopedia of Life is a growing resource for compiled information about all life on Earth. The beauty of the website is that you can search for any species by Latin name or common name and be exposed to a wealth of information about its distribution, habitat, behavior, taxonomy, you name it! Although many less common species are lacking full records, this resource has the potential to connect numerous people and organizations through shared species in collections. The Smithsonian Orchid Section has created a collection for all of their named species orchids and can be found specifically by searching the EOL for SOC Species Orchids. This is an easily accessible list of our collection contents online, and will hopefully be an interesting, if not valuable resource in the near future as more information is added.

This year, for the 2013 orchid exhibit, Orchids of Latin America, each week a watch list will be produced in the Encyclopedia of Life highlighting species orchids from the Smithsonian Orchid Collection that can be found in the exhibit. The watch list link will be tweeted via Smithsonian Gardens on Friday morning right before a brand new delivery of orchids so you have the most up to date reference for the exhibit. Don’t forget, the watch list is just species orchids and there will be many more beautiful hybrids in the exhibit that you won’t want to miss!

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Contractor

February 26, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

A Look at “Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens”

What would you do with a camera and time to investigate a new place? For photographer Vaughn Sills, a walk through Bea Robinson’s garden in Athens, Georgia inspired a 20 year journey that resulted in a series of photographs that she’s collected in her book Places for the Spirit: Traditional African American Gardens (2010).   Focused on the South, her book covers gardens in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, North and South Carolina, and Arkansas, providing viewers with a glimpse of the American landscape that can otherwise be difficult to find.


Through her skillful compositions with gentle light, crisp focus, and tight frames, Sills invites us into intimate spaces, given meaning not only through her lens, but by the gardeners who create them.  In these images, viewers will find inventive, artful, and spiritual approaches to garden and landscape design, using wide varieties of plant life and material culture.  From Canna lilies to old tires, gardeners interweave these elements to create meaningful places.  The specific garden arrangements Sills’ captures reflect the personal tastes, styles, and circumstances of the gardeners who create them. At the same time, each garden often has common elements (such as shells, figures, urns, and bottle trees) that make them recognizable a genre today, and connect them to lager cultural traditions and aesthetics in African American and African culture that have been changed and adapted over time.

While the gardens and gardeners Sills photographs are often few and far between, like the gardens themselves, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  As a collection, Sills’ images are a distinct contribution to American landscape photography and the history of garden design because they demonstrate how African Americans have contributed to the making and meaning of the American landscape.  By helping to preserve this legacy, these photographs and gardens are also a poignant reminder that America’s cultural landscape is influenced by the spirit and creativity of many.

You can find some of Sills’ photographs on her website. The photographs from her book are currently on display at  Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

For more on the topic of African American gardens see:

Glave, Dianne. “‘a garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design’: Rural African American Women, Gardening, Progressive Reform, and the Foundation of An African American Environmental Perspective” in Environmental History, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Jul., 2003).

Gundaker, Grey and Judith McWillie. No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work, 2005.

Gundaker, Grey. ed. Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground, 1998.

Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy, 1983.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, 1983.

Westmacott, Richard.  African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South, 1992.

February 22, 2013 at 8:00 am 1 comment

Winter Gardening Tips

The most important winter task is to take stock of your garden’s successes and failures. Mental notes are good, journal entries are better. There are plenty of mistakes to make, why repeat one?

Did you faithfully fertilize your garden during the growing season? If so, where are the leftovers? Don’t store them on your potting bench or your garden shed; bring them into an area that will remain above freezing. Some liquid fertilizers and pesticides become ineffective after freezing and thawing.

The winter months are the perfect time to take stock of the condition of your garden. Bonaire, West Orange, New Jersey, circa 1930. Ellen Biddle Shipman, landscape architect. Collection of the Archives of American Gardens.

The winter months are the perfect time to take stock of the condition of your garden. Bonaire, West Orange, New Jersey, circa 1930. Ellen Biddle Shipman, landscape architect. Collection of the Archives of American Gardens.

Take advantage of warm winter days; clean up garden debris. Pests and diseases can overwinter on and in dropped fruit, vegetables, leaves and stems. Keep the garden clean and reduce the chance for re-infections. Being neat has the added benefit of reducing the amount of chores necessary in the spring.

When you are cleaning up the garden, don’t cut back the stems of subshrubs: lavender, Russian sage, perennial salvias, etc. The stems provide protection and a bit of insulation for the crown and the dormant buds. Wait till you see new signs of growth in the spring before pruning.

Talk a walk around the garden periodically to check on plants that may have “popped out” of the soil. Fluctuating soil temps – freezing and thawing – can push the perennials and pansies you planted in the fall right out of their holes. Dig the hole a bit deeper, replant and then smooth mulch around the plant’s base. This should keep the plant firmly grounded.

Use branches of pruned evergreens to protect tender perennials from wintry blasts. Maybe your rosemary plant will finally survive the winter!

Careless use of deicing products can damage both the home and the environment. To prevent damage to your home and the environment, choose a deicer carefully. Use deicers according to the directions listed on the package, if possible use even less than is recommended. Do not use fertilizer to melt ice and snow – the nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer can harm your local streams and the Bay. Plant damage caused by deicers can often be treated by soaking the affected area with 1-inch applications of water three to four times in the spring. As an alternative to deicers – use sand, ashes, or kitty litter to improve traction on icy areas.

Remember to water plants on warm days in January, February and March especially if there has been a dry autumn. Evergreen plants, particularly those planted in the fall, are most susceptible to desiccation.

Remove snow before it can accumulate by sweeping the branches upward with a broom to lift off the snow without further stressing the limbs.

Motivated to grow ‘green’? Use organic seed in next year’s garden. Check with the National Sustainable Information Service ( for a list of suppliers of Certified Organic seed. Several seed catalogs located in Mid-Atlantic States appear on the list, including: Southern Exposure Seed Exchange ( in Mineral, Virginia, Landreth Seed Company ( in Baltimore, Maryland, and Seedway ( in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

-Cynthia Brown, Horticulture Collections Management & Education Manager


February 19, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Roses are red, Violets are blue: What are these flowers saying to you?

Mary Vaux Walcott, Pink Rose with Violet, watercolor on paper, 1876. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Walcott, Mary Vaux. Pink Rose with Violet, watercolor on paper, 1876. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Roses are red,

Violets are blue,

Sugar is sweet.

And so are you.”

The sweet and playful lyrics of this poem are found among the nursery rhymes of Mother Goose and often make their way into the sentiments of Valentine’s Day cards.

Is there more to this sweet refrain? Attaching meaning to certain flowers has occurred throughout history, but during the Victorian era the ‘language of flowers’ was turned into a studied exercise. This was a code that attached characteristics and expressions to all types of flora. Entire dictionaries were also published to pair each flower and its color to a specific meaning.

When we consider the verse again using the language of flowers as our guide, the words of the familiar poem have a renewed sense of purpose.

Roses are red: The meaning of roses varies according to their color; the red rose is one of the flowers most associated with Valentine’s Day because of its connotations of love, passion, desire, and beauty. To give a red rose is to say, “I love you.”

Violets are blue: Though we see violets used less frequently than roses in a valentine bouquet, they are forever associated with one another in these verses. Meanings of modesty, faithfulness, humility, and simplicity are embodied in the delicate violet, and it holds the answer to the bold statement of the red rose. To give a violet is to reply, “I return your love.”

Reconsidering this simple rhyme with the meaning of the red rose and its companion the blue violet, the words and the flowers they invoke reinvigorate the quaint nursery rhyme, and reveal truly romantic sentiments to be combined in the perfect bouquet on Valentine’s Day.

-Janie R. Askew
Research Assistant, Smithsonian Gardens
MA Candidate, History of Decorative ArtsThe Smithsonian Associates – George Mason University

February 14, 2013 at 11:00 am 1 comment

Gardens All Their Own: Early African American Gardens in Detroit

Detroit was still a burgeoning industrial center in 1918 when John and Elizabeth Crews ended a journey “through six states seeking a home” and settled in the city. As part of the Great Migration, when African Americans began moving to Detroit in large numbers for employment opportunities and an escape from Jim Crow segregation, the Crews and many others were faced with the challenge of making a place and building community in a new environment.

In Detroit, many stopped their traditional gardening and food growing practices because urban-industrial life offered new opportunities to escape toiling on the land. Others changed and adapted their horticultural practices. Although the East Side of the city where many migrants first lived was quite dense, some managed to cultivate gardens here, while others moved to areas with more space.


Although photographed in 1949, this house with a small garden in Detroit’s East Side neighborhood suggests some of the ways Detroit’s African American migrants in the early 20th century made use of their yards. The image was taken by the agency charged with documenting and appraising the neighborhood before it was demolished to build Interstate 75.
Image Courtesy of Corporation Counsel – Real Estate Division records, Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library. Used with permission.

For those with financial means, the West Side of the city offered one of the first opportunities for African Americans in the area to cultivate a suburban garden aesthetic in a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes. Yards were landscaped with lawns and adorned with flowers and trees (often fruit trees). One resident planted so many flowers along her fence that she was known as “The Flower Girl.”  Unlike other suburbs, however, rock gardens were often a common feature, especially in the more private space of the backyard. As one resident remembered, “Roosevelt was a serene and beautiful street with trees, green grass, butterflies, [and] beautiful rock gardens in back yards…”  The neighborhood was so closely knit one resident described it as “village.” Home ownership created a shared sense of community as residents worked to maintain a suburban sense of place.

Image 7_Rock Garden_West Side

This rock garden in a back yard on Roosevelt Street was created from rocks the owners collected on their travels. From “Remembering Detroit’s Old Westside: 1920-1950,” 1997.

In the Eight Mile-Wyoming area, where the Crews lived, residents often had a different vision of the suburban ideal, raising chickens and growing gardens that often included vegetables, such the “Kentucky Wonder” green beans the Crews canned to eat throughout the winter.   Corn was also a common sight in the neighborhood, along with an informal system of community gardening. As one resident told a visitor, they had no trouble with people stealing from their garden because, “we just plant a little more than we need each year to take care of that.”  Alternately, “if we run low, we just get a few [ears of corn] off of somebody else’s. We all know that. We don’t care. We’re friends out here!”

LoC Vachon Image

A house with a cornfield in the Eight Mile/Wyoming neighborhood. Photograph by John Vachon, U.S. Farm Security Administration (courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division).

Not everyone found this more rural way of life appealing, however. During the 1920s and 30s, the Detroit Urban League (an organization founded to assist African American migrants in Detroit) often sponsored flower garden contests (complete with prizes of cash or flower bouquets)  in this neighborhood to beautify what they considered to be unsightly “yards,” not gardens. According to one observer,  during the spring contest houses in the neighborhood were “surrounded by riots of bloom…porches and fences sag under the weight of rambler roses, honeysuckle, and clematis; the yards bloom with myriads of flowers.”

While images of these gardens are sparse, bits and pieces from the written record help to illuminate the ways African Americans used gardens to create a sense of place, belonging, and community in Detroit, a tradition that continues with community gardening projects in the city today.

-Joe Cialdella, Enid A. Haupt Fellow

Image 12_Manistique Community Garden

Sunflowers at the Manistique Community Garden, on Detroit’s East Side, August 2012. Photograph by Joe Cialdella.

February 12, 2013 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

Healthy Gardens, Healthy Schools

The Rain garden at Grace Episcopal Day School this past fall.

The rain garden at Grace Episcopal Day School.

What can one teacher and a lot of elementary school students do with a big idea and a bunch of dirt? A lot, as it turns out. This inspiring story comes from Christine Comas, an elementary school science teacher at Grace Episcopal Day School in Kensington, Maryland.

As part of a summer Mobile Learning Institute, Smithsonian Gardens, the National Arboretum, and the U.S. Botanic Garden collaborated with EdLab at the Postal Museum on a week-long workshop for teachers on how to integrate mission-based learning into their curriculum. The teachers spent the week completing various missions related to the role of gardens in shaping healthy communities and sharing their findings using a variety of technology platforms.

One teacher, Christine Comas, took the assignment a step further. She decided that when she returned to school in the fall, she would challenge her students to design a garden that would improve the health of their school and their community. Last year the entire school studied the Chesapeake Bay. When Comas asked her students how they would like to help save the bay, her students responded that they wanted to create habitats for animals, keep water clean and make the school beautiful. These three powerful ideas became the guiding principles of the school rain garden.

We look forward to checking back in on the progress of the garden this spring.

We look forward to checking back in on the progress of the garden this spring.

Comas and her classes collaborated with Kara Crissey from Good Earth Gardeners, who provided her expertise with plant selection. All of the plants in the garden are native to the area. Explains Comas, “We chose plants that would provide habitats for birds, butterflies and other insects, that could withstand influxes of water, salt, and pollution, and that could handle pooling of water around the plant’s base. These plants along with the rain garden structure are designed to slow down the storm water runoff and assist in the percolation of the water.”

Not only does the garden provide a beautiful setting for outdoor learning, it prevents runoff into nearby Rock Creek. Every student, from preschoolers to fifth graders, had a chance to participate in the planting. They were eager to get their hands dirty while learning about the effects of rainwater runoff on the bay. For those less in-the-know than the students, signage educates the community at large about the botanical information and the positive effects of the rain garden.

Comas reflects, “I learned from the workshop that student input and ideas should be the catalyst to environmental education projects at schools. The students become deeply invested in their work. The project then becomes more meaningful, satisfying and successful. Years from now, after they have graduated, we hope that they will return and point to the garden and note that they were a part of the solution. It is my hope that they will educate others in the community on the importance of caring for the local and global environment. Together we can make a huge impact.”

Next up? This spring the third graders will be designing and planting a native vegetable garden.

Some of the plants in the garden:
Swamp Weed
Light Blue Aster
Oat Grass
Shenandoah Switch Grass
Blue-Eyed Grass
Purple Coneflower
Cardinal Flower
Purple Woods Aster
Winterthur Viburnum
Eastern Red Cedar
Sweet Bay Magnolia
Pinot Noir Hibiscus
Swamp Sunflower
Swamp Hibiscus
Redosier Dogwood
River Birch
Blue Flag Iris
Northern Bayberry
False Indigo

You can read more about the rain garden and see pictures of the installation process here.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

February 6, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

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