Archive for February, 2015

Behind the Orchids: Orchid Family Day

Orchid Family day booths set up in the National Museum of Natural History

Orchid Family day booths set up in the National Museum of Natural History

After working with orchids for five weeks, I could not have been more thrilled to share the splendor of orchids with families and museum-goers at Orchid Family Day. The event was held Saturday, February 22nd on the ground floor of the National Museum of Natural History, and drew a large crowd even in the face of a snowstorm. Smithsonian Gardens, the United States Botanic Garden, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center joined together to engage and educate Orchid Family Day participants about orchids and orchid care. Stations included building terrariums, creating botanical illustrations, making paper orchid corsages, asking an expert any orchid question, learning about orchid research, and potting an orchid to take home.

Naturally, there’s always some amount of preparation work that goes into any event. Planning Orchid Family Day took a team of Smithsonian Gardens staff and volunteers. Over numerous weeks, the group developed activities, prepared necessary materials, and helped gather the staff and volunteers needed to run activities. We also created orchid information panels from scratch to pair with the day’s activities. As an intern, I was able to collaborate and create the initial drafts of three display panels. The text then had to pass through several people for editing and revising to ensure quality and accuracy. After having gathered some of the first research for these panels, it was incredible to see the transformation from a simple word document into a professional looking display panel. It was a great opportunity, and I’m proud to have played an influential role in the development of Orchid Family Day.

The Orchid Family Day Panels in final form.

The Orchid Family Day Panels in final form.

Aside from event logistics, Orchid Family Day also needed publicity. Event details were posted online but word of mouth brought more people than the publicity alone could have. In fact, even with the threat of a snowstorm, hundreds of people showed up for the event. Impressively, as the doors to the National Museum of Natural History opened, countless families and individuals flooded into the museum. Although many patrons were excited to be the first in the exhibit halls, a steady stream of people made their way to the family day activities.

Making orchid corsages!

Making orchid corsages!

The enthusiasm of people bouncing between tables, building terrariums then potting orchids, made for equally enthusiastic staff and volunteers at each table to engage the ever changing visitors. I had the chance to witness several staff and volunteers of the gardens participate in demonstrations that were very unlike the work I’ve what previously seen them do. For example, one of the Smithsonian Gardens supervisors was helping make paper orchid corsages! It was incredibly enjoyable seeing the staff engaged with participants whether it was through drawing, potting, building, or teaching. I had the opportunity to staff the botanical illustration table, which is something I’ve never studied or worked much with before. Regardless, it was a lot of fun watching children color in orchid outlines and use their illustrations for all kinds of art projects. We initially intended for them just to create bookmarks, but they got creative and made necklaces and pictures to give to their parents too. Their enthusiasm was endless and parents often had to gently coax their children away from the table when it was time for them to go.

Examples of the terrariums visitors got to make and take home with them.

Examples of the terrariums visitors could make and take home with them.

Many curious minds wandered into the exhibit, and not all were children. Adults wishing to learn more about orchids made the “ask an expert” table very popular. They also enjoyed discovering the latest in orchid research and conservation at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center table. And of course, the ever popular “pot an orchid” station may have stolen the show for most individuals as the U.S. Botanic Garden brought a thousand orchids to give away for free. Orchid Family Day activities offered something for everybody, so make sure to come out to the next one in 2017!

– Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern

February 26, 2015 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Weird and Wonderful: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

I think we can all agree that orchids display some of the weirdest morphological adaptations in the plant world. Phragmipediums are already unique because of their highly modified, pouch-like lip, which evolved as a strategy to direct pollinators towards the pollinia during their struggle to escape the flower. The hybrid below, Phragmipedium Giganteum, has another unique feature—extremely long, ribbon-like petals that can grow up to four times the length of the flower!

Phragmipedium Giganteum

Phragmipedium Giganteum

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Phragmipedium Giganteum

These long petals are a characteristic feature of Phragmipedium caudatum, one of the parents of Phrag. Giganteum and the type specimen for the genus. Look for the hybrid and its gigantic petals next week at the orchid exhibit, Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty.

I am always captivated by orchids with the most miniscule flowers, and the grassy-looking Dendrochilum stenophyllum definitely fits the bill. This species is found in the wild on the Philippine island of Luzon. The inflorescences look almost like spiky grass plumes, but they are actually dense arrangements of the tiniest flowers, with up to 40 per inflorescence! I can only imagine what tiny insect pollinates these delicate blooms.

Dendrochilum stenophyllum

Dendrochilum stenophyllum

Dendrochilum stenophyllum

Dendrochilum stenophyllum

Last, but most certainly not least, is the stunning purple Bletilla striata. This terrestrial species is native to China, Japan and Korea and is known for its extreme hardiness and ease of cultivation. I remember when I first moved here, recognizing a Bletilla growing in a Northwest DC garden and being incredibly shocked that a non-native orchid was growing outside. The genus in general comes from a more temperate environment and plants are found growing in soil, rather than on trees, making them a well-adapted addition to outdoor gardens in the DMV.

Bletilla striata

Bletilla striata

There is always something blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Stay connected with us to see more plants from the collection, and visit the exhibit downtown through the end of April to experience our orchids firsthand!

– Julie R., Living Collection Specialist

February 20, 2015 at 1:00 am Leave a comment

Behind the Orchids: The Living Collection

Orchids are full of wonder. They have a vast amount of habitat diversity across the globe including swamps, deserts, tropics, and tundra. In fact, orchids are so diverse there’s almost no end to them, and this doesn’t even include the ones human have hybridized. You name a part of the plant and it’s bound to be different from genus to genus in the family Orchidaceae. To illustrate, take a look at Ludisia discolor and Oncidopsis Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty’ currently on display in the exhibit “Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty.”

Oncidopsis Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty’

Ludisia discolor

Ludisia discolor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two plants show just how varied orchids can be in color, flower size, number of blooms, and even the general foliage. Though different, each still retains a beauty in its own way. Ludisia discolor, also called a jewel orchid, is sought after for its foliage rather than its flowers. It’s a terrestrial orchid found in Asia and its leaves are a deep green lined with red veins. Oncidopsis Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty,’ on the other hand, is distinguished by its pleasant red blooms and gives off a unique fragrance. Furthermore, Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty’ is a hybrid containing a mixture of four different species, while Ludisia discolor is a species found in the wild. And these two only make up a fraction of the 8,000+ orchids in Smithsonian Gardens’ collection.

Fortunately, there’s a system in place that helps keep track of the many plants in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. This is extremely important because as a “living collection” it’s always growing and changing. Each orchid in the collection is given a specific barcode label that links to a database record containing important information about the plant. In addition to keeping basic information like its genus and species, the record reveal the plant’s current location, condition, and notes about its current use. All of this information is important for consistent record keeping. After scanning upwards of 80 to 100 plants each week, eventually you begin to pick up some interesting information. For example, some of these orchids are over 30 years old!

Orchid display labels

Orchid display labels

Maintaining the database is essential to keeping the orchid exhibit running smoothly. Plants selected for the exhibit are scanned at the beginning of each week in order to keep track of their changing location. Every Monday and Tuesday, I work to arrange these selected orchids into rank and file at the greenhouses with the help of several other greenhouse staff and volunteers. This makes scanning the pants’ barcodes and recording whether they’re leaving for the show or returning a simple process. It also makes it easy to pull the corresponding display labels. If you’ve made it to the show, you probably recognize those gleaming black and white labels in the photo. Smithsonian Gardens actually keeps label library chock full of thousands of these labels!

Plastic wrapped carts ready to go downtown

Plastic-wrapped carts ready to go downtown

Once all the tags are scanned and display labels staked, plants have to be loaded onto carts and plastic wrapped. It’s lovely that orchids bloom during the winter, but it’s dangerous for us to have to move them outside in cold weather! The plastic wrap provides a temporary buffer from the cold temperatures, which could otherwise harm the blooms and overall health of the orchids. We then swiftly move these carts from greenhouse to box truck and box truck to exhibit hall; minimizing the time they’re outside in the cold. All this scanning, packing, and loading is a bit of a logistical feat, so it’s no surprise something may get left along the way. Case in point, I once forgot to bring the roll of plastic wrap to the exhibit hall.

Now those plants wrapped in the picture above look pretty professional, but that’s only half the battle. It’s incredibly important to take the plastic wrap to the museum because the carts bringing plants back from the exhibit really need protection from the cold as well. These are, after all, orchids that are stressed out from the less than ideal conditions of the exhibit hall. Since we did not have plastic wrap available the Smithsonian Gardens staff improvised and obtained trash bags. The bags made for sufficient protection during the trip back, even if it looked like we were stealing the plants. That was, however, an incredibly stressful experience for me because I was sure we were going to lose part of the collection. I’ll make sure to bring the plastic wrap in the future!

National Herbarium tour

National Herbarium tour

To help balance stressful moments like this, Smithsonian Gardens regularly offers really great opportunities for interns to experience. There are internal tours, in-service sessions, and other educational opportunities that I’m able to attend with my intern status. Recently, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the National Herbarium at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. If you’re like me, you had to look up the definition of a herbarium and figure out what all the commotion is about for a library of dried plants. Aside from the general appealing aesthetics of neatly dried and pressed plants, the National Herbarium has millions of specimens. Its collection includes type specimens, around thirty plants currently extinct in the wild, and even plants collected by former presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Chester Arthur. It also contains some seriously historical plants, like one collected in the 1500s! It’s almost inconceivable to think about everything that’s housed in the herbarium. Check it out online at http://botany.si.edu/colls/collections_overview.htm.

World's largest seed

World’s largest seed

After the tour, I’m really excited for what other opportunities may pop up next. I’m looking forward to making the most of these experiences and sharing them on the Smithsonian Gardens’ blog. That’s all for now, but enjoy another photo from the herbarium of the world’s largest seed. This dried seed still weighs a cool twenty pounds!

-Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern

February 12, 2015 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Put a Spring in Your Step: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Happy February! With the recent news of some rather feisty groundhogs calling for another long winter, I am hoping this week’s edition of ‘What’s In Bloom’ will be an encouraging reminder of what’s to come.

I often pass over phalaenopsis in favor of the more weird and interesting specimens, but this week the novelty hybrids in greenhouse 12 drew my attention and I couldn’t pick just one to feature. The variety of patterns and bold colors splashed across the flowers are seriously amazing. Many of these plants will be making their way down to the exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, so keep your eyes peeled.

Novelty phalaenopsis hybrids

Novelty phalaenopsis hybrids

This next orchid is also slated to make its way downtown in the next week. Prosthechea cochleata is a Central American species known commonly as the ‘cockle shell orchid’ for the distinctive lip shape of its flowers. Notice also that unlike most orchids, the flowers are non-resupinate, meaning the pedicels do not rotate during development to orient the lip below the rest of the flower. Resupination is generally thought of as an evolutionary strategy that proffers the labellum as a landing pad for pollinators. Orchids with non-resupinate flowers may be self-pollinating or their pollinators, for example hummingbirds, may not require a landing pad.

Prosthechea cochleata

Prosthechea cochleata

Inhabiting similar latitudes to the Central American Prosthechea is Polystachya neobenthamia. This tropical, east African species is found growing along cliffs and rock faces in Tanzania. It has an almost weedy appearance with grasslike leaves and erect flower stems holding beautiful puffball inflorescences of tiny white flowers. If orchids were emoticons, this one would be a beaming smiley face.

Polystachya neobenthamia

Polystachya neobenthamia

There is always something blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Stay connected with us to see more plants from the collection, and visit the exhibit downtown through the end of April to experience our orchids firsthand!

 

– Julie R., Living Collection Specialist

February 5, 2015 at 10:00 am Leave a comment


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