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.”
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!
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!
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!
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.
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