Archive for September, 2015

Plants in the Ripley Center: Design for Small Spaces

Next time you visit the Smithsonian museums, take some time to venture into the Ripley Center concourse underneath the Enid A. Haupt Garden. You’ll find the planters lining the walkway there feature a temporary exhibit showcasing gardening styles for small spaces. Five planters host unique interior and exterior vignettes that illustrate a variety of small gardening options. They require little space and are low-maintenance, but add BIG style to any garden.

In selecting a new theme for the plantings in the Ripley Center, I chose to highlight gardening styles that fit urban settings – traditionally smaller spaces for plants – that can be adapted to accentuate any size area. I worked closely with Smithsonian Gardens’ (SG) team of education specialists and collection curators to design this exhibit which features pieces from SG’s historic Garden Furnishings Collection.

Fairy garden

Fairy garden

Whimsical, magical, fantastic – these are words I think of to describe a fairy garden. My daughter is very much into fairies, princesses, and gnomes – all that wonderful stuff of the Disney variety. For her, this form of gardening in miniature that incorporates fairies and other fantasy creatures IS magic. To me, these gardens have a tale to tell through their use of characters and scenery and spark the imagination of young and old.

Assorted terrariums

Terrariums

My family shares a 1950’s ranch-style house. While there isn’t a lot of room for interior plants, we’re able to fit in some of the styles on display in the modest space. Terrariums are what we use the most at home–on the dining-room table, in the bathroom and bedrooms. Since they can be almost any size, the possibilities are almost endless. A small terrarium can really brighten up a space and add a natural touch, as it has in our 1950’s galley kitchen!

green-wall

Green wall

My colleague Janet Draper wrote an interesting post about her planting of a green, or living, wall in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. The green wall installed in the Ripley Center is much smaller and less tricky to cultivate than the lovely and large exterior wall that Janet maintains. Green walls have become popular in offices and homes as a way to liven up a wall and provide possible health benefits; they clean the air and increase positive moods.

Stumpery

Stumpery

A stumpery is a garden feature I wish I had known about every time a tree fell in my nestled-in-the-woods childhood home. Utilizing the remains of a tree in inventive ways would have saved my father a lot of chainsaw blades. Through the creative arrangement of stumps and the incorporation of ferns and other shade-loving plants, old stumps can themselves become a focal point within a garden. This style was extremely popular during the Victorian era (1837-1901) and has experienced a resurgence recently.

Dish garden of succulents

Dish garden of succulents

Dish gardening enables a gardener to create an environment that might otherwise be difficult to sustain. For instance, in the Washington, D.C. area desert plants are not able thrive during our cold and sometimes snowy winters. The desert dish garden in our home has successfully survived multiple harsh winters. Watering and sunlight needs vary depending on the plants one chooses to use in a dish garden, but it’s a great way to grow plants you wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

I’ll be sharing some behind-the-scenes and DIY tips in future blogs. Be sure to catch these plant vignettes in the Ripley Center before exhibit closes on January 31, 2016. I and everyone at Smithsonian Gardens hope you enjoy the exhibit and take away some ideas you might be able to use in your own indoor or outdoor garden.

– Alexandra Thompson, Horticulturist, Interior Plants, Smithsonian Gardens

September 18, 2015 at 9:25 am Leave a comment

The Botany of Survival – Plants that Saved Arctic Expeditions

The heyday of arctic exploration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries represents a significant period in our national history and helped to shape our identity as Americans. While a series of expeditions marked a time of scientific advancement, a deep sense of international competition also fueled the age. Many attempts to push further north resulted in shipwreck and disaster. However, many more of these missions would have failed if it were not for a handful of plants that played an important role in saving them.

Saskatoon berries

Saskatoon berries. Lynette Schimming, photographer.

Berries

The Polaris Expedition of 1871 faced ruin after adverse weather conditions and the sudden death of the captain, Charles Francis Hall, left nineteen crew members stranded on a drifting ice floe. Fortunately for the sailors, their late captain’s foresight gave them a fighting chance. For six months they floated through the Arctic, surviving on a ration of biscuits, chocolate, and pemmican—a mixture of dried meat, animal fat, and berries. Pemmican was a traditional American Indian food renowned for its nutritional content and ability to last without refrigeration. The dish was high in protein, and its berries (usually Saskatoon Serviceberry Amelanchier alnifolia or chokecherries Prunus virginiana) provided necessary vitamins and flavor. Captain Hall, a seasoned explorer, prudently equipped each of his expeditions with a large stock of pemmican. Even though Hall did not survive the journey (and was possibly murdered by his own crew), his pemmican sustained the men of Polaris until they were rescued.

Pemmican is still used today! Its high-energy value has made it a go-to food for backpackers, hikers, and survivalists. Do you have a pemmican recipe to share?

Pemmican container

This pemmican container was discarded by the Lost Franklin Expedition of 1845 and recovered by the Polaris Expedition decades later. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Brett McNish, photographer.

Moss from Bennett Island, Russia

Moss specimen obtained from Bennett Island, Russia, by the crew of the Jeanette Expedition. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Brett McNish, photographer.

Moss

The 1881 Lady Franklin Bay Expedition was led by Adolphus Greely—a man with no arctic experience. After multiple failed resupply missions, Greely and his crew waited three years for rescue as their food stores dwindled. The crew survived on foraged material, including moss (Polytrichum sp.) and lichens—some of the only things able to grow in the severe environment in which they were stranded. Though starvation seemed certain, this plant enabled Greely and five of his crew to return home. Greely and his men were not the only explorers to dine on moss. The moss specimen in the National Museum of American History collection was obtained from Bennett Island, Russia by the crew of the doomed Jeanette Expedition during their attempt to reach the North Pole from the Bering Sea.

SS Proteus

SS Proteus of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Brainard Collection of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, 1881-1884. College Park, Maryland: National Archives.

Prunes

In 1908, seasoned explorer Robert E. Peary began his final expedition to the Arctic. Peary’s lifelong obsession paid off, and he became the first man to reach the North Pole. Though recent historians believe he fell a few miles short of the actual pole, Peary’s feat marked a great success for America during the height of arctic exploration. Peary’s team required highly nutritional food that could also remain fresh for months on end. Among the supplies, Peary brought 608 pounds of dried plums, better known as prunes (Prunus domestica). Prunes provided an excellent source of fiber for the crew, ran little risk of spoiling, and added a sweet relief to a monotonous diet of meats and fats. Peary and his men returned from the expedition the following year, successful in their goal.

robert-peary-NPG.93.353

Robert Peary. 1908-1909. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.93.353.

Crate for transporting prunes

Prune crate similar to the ones used by Peary on his exhibition. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, 1979.0441.336.

– Brett McNish, Supervisory Horticulturist and Sara Kuhn, Smithsonian Gardens Intern

September 10, 2015 at 3:13 pm Leave a comment

Rare and Beautiful Orchids (and a Horticulturist) Find Home at Smithsonian Gardens

Imagine opening an innocuous cardboard box and finding this inside!

Paphiopedilum Chiu Hua Dancer

Paphiopedilum Chiu Hua Dancer

I was fortunate to have this pleasure on one of my first days on the job as a horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens. Already amazed (and slightly overwhelmed) by the diversity of orchids in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, my first week on the job included helping my colleagues unpack a tractor trailer full of boxes containing a major donation of orchids.

Anne, a Smithsonian Gardens volunteer, assists Emily and the other greenhouse staff unpack boxes of donated orchids.

Anne, a Smithsonian Gardens volunteer, assists Emily and the other greenhouse staff unpack boxes of donated orchids.

Hundreds of specimens were added to the orchid collection at the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility in Suitland, MD. The plants were part of an extensive collection owned by the late Denis Roessiger of Penobscot, ME, that have been generously donated by his wife, Lucybelle.

Horticulturists from the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses journeyed to Maine to select and carefully pack up the orchids, which then travelled overnight by truck to the Suitland greenhouse facility. There, greenhouse staff and volunteers eagerly unloaded and unpacked the vast array of plants. “This donation is exceptional in that 99% of the orchids are species orchids or rare hybrids,” commented Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Specialist, Tom Mirenda.  The donation is a major addition to the Smithsonian Gardens’ collection, adding entirely new genera to it and increasing the species abundance and overall diversity.

I asked Tom Mirenda to give me a walk-through of the highlights of the donation. Here are his top picks:

(L to R) Bulbophyllum claptennse and Bulbophyllum cocoinum

(L to R) Bulbophyllum amplebracteatum subsp. carunculatum ‘Sunset Valley Orchids’ and Bulbophyllum cocoinum

Over 200 new Bulbophyllum specimens now complement the already extensive collection of this genus maintained by Smithsonian Gardens. Bulbophyllum is one of the largest and most ancient genus of orchids; found in tropical forests around the world, they are often odd-looking plants with peculiar, sometimes foul, fragrances.  “One of my favorites currently in bloom is Bulbophyllum cocoinum, which has a coconut fragrance,” says Mirenda.  The donation also included fifteen species of Trichoceros, a new genus for the collection. Trichoceros are epiphytic and terrestrial orchids native to the Andean Mountain range in South America.

(L to R) Lycaste deppei Superb and Phrgmipedium Fritz Schomberg

(L to R) Lycaste deppei Superb and Phrgmipedium Fritz Schomberg

The donation tripled Smithsonian Gardens’ collection of hard to find Maxillaria orchids, and added 50 to 70 species of Restrepia and several large specimen Coelogyne and Dendrochilum. Also new to the collection are several Lycaste and Dracula species.  Rare color forms of Laelia and Cattleya now grace the collection. Orchid enthusiasts will swoon at the large addition of South American Slipper Orchids (Phragmipedium), particularly the controversial Phragmipedium kovachii—the orchid at the heart of the book, Scent of a Scandal.

(L to R) Vanda Hiyasmin 'Korat' and Vanda Pachara Delight

(L to R) Vanda Hiyasmin ‘Korat’ and Vanda Pachara Delight “Isabella’

Large, brilliant, purple flowers of an eight-foot Vanda were one of the showiest surprises during unpacking. One of the Smithsonian greenhouses has been transformed with the addition of roughly 40 Vandas now hanging from the ceiling and suspended racks.

Vandas hanging in one of Smithsonian Gardens' orchid greenhouses.

Vandas hanging in one of Smithsonian Gardens’ orchid greenhouses.

With the acquisition of these plants, our orchid collection now has well over 10,000 specimens. “By continually building our collection in this way, we have made the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection a true scientific resource,” says Mirenda.

– Emily Cook, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens

September 4, 2015 at 10:00 am 5 comments


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