Archive for November, 2015

Beguiling Bulbophyllums: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Bulbophyllum is one of the largest orchid genera with around 2,000 species. This genera’s name refers to the leaf-bearing pseudobulbs that are characteristic of plants in this group. An encounter with a Bulbophyllum for the first time can be a rather unexpected olfactory experience, potentially unpleasant, but ultimately a fascinating example of brood site deception between plants and their pollinators.

Bulbophyllum echinolabium

One of the best examples of the odoriferous Bulbophyllum is Bulbophyllum echinolabium, a beautiful, large-flowered specimen with a putrid and pervasive stink. While the smell makes me want to get away fast rather than stick around to take more photographs, the plant’s fly pollinators are wooed closer by the ripe suggestion of rotting meat.  Obviously they are deceived (beguiled, you could say) into pollinating the flower for no reward, and they leave without laying their eggs.

Not all Bulbophyllums exude such a foul odor. Many have a more floral or fruity scent to attract fruit fly pollinators. Others, like Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis ‘Joe Palermo’ have no detectable smell but are equally compelling with impressive rachises of flowers that curve towards the sky like cobras rising from the ground.

Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis 'Joe Palermo'

Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis ‘Joe Palermo’

Another beautiful specimen in bloom is the otherworldly Bulbophyllum medusa, named after Medusa the Gorgon. The flowers’ sepals have evolved dramatically over time to mimic fungal mycelia which attract fungus gnat pollinators.

Bulbophyllum medusae

Bulbophyllum medusae

It is exceedingly difficult to choose just three Bulbophyllums to feature since there is such a diversity of form and color in this genus. We recently accessioned a large number of Bulbophyllum species into our collection and below are two others I couldn’t leave off this post. Bulbophyllum guttulatum, from section Cirrhopetalum, displays an arc of speckled flowers with bright purple lips. The much larger, green and brown mottled specimen is one of our current mysteries. It could be one of three similar species, B. arfakianum, B. frittilariflorum or B. burfordiense. Each species exhibits wide variation in phenotype, therefore an exact species determination must be made by comparing specific parts of the flower anatomy.

Bulbophyllum guttulatum

Bulbophyllum guttulatum

Bulbophyllum sp.

Bulbophyllum sp.

There is always something blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Stay connected with us to see more plants from the collection!

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

November 20, 2015 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

How the Smithsonian Gardens Tree Collection Benefits the Environment and Our Well-Being

The Smithsonian Gardens Tree Collection currently consists of over 1,900 trees spread across the Smithsonian’s downtown Washington, D.C. campus as well as at the Institution’s support facilities in Maryland.  These trees add great aesthetic value to the grounds, and complement the flowers, shrubs, and other plantings in the gardens here.  However, and perhaps more importantly, these trees offer a myriad of environmental and health benefits.

nmnh-trees

Trees along Constitution Avenue at the National Museum of Natural History create a cool, green tunnel for pedestrians. Photo by Greg Huse.

During the summer of 2015, information on all of the collection trees was run through i-Tree, a software program developed by the U.S. Forest Service to calculate the benefits of trees.  The results were eye-opening, and it was encouraging to see how much our trees benefit our campus, city, and planet.

Poor air quality, especially in urban areas, can lead to decreased human health, poor visibility, and damage to plants.  Trees in urban forests help improve air quality by capturing air pollutants, reducing air temperatures, and decreasing energy consumption in buildings which reduces overall air pollutant amounts by lowering demand on power plants.  The SG Tree Collection was calculated to remove 2,700 pounds of air pollutants (carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter) annually with an associated monetary value of $31,185.  This is the equivalent of taking ten cars off the road for a year!

Trees leafing out in spring at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Eric Long.

Trees leafing out in spring at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Eric Long.

One of the most important environmental challenges we currently face is global climate change.  Trees can help mitigate this problem by capturing atmospheric carbon and storing, or sequestering, it for many years.  As trees grow, they continually store carbon in the new wood they produce.  The trees in the SG Tree Collection store an estimated 37,877 pounds of carbon annually.  The large majestic oaks, elms, and other trees found at the National Museum of American History sequester twice as much carbon as the trees found in any other Smithsonian garden or landscape.

Surface runoff of stormwater is a cause for concern in urban areas because it can contribute to pollution in streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and oceans.  Precipitation that reaches the ground and does not infiltrate the soil becomes surface runoff, which carries pollutants into waterways.  Urban trees reduce this runoff by intercepting the water in the tree canopy and allowing it to evaporate over time.  Additionally, water that lands on trees may run along the branches and down the trunks which helps it reach the ground more slowly and infiltrate the soil.  Smithsonian trees intercept 383,705 gallons of rainfall annually, thereby preventing it from becoming surface runoff.

tree-collection-benefits-infographic

In addition to these environmental benefits, many recent studies show how trees, especially in urban areas, contribute to better health for people.  Areas that have many trees can lower blood pressure, have a calming effect on teens and adults with ADHD, improve breathing for those with asthma and other lung conditions, decrease healing times for sickness and injury, contribute to overall emotional and psychological health, and even improve birthweights of newborns!

nasm-nmai-tree

An oak transformed by autumn color at the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Greg Huse.

We appreciate trees for their beauty and grandeur, especially at this time of year when they come ablaze with autumn colors.  Beyond appreciating their beauty, it’s important to remember all of the environmental and health benefits they provide as well.  Planting and properly maintaining trees are important steps to take to continue to improve the world in which we live.  We here at Smithsonian Gardens are proud to do our part in contributing to that goal.

Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist and Tree Collection Manager

November 13, 2015 at 9:45 am 2 comments

A Trip to the “Holy Grail” of Irrigation Systems

When I was awarded a Smithsonian Gardens travel grant I knew that I wanted to make the most of it by going to Orlando, Florida to visit the “holy grail” of centrally-controlled irrigation systems like the one here at the Smithsonian. So, in late September I spent time in the Orlando area visiting Walt Disney World, John Deere Green Tech, an area of Orlando named Lake Nona, Universal Orlando, and a green industry trade show called “The Landscape Show.”

The “holy grail” that I referred to is the Maxicom irrigation system at Walt Disney World. It is the largest system of its type here in the United States and also the oldest. Many of the features of this system came about because of requirements that Disney had over the years. It was quite interesting to see Disney from behind the scenes and to get access to the inner workings of their massive system. I was surprised to discover that the Smithsonian’s irrigation system is actually a bit more modern than theirs and that we are really state-of-the-art when it comes to how our system communicates. I found it very reassuring that the last two and a half years of hard work (plus another two and a half years by my predecessors) has done wonders to rehabilitate our aging system.

Maxicom irrigation controller

One of 750 Maxicom irrigation controllers in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Smithsonian Gardens uses about 20 similar controllers to irrigate the Smithsonian Institution’s gardens and grounds.

Point of connection in the Disney irrigation system

One of the irrigation system points of connection in the Maxicom irrigation system at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The Maxicom system was invented by Rain Bird in the early 1980s.

On this trip I was able to see irrigation systems that are just like ours as well as systems that are quite different. I often tell people that irrigation is like a big erector set. You just need to know what pieces to put in what order. The big difference between our system and most others is that ours is a centrally controlled “smart” system. Without using too many long and boring irrigation terms, that basically means that our irrigation system tells itself when and how long to run by using data from an on-site weather station and pre-programmed schedules. Click here for more on how the Smithsonian Gardens’ irrigation system and weather station work.

weather-station-haupt-garden

Smithsonian Gardens’ on-site weather monitoring station in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. Data collected at this station helps regulate irrigation here at the Smithsonian.

For me this trip was truly valuable in many ways. I was able to gauge the state of the Smithsonian’s irrigation system, see some of its competitors in action, and–most importantly–meet my counterparts in the Orlando area as well as a few of the real innovators who developed and implemented the irrigation system that we use here at the Smithsonian. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch with the folks that I met to keep our system moving in the right direction.

-Mike Guetig, Irrigation Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens

November 4, 2015 at 12:00 pm Leave a comment


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