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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


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

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.



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.


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.


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.


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. 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 claptennse 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 2 comments

A Summer with the Archives of American Gardens at Smithsonian Gardens

Within Smithsonian Gardens is the Archives of American Gardens, a repository dedicated to collecting documentation on historic and contemporary American gardens. AAG was founded in 1987, the same year the Garden Club of America (GCA) donated its extensive slide collection documenting American gardens throughout history to the Smithsonian Institution.

Thanks to a GCA scholarship, I was able to join AAG for a 10-week Garden History and Design Internship this summer.  Prior to this internship, I knew little about this archive or its collections. Nevertheless I was eager to learn more about AAG and Smithsonian Gardens plus excited to have an internship with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. My name is Kathryn Schroeder and this past May I received a Master of Library and Information Science and Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Right away, I was happy to see that my internship would be a diverse experience working on a variety projects exposing me to much of what AAG does. One of the main projects I worked on was processing the Mary Riley Smith Collection. Smith, a Manhattan-based landscape designer, laid out scores of private and public gardens including design work and supervising installation of planting beds at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City for 20 years. I went through the collection folder by folder, noting the client or garden name, location, and folder contents in an inventory. In addition, I re-housed the materials and photocopied certain items for preservation purposes. Utilizing the knowledge I acquired of the collection during this process, I wrote a scope and contents note describing the collection as well as a biographical note about Mary Riley Smith. These notes will be incorporated into a comprehensive finding aid for the collection so interested individuals can learn more about it.

Kathryn processing the Mary Riley Smith Collection at the Archives of American Gardens

Kathryn processing the Mary Riley Smith Collection at the Archives of American Gardens

Having specialized in digital content management during my graduate program, digitization is something that greatly interests me. I was able to apply this interest during my internship by digitizing letters from the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Records. The letters I digitized were from a 1925 contest where customers shared their success stories using Burpee’s seeds. These digitized letters will be uploaded to the Smithsonian Transcription Center where they will be available for transcribing by virtual volunteers whose efforts will enable them to be readily searchable online.

This letter from the 1925 Burpee seed contest was one of hundreds digitized by Kathryn during her internship.

This letter from the 1925 Burpee seed contest was one of hundreds digitized by Kathryn during her internship.

I also had the opportunity to catalog digital images documenting gardens submitted to AAG by volunteers from the Garden Club of America. Using a database designed for cataloging, I created records describing the garden as a whole as well as specific sections of it. The records I created are now available to the public on SIRIS, an online catalog containing millions of records describing holdings in the Smithsonian collections. Another exciting aspect of my internship was researching the history behind a number of garden features and writing ‘One Minute Reports’ to be distributed to GCA chapters across America, blogs, and social media posts. This enabled me to become more familiar with gardening, a subject I did not know much about prior to my internship. I particularly enjoyed researching and writing about the history of swimming pools.

The various projects I worked on throughout my internship allowed me to acquire skills and knowledge that will be valuable tools as I advance in my career. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to spend 10 weeks with the Archives of American Gardens and Smithsonian Gardens, and thoroughly enjoyed my time in Washington, D.C.

Kathryn Schroeder, Summer 2015 GCA Garden History and Design Intern, Archives of American Gardens

August 21, 2015 at 2:41 pm 1 comment

Round 1 of the Smithsonian Summer Showdown – Vote for Community of Gardens


This August the Smithsonian is having a showdown between its museums, gardens, cultural centers, and zoo to determine the Institution’s most “Seriously Amazing” program or object and Smithsonian Gardens needs your help to win! This year we nominated Community of Gardens – an online archive of gardens grown by you.


Some of the beautiful photos submitted to Community of Gardens.

We created Community of Gardens to provide a digital home for stories, photographs, and videos of gardens across America. Anyone can add their story, which means an account of your parents’ backyard wedding, your grandmother’s tomatoes, or your neighborhood’s community garden can become part of the Smithsonian. You can read garden stories and submit your own here. What’s more amazing than that?

So show your support for the project and vote now. Better yet get everyone you know to  vote for Community of Gardens before the end of Round 1 on Wednesday, August 12. Plus, when you vote you’ll be entered to win a prize package of goodies from the Smithsonian store.

Ready? Click here to vote! 


August 7, 2015 at 1:04 pm Leave a comment

Trending in San Francisco

Recently, I was fortunate to receive a Smithsonian Gardens Travel Grant to visit gardens and natural spaces in the San Francisco area. This grant gives Smithsonian Gardens staff the opportunity to expand their knowledge about public garden functions and industry trends by funding visits to other public gardens or conferences throughout the nation.

Until my visit, I did not realize how much acreage Golden Gate Park (GGP) encompasses or know about the history of its creation. GGP is one of the largest man-made parks in the world. Host to the 1894 Midwinter International Exposition, it was created on 1,017 acres consisting mostly of sand dunes. Many at that time were skeptical the park would come to fruition especially considering its location. The monumental undertaking was extremely successful, however. It is hard not to be impressed when you see how lush the current landscape is and think back on how brutal the winds and drifting sands in the area must have been before its creation. Today, the park is enjoyed by millions of visitors each year and is a great place to exercise, connect with nature, and rejuvenate the soul.

A Redwood Trail, in the San Francisco Botanical Garden located in Golden Gate Park.

A Redwood Trail, in the San Francisco Botanical Garden located in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Stan Shebs.

One trend I came across repeatedly during my travels through the San Francisco area was the use of foliage, form, and texture. My stop at Flora Grubb Gardens turned up some excellent examples of how color echoes can give a harmonious feeling to any number of design principles. The image below illustrates how flowers alone don’t necessarily create a beautiful landscape.


Try toning things down in your garden with a monochromatic color scheme. Select plants of one color but with differing tints, shades, and hues. The focus is then on the juxtaposition of textures and shapes.

I was truly inspired by the innovative plant combinations, great color harmonies, and textures I observed on this trip, and have no doubt that learning more about these design elements will improve my annual plant displays at the Smithsonian. I look forward to incorporating some new ideas into the landscapes surrounding the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, Freer Gallery, and the Smithsonian Castle. Hopefully you are inspired to create a new vignette in your own garden too.

– Rick Shilling, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

July 31, 2015 at 9:37 am Leave a comment

A Spectacular Show: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

The sight of fresh blooming encyclias is one to tease the eyes. Generally small flowered and often less than an inch in diameter, encyclias pack a punch with their unending shape and color variations. Orchid lovers could spend days observing these species and hybrids. This hardly comes as a surprise when you take into consideration that there are over 150 species in the genus.

Encyclia Nursery Rhyme

Encyclia Nursery Rhyme

Originating from the Greek word, enkylein, the name encyclia refers to the way the lateral lobes of the flower encircle the column. Found from central Florida to Brazil, these orchids grow in warmer climates and produce psuedobulbs in clumps. Each clump sends up several flower spikes at a time and each variety of encyclia has flower spikes that range in a length from a foot to several feet long. Since each spike can produce many flowers these spikes make for quite a spectacular show.

A clustering of Encyclia oncidioides behind Encyclia Cindy.

A clustering of Encyclia oncidioides behind Encyclia Cindy.

I find these orchids very pleasing to observe. Their small flowers make them manageable to view, but contain subtle details that are a delight to discover. These flowers have great depth to them, so changing your angle of view can reveal more interesting characteristics.

Encyclias are often crossed with the genera Cattleya and Epidendrum to create lovely hybrids. Encyclias are desirable for their interesting flower shapes and Encyclia cordigera in particular often is selected for hybridization for its darker colors and intoxicating aroma. Encyclia cordigera has received over 40 awards from the American Orchid Society, so why not pass along some of these winning characteristics to other orchids?

Encyclia Atroniceum x bractescens

Encyclia Atroniceum x bractescens

Encyclia alata x mooreana

Encyclia alata x mooreana

In the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, there are currently over 60 examples of these encyclia species and hybrid combinations. Their flowers last up to a month sometimes longer, so they regularly make their way to the display cases in museums around the Smithsonian. Be sure to swing by the orchid cases downstairs in the National Museum of American History sometime in the next few weeks to see one of these incredible orchids on display.

– Alan Marcus, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Intern

Encyclia Cindy

Encyclia Cindy

July 23, 2015 at 11:18 am 1 comment

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