When people visit our gardens on the National Mall from all over the country and the world, we hope they find see or learn something new to bring back to their own garden, whether it’s a community garden plot or a backyard or a few pots sitting on a windowsill. When you visit we hope some plant or technique or idea piques your interest and catches your eye. It could be an eco-friendly way to ward off pests, a novel method for trellising, or a unique flower or tree. We love to share the gardens at the Smithsonian Institution with you and hope they inspire you to get outside and get growing!
But did you know your gardens inspire us? Through the Community of Gardens project, we find ourselves inspired every day by the stories of gardens being created all across the United States. Anyone can add a story, image, video, or audio clip about a garden or gardener to our digital archive. Some of the most inspiring stories are of teens gardening in their own schools and communities. Every summer high school students apply to work at the Common Good City Farm in Washington, D.C and help run the community garden. Teens at White Station High School in Memphis, Tennessee banded together to create a student-led garden from the ground up. Classes at Paul International High School in D.C. tackled renovation projects in their existing school garden.
Stories like these inspired us to design the Smithsonian Gardens Green Ambassador Challenge. Teens and teachers, if you have ever wanted to bring gardening to your school, but didn’t know where to start, this challenge is for you! We give you the tools to green your school, step-by-step. Learn skills such as design thinking, budgeting, building, project management, and gardening along the way. Rooted in project-based learning, the Green Ambassador Challenge empowers young people to make a real difference in their community. The possibilities are endless, from a few raised beds outside of your building to an outdoor classroom space to a butterfly or wildlife garden.
Teachers can download a packet with all lessons and detailed information on national standards challenge goals, and essential questions. Students can follow along here as they move through the process.
So we ask you: How will you inspire us next? What kind of garden can your school community grow? And by growing a garden could you inspire the next generation of landscape architects, horticulturists, park planners, and arborists?
Contact us at email@example.com for more details if you would like to get involved!
-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator
It is such a fabulous time of the year in the gardens! The heat has finally stalled out (yeah!) and the gardens are lush and glorious. The highlight for me in the Ripley Garden is the diversity of birds, butterflies, bees, wasps and other creatures that bring the garden to life. Seeing numerous monarch butterflies in the garden makes my heart sing, since the overall population has declined in recent years due to habitat destruction and the subsequent loss of food sources.
Monarchs feed primarily on milkweed (Asclepias family). These plants usually like sunny, disturbed sites, so they are often found along roadways. The most frequent roadside milkweed is A. syriaca, a 3’-5’ tall plant which multiplies both by runners and by seed.
Unfortunately, roadside plants are often killed chemically or mowed down just as the butterflies are seeking food and nectar sources. Knowing the monarch population is in peril, I planted a variety of milkweeds in the Ripley Garden to nurture the population and educate my visitors about some planting options for their gardens.
There’s the readily available ‘Butterfly weed,’ Asclepias tuberosa, which blooms a vibrant orange color in June and July, sometimes repeating a bloom slightly later. For the most part, it is not in bloom when the adults are present and needing nectar. However, the adults do lay eggs on the foliage, and the emerging larvae will strip the plants clean rather quickly.
I also have Asclepias verticillata, a Midwestern native that is only about 1′-1.5’ tall, and spreads by underground stolons (horizontal runners) in dry rocky soils to form a colony. The white flowers are borne on the top of the stem in clusters.
Asclepias purpurascens, a real stunner blooming in early June with glorious hot raspberry-colored flowers, is another milkweed native to the U.S. that I am growing. It is quite rare in cultivation due to seed viability issues, but hopefully this will soon be solved. Since it is past bloom before adult butterflies appear, this milkweed does not serve as a nectar source for monarchs and I have not witnessed any larvae feeding on it.
The milkweed which seems to be getting ALL the attention of the monarchs in the Ripley Garden is… drum roll please…. Asclepias curassavica. This plant is native to South America and is hardy only in plant hardiness zones 9 and 10, though it has spread and established throughout tropical regions. In Washington D.C., the plant sows by seed from year to year. The plants will reach anywhere from 1’-5’ tall, and thrive best in full sun with average moisture.
Asclepias curassavica is a tropical milkweed which produces blooms of brilliant oranges and reds between June and October, so it provides both nectar for adults and food for caterpillars. Many of the plants in the Ripley Garden are totally bare, just a stripped stalk remaining after some very hungry caterpillars have devoured everything they could munch. When the time is right, the caterpillars find a secure place where they can hang freely and create a chrysalis.
I allowed the Asclepias curassavica to selfsow in an area up against the Arts and Industries Building, and have been delighted to see a number of caterpillars munching away. But I wasn’t finding any chrysalises, until recently. Hiding in plain sight, the caterpillars climbed up the brick wall to transform while hanging in the window wells!
In this window well alone, there are four chrysalises that have not pupated, and three remnants where butterflies have already emerged! The more I started looking, and really seeing, I realized that I created a perfect nursery for the monarchs, without even trying!
I am so delighted that the monarchs, and a plethora of other insects, call the Ripley Garden home! Your garden can also be an ideal butterfly habitat. Avoid the use of toxic chemicals (this includes mosquito sprays!) and plant a wide variety of plants known to be beneficial to insects. Plant it and they WILL come!
– Janet Draper, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist
Last year, I had the opportunity to design an exhibit in the Ripley Center, “Design for Small Spaces.” Featuring stumpery, fairy gardens, green walls, terrariums and dish gardens, I hoped to inspire visitors with some ideas they could try at home, even in the smallest of spaces. A favorite component of the exhibit was the fairy garden vignette. With this year’s latest installation, I wanted to delve deeper into the world of miniature gardening.
The new exhibit, “Garden Inspirations,” opened Labor Day weekend in the Ripley Center. Images from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens were used to inspire five miniature landscapes. Selecting images from the Archives was no easy task. I spent hours narrowing down options from the thousands available in that repository to find “the perfect five” to miniaturize. In my search, I was looking for images that not only documented a range of gardens, but ones I also felt confident in transforming. Which images had features I could replicate with small plants and miniature furniture and would do well in low-light conditions? Ultimately, I found five images I not only fell in love with, but met those requirements.
I hope you’ll have a chance to visit “Garden Inspirations” and find inspiration in elements in the pictured gardens for your own plantings, as I did in the miniature displays. What colors, textures, scents, or features might you add to your own garden?
Would you like your garden to inspire other gardeners? Add images and a story about your garden to Community of Gardens, a digital home for sharing and preserving stories of gardens and the gardeners who make them grow. Anyone can add their story, which means that an account of your parents’ backyard wedding, your grandmother’s tomatoes, or your neighborhood’s community garden can become a part of the Smithsonian. Visit communityofgardens.si.edu to get started.
– Alex Thompson, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist
Miltonia moreliana is a species of orchid found in Venezuela and Brazil that blooms reliably in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection in late summer or early fall. Named originally for a French orchid nursery around 1800, ‘Mora’ is also the Spanish word for blackberries which share this vibrant color. For many years this species was considered a variety of the highly variable Miltonia spectabilis which has many color forms. However, Miltonia moreliana was described as a separate species back in 1848 and is considered distinct from the other color forms.
Many confuse the vigorous, lowland, warmer-growing Miltonias from Brazil with the finicky, upper-elevation Miltoniopsis that thrive in the Andes Mountains in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. While the flowers are superficially similar, they are not closely related and have different cultural requirements. Brazilian Miltonias have long rhizomes (underground stems) between their growths and become large specimens quickly. Because of their creeping habit, new growths often wander out of their pots. Larger plants, such as this Miltonia need frequent repotting and occasional division to stay healthy. Many intergeneric (a cross between plants in two different genera) hybrids with Brassia and Oncidium have been bred using this species and the results virtually always exhibit this delightful coloration. Some examples of these beautiful and popular hybrids can be seen below.
– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist
What do you usually pack to eat on a long trip? Maybe a few granola bars and a couple bottles of water?
Thanks to detailed records kept by the Pilgrims, we know that they brought a large quantity of seeds with them during their voyage on the Mayflower to the New World. These seeds were used to start gardens that sustained the new colony. They produced quick-growing crops like mustard, protein-rich peas, and carbohydrates from wheat and oats.
On an expedition to the Arctic in 1819, British sea captain Sir William Edward Parry fortuitously brought along a pocketful of cress and mustard seeds. When his ship the H.M.S Hecla was stuck in the polar ice for nine months, these sprouts helped prevent scurvy amongst the crew.
The crew of Expedition 44 to the International Space Station in 2015 also packed along seeds. Astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren became the first Americans to ever eat food grown in space–a leafy romaine lettuce salad.
According to the sci-fi classic Star Trek, we are still a few centuries away from having a food replicator aboard a starship. However, NASA and partnering space agencies are currently developing gardens that will one day sustain life on a space station and maybe even a Mars colony.
So, the next time you pack food for a long journey, you may want to choose some hearty granola bars. You know, the ones with the seeds in them…just in case.
To learn more about sustaining life in far-out locations come to the Museum Moonshine program at the National Air and Space Museum on September 10, 2016 from 8 to 10 p.m. Museum Moonshine is an evening garden party that celebrates the treasures of Earth and space by highlighting craft food and drink inspired by earthly botanicals and space science. Tickets available here – http://s.si.edu/2beYmHi
– Brett McNish, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist
My name is Erin Clark and I’m a horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens. Each year Smithsonian Gardens sends staff on professional development trips to gather inspiration for the gardens. Thanks to this travel grant, I was able to tour the gardens of New England. From Connecticut and the hills of Vermont to New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the vistas I experienced were vivid and the people I met were warm and welcoming. Many of the gardens I visited in the area showcased the use of plants, something we like to highlight in tours at the National Museum of American History.
I began with a selection of historic gardens in Connecticut. Starting in Hartford, I visited Hill-Stead, a home designed by an architect’s daughter for her wealthy parents in retirement, complete with a sunken garden by Beatrix Farrand. Works by Monet and other artists hang in the house and the hills outside the home used to be a working farm. I toured with Hill-Stead’s head gardener at a time when the roses bloomed in top form.
At The Florence Griswold Museum I spoke with Landscape Historian Sheila Wertheimer who works with volunteers to ensure that the grounds are beautiful and accurate to their original aesthetic. Sheila enlisted the help of an archaeologist to find the original bed locations. Referencing old photographs and paintings by the artists that flocked to this boarding house turned artists’ colony, she recreated a colonial revival garden, complete with roses, yarrow, and delphiniums. The site now hosts an art gallery and a cafe overlooking the Lieutenant River.
In Massachusetts I visited the campus of Smith College, toured the greenhouse there, and enjoyed the synoptic beds laid out by plant family. Near Massachusetts’ northern border is a place called the Bridge of Flowers where a footbridge stretches across the Deerfield River, adorned in cottage garden flowers and trees reminiscent of Monet’s garden in France.
Next I drove to Tasha Tudor’s Garden in Marlboro, VT. There the famous children’s book illustrator lived a quiet life in a house built by her son. The Tudor family leads a few tours each year and still keeps the house much as the artist did during her lifetime. An entire field of lupine greeted visitors at the gate. The garden’s crab apples and daffodils had long since bloomed, giving way to the exuberance of summer. Tasha’s grandson, Winslow, proudly showed us the gardens and chickens. Seth Tudor, Tasha’s son, showed us the beams of the house he built by hand and the tiny puppet studio that the family used to entertain neighborhood children.
Tasha Tudor, born in 1915, had a love of the old way of doing things, and kept goats, churned butter and gardened, all in late 19th century style dress. There are still notes on the wall with phone numbers, important dates and weather conditions, and sketches of her beloved corgis. A testament to her love of the artistic process, she chose weaving over modern pastimes like watching television and kept two looms that dwarfed the rooms they occupied. Staying there in Vermont among lakes and evergreens, watching the water birds and the sunset, I could understand why Tasha had chosen this place.
I was off to Portsmouth, New Hampshire the next day, and explored the preserved town of Strawbery Banke (named in the English of the day). It was named for the wild strawberries that grew along the banks, enough to fill the hull of a ship. Several houses and backyard gardens illustrate this site’s 400-year-old history. Erik Wochholz, the Curator of Historic Landscapes at the Strawbery Banke Museum, led me on a tour and we sampled our way through herbs used for brewing and as garnishes. Kids have an opportunity to wander through colonial gardens, explore a WWII-era store, and even do a paleobotany activity examining modern pollen under microscope.
John Forti, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Director of Horticulture and Education, met with me for my last stop before heading back to D.C. MHS owns a historic estate next to a soccer park, complete with a grotto, a formal garden and several themed gardens. During the last year, wooden structures and arches have been built and educational interpretation for youth has grown. The veggie garden, next to a peaked frame house built by the monks who once ran the site, is the current domain of several heirloom lettuces, tomatoes, and strawberries, as well as a nesting killdeer.
Heading into the city and to the airport, I was left with beautiful memories of the places I had visited on this whirlwind tour. I learned about the importance plants have in providing a sense of place in a garden. I saw many different ways of interpreting history with labeling, programs and art. Every place has a different focus, a different plant palette, and a set of people who love it, dedicated to its continuance, much like Smithsonian Gardens.
– Erin Clark, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist
In literature, mythology, love, and everyday life flowers—light as a feather—are weighted with meaning. In the Victorian era entire guides were published dedicated to the “language of flowers” and the idea that a single flower, or a particular arrangement of flowers, could communicate complex emotions and social cues. Of course, these guides were often at odds with each other and were most likely a faddish folly rather than a prescription for concrete communication in everyday life. One could only hope that if a courting couple were signaling each other with posy holders they were referencing the same book. For instance, a white rose symbolizes “I would be single” according to the 1852 book The Language of Flowers, but in The Illustrated Language of Flowers (1856) a white rose signaled “I am worthy of you.” Unless it was wilted, for then it meant “transient impressions.” Confusion sets in when a white rose was worn with a red rose, which symbolized “unity.” If these books were taken at face value, how easy it would be to send mixed messages. What a beginning to a romantic comedy!
Throughout history flowers have symbolically marked weddings and funerals, the change of seasons, state and national pride, and have symbolized love, hope, rebirth, death, and everything in between. The state flower of Hawaii is the yellow ma’o hau hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei). Hibiscus flowers are often given to visitors to Hawaii as a gesture of welcome. Mexican marigolds (cempasúchil) are known as the flor de muertos and used to decorate the graves of loved ones for Día de los Muertos celebrations.
Flowers find their way into our everyday lives through more personal channels. Our Community of Gardens digital archive is a home for these stories of flowers and gardens and their impact on our daily lives. From the unique peony cultivar developed by a flower-loving neighbor to cakes flavored by the vanilla orchid to memories of a childhood spent in shady backyard abundant with colorful azalea bushes, anyone can share their story with the Smithsonian Institution. We are collecting stories of gardens and plants past and present to preserve for future generations.
Here are some of our favorite flower stories from Community of Gardens—all have a story to tell about the meaning of flowers in our personal histories and culture at large:
Do you have a personal story of flowers to share with our archive? We welcome stories about:
- The development of a particular flower cultivar.
- Flowers rescued and replanted from family homesteads or lost or destroyed gardens.
- Family florist businesses or flower farms.
- Edible flowers. Share your best recipe for squash blossoms with us!
- Did you grow up in a different country? Is there a flower that reminds you of home, or a flower from your culture you have incorporated into your life in the United States?
- Flower gardens of all shapes and sizes.
- What flowers mean to you in your life.
-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator