Posts filed under ‘Collections’

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 is 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.


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.


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!


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 1 comment

Little Seeds, Big Stories.

Community of Gardens logo

Community of Gardens is a digital archive of stories about gardens and gardening in the U.S.—anyone can add their story to this Smithsonian collection!

Archives can be intimidating. The first time I truly spent any time with an archive was graduate school, researching Gilded Age costume balls in New York City as part of an internship. Flipping through the folders of hundred-year-old photographs inspired both a sense of awe and terror. I was so conscientious, never laying a finger on a photograph, turning the photos just the way I had been told to by the nice (but firm) archivist, and making sure not one thing was out of place when I returned the boxes. Having the opportunity to be so close to history, and the physical trail of documents, photographs, and objects that comes along with it, was both thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time.

It can be hard to see how archives connect to our everyday lives, or even to see how our very own stories and lives could be important enough to be included in a museum. The Smithsonian Institution is home to amazing and Important (with a capital “I”) treasures, such as a letter from Galileo and Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. But also hidden in these archives and collections vaults are small gems, such as a promotional flower seed box from the mid 1800s to family photo albums.

Our family histories—and our gardens—can seem like just the tiniest, most ephemeral seeds in the vast forest of history, but our memories of “everyday” history have the power tell big stories. A story of grandma’s Victory Garden during World War II and her recipe for sweet canned peaches is also a tale of perseverance and making-do during a time of adversity. Memories of backyard barbecues and Tiki parties on the patio in the 1950s speak of a time of newfound prosperity for the middle class in the postwar years. Your story of the tiny herb garden and cucumbers growing on the balcony of your city apartment? Someday, it could show future historians how individuals contributed to the greening of America’s cities in the early 21st century.

October is American Archives Month, and the theme for 2015 is the “Power of Collaboration.” Our Community of Gardens digital archive depends wholly on collaboration to exist—we are collecting your stories and memories about gardens and gardening! Anyone can submit a memory, story, photograph, or video about a garden in America. You can help us preserve garden history and become a part of the Smithsonian by sharing your story with us on the website.

Collage of Family Stories on Community of Gardens

Garden—and family—history comes alive on Community of Gardens.

Here are a few of our favorite family stories submitted by the public from the Community of Gardens digital archive. From left to right:

  1. Four Generations of Gardeners. This story spans three centuries, and many bountiful crops of ripe tomatoes:
  2. Grandmother’s Garden. A granddaughter shares her memories of her grandmother’s love of roses and gardening:
  3. Camy and Larry’s Backyard Wedding. Recollections of a 1970’s hippie backyard wedding in a woodland setting, with Super 8mm footage. Check out those vintage dresses!

What is your family’s garden story? Get inspired by Archives Month and interview a family member about their garden memories or share your own. It’s a great excuse to dig into those family photos and videos and start asking questions! Share your story this month, or any month of the year.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens Educator

October 22, 2015 at 7:00 am 1 comment

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

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

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

Matt’s Top 5 Tropicals for 2015

The Smithsonian Gardens’ tropical plant collection includes approximately 1,000 plants. This number fluctuates on a fairly regular basis as some plants die from natural causes while others grow so large that they outgrow their display space or even the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouse facility. As the caretaker of this collection, I have a special relationship with the plants and, though I care for them all, I do have a few favorites. Here is a list of my personal top 5 favorite plants in the Smithsonian’s tropical plant collection (in no particular order) along with where to catch them on display this summer.

Caladium schomburgkii 'Skula'

Caladium schomburgkii ‘Skula’

First up is Caladium schomburgkii ‘Skula.’ This relatively unknown caladium is subtle, but for some reason is a favorite of mine. Could it be the interesting leaf shape, or perhaps its various hues of green leaves, or simply its ease of care? I honestly don’t know why I like this plant so much but see for yourself and make your own decision. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden

Aristolochia gigantea 'Brasiliensis'

Aristolochia gigantea ‘Brasiliensis.’ My coworker, Shannon, was kind enough to pose with the flower to give you an idea of its size.

Once you see Aristolochia gigantea ‘Brasiliensis’ flowers you will know why this tropical made my top 5 list. It took me a few tries to cultivate this plant. I previously obtained two specimens and both times when they flowered they ended up being straight A. gigantea. My third attempt was well worth the trouble, however. This plant produces flowers nearly year-round and what a display they make! The flowers measure nearly 12 inches wide and before opening they have a fascinating side profile that resembles a smoking pipe. Aristolochia ridicula was close to making my list as well (check out its flowers). Location: Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

Dioscorea mexicana

Dioscorea mexicana

Dioscorea mexicana, also called Mexican Yam, is one of the coolest looking plants you will ever see. The plant’s caudex (stem base) looks like a tortoise shell. The glossy heart-shaped leaves are attractive and can grow 15 feet in a single growing season. While pretty, the flowers are small so it’s best to enjoy this plant for its foliage and oh so interesting caudex. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden

Caladium schomburgkii 'Skula'

Combretum indicum “Flora Plena’

Combretum indicum ‘Flora Plena,’ the second vine on my list, is certainly a show stopper. This doubled flowered cultivar is not only visually breathtaking but also pleasantly fragrant. The flowers start out white and as they age change over to various hues of pink and red. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden

Alsobia dianthiflora

Alsobia dianthiflora

Alsobia dianthiflora is also known by its common name, Lace Flower. A simple plant with fuzzy green leaves and a dark midrib, it looks nice year-round but really shines when it’s shredded-edged white flowers start to bloom. This plant also makes for a great house plant. Location: Enid A. Haupt Garden

Encephalartos horridus

Encephalartos horridus

A bonus plant to add to this list is expected to make its appearance in the Smithsonian Gardens during the summer of 2016 or 2017.  Encephalartos horridus is an amazing blue cycad. I acquired a small offset in the fall of 2012 and have been caring for it ever since. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists this plant as Endangered. It is native to South Africa. E. horridus has spectacular blue fronds that make it a truly special specimen.

So there you have it–my current top 5 plants under my care here at Smithsonian Gardens. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do and please stop by our gardens and check them out in person if you have a chance.

– Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

July 17, 2015 at 2:46 pm Leave a comment

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