Posts filed under ‘Collections’

A New Day, a New Database: Smithsonian Gardens Living Collections Management

World-class orchid collections like the one at Smithsonian Gardens are more than an assemblage of pretty flowers. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes like maintaining good plant culture, regular and judicious watering, and dealing with insect pests and viruses. Another aspect of a well-kept collection is vigilant record keeping and data management.

There are several collections information systems (CIS) in use by botanic gardens that keep track of accessioned plant material. In the past, Smithsonian Gardens used a relational database tailored specifically to orchid collections for this purpose. This program worked well for many years but our growing online presence, digitization and IT requirements, and opportunities to expand SG’s plant collections prompted us to search for a more robust system.

In November 2015, Smithsonian Gardens switched to a botanical collections database with a more flexible framework. This new framework enables us to expand our plant records to encompass gardens surrounding the Smithsonian museums, in addition to managing our living collections of orchids and trees. Using this new tool to accession “unofficial” collections such as SG’s tropical plants will improve our horticulturists’ ability to track plant usage, longevity, and vitality.

Visitors to the Smithsonian will also benefit from this database transition. As Smithsonian Gardens tracks new plants in its gardens, staff will be able to plot their locations on a map, create tours, and compile images and other plant data on SG’s website. For on-site visitors, this will be an invaluable trip-planning tool; for online visitors, this will be a fantastic way to explore plants on the Smithsonian campus from afar.

View of Smithsonian Gardens' living collections mapping and information page.

Draft view of Smithsonian Gardens’ living collections mapping and information page.

The switch to a more flexible database also allows SG to better integrate its collections information with existing Smithsonian IT systems. This compatibility enables automatic syncing of collection images between the plant database and the Smithsonian’s main Digital Asset Management System rather than having to link the images separately in both places. Cross-talk between the systems cuts out redundant steps from our previous workflow and frees up collections staff to work on other projects. In addition, the process used to update collection images and information to the online Smithsonian Collections Search Center is more streamlined.

Orchid entries in Smithsonian's Digital Asset Management System

Screenshot of Orchid Collection images in the Smithsonian’s main Digital Asset Management System.

SG’s living collections team is currently cleaning up and enhancing the migrated data. With over 30,000 records of both living and historic plant assets, there is a lot of verification and editing to accomplish. This fall the focus will shift to the Smithsonian Gardens Tree Collection, the other living collection entrusted to our care.  Our goal is to integrate Tree Collection data from an existing database with accession records in the new database, while maintaining the ability to track tree locations across more than 180 acres of grounds through mapping software.

Smithsonian Gardens is excited to grow its living collections management program. The implementation of a new database is just a first step, but it paves the way for future progress and enables more efficient and effective management of the Smithsonian’s living plant collections for the benefit of both on-site and virtual visitors.

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens

 

May 31, 2016 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

On Display: Spectacular Spider Orchids

The Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection contains an amazing assortment of species and hybrids. I come to work each day with great anticipation of what new marvel has unfurled overnight. I am never disappointed. Our interiorscape staff selects the most stunning plants for our orchid display cases outside the Warner Bros. Theater on the first floor of the National Museum of American History (NMAH). This week’s display features a group of orchids from one of my favorite genera, the fascinating Brassia.

Brassia Rex ‘Sakata’

Brassia Rex ‘Sakata’ from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection on display at the National Museum of American History.

Better known as spider orchids, Brassias are beloved for their long, narrow, ribbony sepals and petals. One of the orchids currently on display is Brassia Rex, a hybrid of Brassia verrucosa X Brassia giroudiana, which is known to have greater vigor and larger flowers than either parent. Created in the 1960s by the venerable orchid breeder Goodale Moir, this exceptional hybrid is a wonderful addition to every collection that has space for it. Beware, however, as it can grow into a monstrously large plant.

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Brassia Rex, 2009-1460A, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection.

It has long been believed that Brassias evolved flowers which—through a strategy known as brood site deception—mimic the appearance of spiders in order to attract female parasitic wasps of the genera Pepsis and Campsomeris that target spiders as hosts on which to lay their eggs. This ‘imitation’ strategy is evident in many types of orchids that use flower smell, color, and texture to appear to be suitable places for pollinators to deposit their progeny. Ecologists in Central America, however, have recently noted that while parasitic wasps do indeed visit Brassias and pollinate them, they do not appear to lay eggs on these orchids. As a result, this finding disproves brood site deception as the reason for Brassias’ spider-like appearance. While the true reason for the spider orchid’s form remains unknown, discussion at a recent orchid conference brought up the possibility that these wasps simply like the look of these flowers.

This raises a fascinating question I’ve been mulling over recently: Is it possible that there is an aesthetic component to orchid evolution? Charles Darwin thought this to be the case and pointed to the sexual selection of mates in various animal species as evidence. Perhaps pollinators also select showy flowers such as Brassias for their ‘attractiveness.’ This question has yet to be answered and is just one of the many reasons I find the mysterious field of orchid ecology so fascinating.

-Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist

May 13, 2016 at 8:50 am Leave a comment

A Floral Firework Display: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Sunday is the final day of the 2016 orchid exhibit, Orchids In Focus, at the United States Botanic Garden (USBG). It has been an interesting season to say the least, with seventy degree weather in January and gusting winds throughout March. Most of our show plants are bloomed out and will start their recovery for next year’s blooming cycle. Our species orchids are not on such a rigid schedule and are still living the slow life in the greenhouses, blooming when they please and offering visual fireworks of color amidst the overwhelming background of green foliage.

Scaphyglottis bidentata is a dazzling miniature orchid from Central and South America. This species exhibits spectacular red-orange flowers, a pollination syndrome for ornithophily, or bird-pollination. Several other Scaphyglottis with large (relatively), bold flowers were previously classified under a distinct genus, Hexisea but were morphologically similar enough to the former Scaphyglottis grouping to be lumped together. One of the major defining morphological characteristics of species in this group is that the pseudobulbs are stacked (see inset photo).

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(left) Scaphyglottis bidentata, (right) illustration from Edwards’s Botanical Register

Another striking pop of color found in our species greenhouse comes from Dendrobium bracteosum var. tannii. If you look this one up, you won’t find tannii mentioned anywhere because the name has never been formally published. This variety is a miniature form of the species. To give you an idea of the size difference the flowers on our specimen are no longer than a centimeter in diameter, which is less than half of the typical size.

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Dendrobium bracteosum var. tannii

Dendrobium sanguinolentum is a pendant growing epiphyte found in Thailand, Western Malesia and the Philippines. This species is known as “The Blood Stained Dendrobium” because the flowers typically have splotches or stains of violet at the edges of the sepals and petals. The plant below may be an alba form of this species since there are no stains evident on the pale yellow flower.

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Dendrobium sanguinolentum

This week’s grand finale is Myrmecocattleya Claudia Elena. This fantastic hybrid with such vivid coloration is a cross between Myrmecophila tibicinis and Cattleya dowiana. In the wild, the ranges of these two species do not overlap, but since they are both part of the Cattleya alliance, hybridizers are able to successfully interbreed them. Myrmecophila flowers are typically one to two inches in diameter, but when crossed with a large flowered Cattleya, they almost triple in size!

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Myrmecocattleya Claudia Elena

Photographs are a wonderful way to explore nature’s diversity, but nothing compares to experiencing it in person. If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, make sure to take a final trip to the USBG to see our orchids on display before the exhibit ends on the 17th!

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

April 15, 2016 at 8:41 am Leave a comment

Preserving Our Garden Heritage One Pixel at a Time

What better way to celebrate National Garden Month in April than to spend some time enjoying historic garden images from the J. Horace McFarland Company Collection!  Thanks to a Smithsonian preservation grant, thousands of images from this collection at the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) were digitized recently and are now available online through the Smithsonian’s Research Information System (SIRIS).  These images–produced by McFarland’s publishing firm which specialized in printing horticultural publications–are just some of the treasures found in AAG which is administered by Smithsonian Gardens and tasked with collecting historic and contemporary garden documentation as a means of preserving our garden heritage.

Very much a renaissance man, J. Horace McFarland (1859-1948) of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,was a publisher, author, lecturer, horticulturist and authority on roses.  As the first President of the American Civic Association—a position he held for 20 years—McFarland also advocated for effective civic planning and improvements throughout the U.S. during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) when living and community conditions called out for significant reforms.

McFarland looking over the gardens at his home.

A newly digitized photograph from the J. Horace McFarland Collection showing McFarland looking over the gardens at his home, Breeze Hill, in Harrisburg, Penn. 1942. (PA083039)

McFarland’s printing company, Mount Pleasant Press, published many of the seed and nursery trade catalogs in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century.  The J. Horace McFarland Company Collection at AAG includes over 3,000 of the firm’s images, many of which were published in books, catalogs, newspapers, and journals.

The images document an extensive variety of gardens across the U.S. dating from the 1900s to the 1960s, everything from popular parks to small flower patches planted behind crowded urban row houses.  Thanks to the broad range of private and public gardens photographed by the firm, the J. Horace McFarland Company Collection provides glimpses into historic trends and events of the times including World War II’s victory gardens and post-war neighborhood development.  Images that show people working in or enjoying these gardens are especially captivating.  In many cases the photographs are the only evidence left of certain gardens and public spaces.

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A World War II-era victory garden at Breeze Hill in 1944. The gardens at Breeze Hill were often employed to stage photographs used by McFarland’s firm, Mount Pleasant Press. (PA083362)

This digitization project was timely since the photographs—which had been pasted onto brittle cardboard mounts –are fragile and subject to continued deterioration.  Rather than scanning the thousands of photographs on a flatbed scanner—both a time-consuming and potentially damaging procedure—each was photographed with a Phase One digital camera under controlled lighting conditions.  High resolution digital images are now readily available for research use and the need to handle the originals has been significantly reduced.  We hope you get a chance to search the McFarland Company Collection online and enjoy the garden history that it documents.

– Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist, Archives of American Gardens

April 8, 2016 at 9:00 am 2 comments

The Great American Lawn

March is a month of green: St. Patrick’s Day decorations, green buds appearing on the trees, and a new hint of green reappearing on our lawns. Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard opens March 18th at the Elmhurst History Museum in Illinois. Let’s take a look back at American lawns through the years and our changing attitudes towards the green beneath our feet.

Street of houses with lawns

A long line of American lawns stretching from east to west. Elm Avenue, Hershey, Pennsylvania, 1946. J. Horace McFarland Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 

In his 1989 article “Why Mow?” Michael Pollan describes the American landscape as a carpet of green stretching in an unbroken line from the East Coast to the deserts of New Mexico to the most arid regions of Southern California. “Like the interstate highway system, like fast-food chains, like television,” he writes, “the lawn has served to unify the American landscape; it is what makes the suburbs of Cleveland and Tucson, the streets of Eugene and Tampa, look more alike than not.” Lawns are arguably the most prevalent garden feature in the United States.

The popularity of lawns in the United States is an influence from the English school of landscape design. Andrew Jackson Downing, one of the first landscape designers in America, expounded on the virtues of the lawn in his 1841 book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening. According to Downing, “the close proximity of fences to the house gives the whole place a confined and mean character . . . A wide spread lawn, on the contrary, where no boundaries are conspicuous, conveys an impression of ample extent and space for enjoyment.”
English lawn

An unidentified English estate lawn, ca. 1930s. Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 Lawns were expensive to maintain in the nineteenth century. Before lawn mowers only the wealthiest landowners could afford to hire a full-time gardener to trim the lawns by scythe and pull weeds. A verdant lawn was a symbol of wealth and stature, but the development of the cylindrical lawn mower in the 1880s put a tidy lawn within the reach of the middle class. The forty-hour work week and the increase in home ownership in the mid-twentieth century turned lawn care into the hobby (or curse, depending on who you ask) that it is today.
Commercial illustration from the Burpee Collection

Companies advertised various lawn products that purported to be time savers for homeowners. Here, a man kicks up his feet and enjoys his yard. In actuality many homeowners bemoaned the amount of time–and money–they had to spend on their yard to keep it trim and green. Undated commercial illustration from the 1950s or 1960s, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 In certain parts of the country, lawns that were covered in a dusting of snow a month ago will soon be in need of a good mowing. Many homeowners in the 1950s would have rejoiced to have a healthy lawn in the middle of winter. A plethora of products and chemicals to combat pests and keep lawns healthy year-round flooded the market after the second World War. Much of technology was a direct result of wartime scientific advancement. Advertisements such as those by W. Atlee Burpee & Company peddled every product under the sun to the postwar consumer, from grass seed to DDT to sprayers and lawn mowers.
Illustrations for Burpee grass seed advertisements

Illustrations for Burpee grass seed advertisements, circa 1950-1960. W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection, Archives of American Gardens.

 Garden magazines published a backlash of editorials in the 1950s and 1960s bemoaning the “keeping up with the Joneses” race to have the perfect suburban lawn. There are even reports of some homeowners being so fed up with lawn maintenance they ripped out their grass and replaced it with green cement. (Of course, the introduction of AstroTurf in the mid 1960s would give irate gardeners another option.)
The Archives of American Gardens includes a photographic examples of almost every type of American lawn imaginable—from bowling greens to sweeping estate lawns to small suburban lots—including a retired lawn!
-Kate Fox, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard curator. A version of this post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections blog

March 15, 2016 at 8:00 am Leave a comment

A Tropical State of Mind: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

It’s March and it definitely feels like spring. This week’s blooming orchid selections are inspired by the tropical weather we’ve been having the past few days. Our species greenhouse has been looking rather tropical as well…

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First on our list this week is Bulbophyllum saurocephalum, which is an epiphytic Philippine species. This odorless plant is also known as the Lizard Head Bulbophyllum because of the numerous tiny flowers that seem to be rearing their striped heads from the surface of the rachis.

 

Another drastically different Bulbophyllum that is blooming not far from B. saurocephalum is Bulbophyllum compressum. This is a hot growing Indonesian species found at lower elevations, with beautiful, ovate floral bracts of up to 30 delicate,white flowers.

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Bulbophyllum compressum

 

I tend to gravitate towards the strangeness of Bulbophyllums, but I recognize that there are many other genera that are equally fascinating and worthy of mention. Below is the tiny flowered Tolumnia bahamensis.

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Tolumnia bahamensis

Not only is this a fascinating North American species, it is highly appropriate to our tropical theme for this week. This species starts its life as a terrestrial in sandy soil, and as it matures, will send out growths that attach to taller plants, transitioning to an epiphytic habit.  Tolumnia bahamensis is only found in Atlantic coastal scrub habitats and is considered highly endangered. Atlanta Botanical Garden has been leading reintroduction efforts in Florida with much success.

To see part of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection on display, visit the Orchids In Focus exhibit at the United States Botanic Garden through April 27!

Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens

March 11, 2016 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

An Emerging Spectacle: Orchids in Focus at the United States Botanic Garden

The Bletillas are nearly in bloom, and we all know what that means—the annual orchid exhibit is upon us! This week’s post is a special preview of the exhibit, Orchids in Focus, which is produced in partnership between the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) and Smithsonian Gardens and opens this Saturday, February 27 and runs through April 17.

Some of my favorite orchids to photograph are the ones with barely emergent flowers. There is a sense of anticipation in the sight of unfurling petals, like those of the terrestrial Bletilla striata. Developing flowers often display curious shapes that remind us (like so many things) that there is a special beauty in the journey. Brassidiums are some of the best exemplars of this, since their elongated flowers have to unfold from buds that are the size of a fingertip.

Orchids in Focus, which features plants from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection and the USBG’s collections, is also emerging from its so-called bud. My visit to the conservatory this past Wednesday found a flurry of activity in the East Gallery and finishing touches being put into place in the main Garden Court.

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I was able to catch up with a former Smithsonian Gardens intern who is now an orchid grower at the United States Botanic Garden. Justin gave a tour of the work-in-progress and it is clear that it will be quite a spectacle.

The exhibit’s theme highlights orchid photography and is surprisingly interactive since the photography in question is not only images you look at on the walls, but also what YOU take during your visit. Large frames have been constructed in the Garden Court for visitors to pose behind as they are “framed by orchids,” and another station for “orchid selfies” has been designated in front of two exquisite green walls. According to Justin, each side of the green wall takes five hours to build since orchids must be placed individually in the small pockets covering the surface. It sounds like a painstaking process, but the result is magnificent.

The East Gallery houses a tropical forest display which will feature terrestrial orchids from the understory and epiphytic orchids from the canopy on respective sides of the room. Over the next couple of days, USBG staff will be working hard to complete the exhibit, those last few flowers will finish opening, and your job… build anticipation, and get those cameras ready!

Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

February 26, 2016 at 9:45 am Leave a comment

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