Posts filed under ‘Collections’
Every orchid has an interesting story. Once you look beyond their beauty, other captivating qualities emerge about virtually all of them. However, there are some that stand out and make their presence known in ways that simply cannot be ignored. Whether you like them or not, indifference is unlikely to be your response. In this regard, there is nothing subtle about Smithsonian Gardens’ magnificent specimen of Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis. Charmed by its pendant glossy leaves and their resemblance to a beaver’s tail, the donors of this magnificent specimen named it ‘Bucky’; a name that lives on.
At the time it was originally acquired, few people outside of Asia had seen this species, though many read about it and its remarkable ecology. The inflorescence (flower head) consists of a cluster of about 15 to 20 reddish-brown (meat-colored) flowers covered with papillae (fleshy projections) said to resemble wriggling maggots. Charming! Since it targets female carrion flies as its pollinator, engaging in ‘brood site deception,’ it also evolved a fragrance to match its appearance. Early writings about it claim that its blossoms emitted an aroma reminiscent of the stench of 1000 dead elephants rotting in the sun. While this is surely hyperbole, Smithsonian Gardens staff have been waiting for many months to experience Bucky’s olfactory charms. Incredibly, buds were forming under one of its huge floppy leaves which we didn’t observe until a visitor spied them during a greenhouse tour. We certainly would have noticed them the next day when they opened and started their fragrance treat, though, making the greenhouse almost uninhabitable for a few days.
A monstrous plant from lowland Papua New Guinea, Bucky loves to be warm and humid all the time. Given its robust girth and thick pseudobulbs (storage organs in the stem), we water it daily and feed it frequently. It is the most famous species in Bulbophyllum section Macrobulbon, of which the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection has an almost complete set. They all share the same pollination strategy so more very stinky orchids are soon to come! The surprising species epithet, ‘Phalaneopsis,’ was given because superficially the plant resembles Phalaenopsis gigantea, the largest Phalaenopsis species (native to Borneo). Other than both being in the orchid family, however, they are not at all closely related.
– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist
This past December, Smithsonian Gardens large trellised specimen of Vanilla pompona graced our greenhouses with luxurious blooms. Beautiful umbels of impressive, successively blooming flowers appeared at every leaf node on this huge vining orchid. Even though each individual flower lasts less than 24 hours, so many new blooms opened daily that it was a true spectacle for several weeks. A sister species to the better known Vanilla planifolia, the source of the delicious flavoring we all know and love, V. pompona differs in having a much larger, gullet shaped lip. Its seed pods are also used to make a type of vanilla extract, though only locally in Costa Rica and Panama where it grows. Many Vanilla species occur in tropical regions around the world (circumtropical) and therefore are thought to be among the most ancient of orchids, perhaps with a common ancestor existing when the continents were contiguous. Most of these other species are not used for flavoring.
With rampantly growing vines, these orchids climb quickly and become massive specimens in a short time. Generally, they will only bloom when they are very large and mature. Like a philodendron, their plant habit is a combination of terrestrial and epiphytic. Starting as terrestrial plants with thick fibrous roots, aerial roots arising from the leaf axils clasp the sides of trees as they climb upward searching for higher light in which to bloom. They are easy to propagate from cuttings, but as with any succulent, it is best to let the cuts callous for a few days before planting them or they are sure to rot. Indeed, Vanilla plants in Madagascar plantations have fallen prey to a fungal disease in recent years. We produce pods on our plants by pollinating the flowers by hand (“selfing”) as they do in vanilla plantations in Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands.
– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist
Even though they are not especially rare or particularly showy, orchids from the genus Brassavola are quite popular. These sturdy, succulent, epiphytic plants live in a variety of habitats throughout Central and South America. Due to their wide-ranging prevalence and adaptability, they are easy to find in and out of the wild. Growing contentedly in bright shade to high light conditions just short of full sun, and adapting well to intermediate to warm growing conditions, these plants often grow into lush specimens. Free flowering, they usually bloom at least twice a year on their newest growths. Smithsonian Gardens is lucky to have several different clones of this species in its Orchid Collection, many of which have grown into massive, spectacularly blooming specimens.
Brassavola nodosa’s supremely elegant, ghostly white flowers exhibit a pollination strategy, similar to Darwin’s Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale). Pale colors show up better in the moonlight, and this feature–combined with a sweet, wafting crepuscular or nocturnal fragrance–ensures that the blossoms can be found easily by their pollination partners.
-Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Specialist
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
Objects and artifacts in a museum collection are typically housed in cases and cabinets with drawers or shelves. As a living museum, Smithsonian Gardens’ plant collections are maintained in the landscape and in a large greenhouse facility. Because plants are living specimens that require vitamins, nutrients and other sources of energy, they must be monitored and nurtured daily. Water is a critical component of this care. Photosynthesis, transpiration (water movement through a plant and subsequent evaporation from plant leaves), and the transfer of vitamins and minerals from the soil to the plant are all dependent on the presence of water.
Water quality and availability are key factors to plant maintenance in a public garden. Things like droughts, floods, and other natural disturbances must be considered when developing a plan of care for each garden and/or collection. Throughout its gardens and landscapes, Smithsonian Gardens utilizes an irrigation system that uses 30-50% less water than conventional watering, improves plant growth by extending watering times, prevents soil erosion and nutrient runoff, and ensures that plants are watered without wetting leaves, which helps prevent fungal disease.
Water quality is also of critical importance when it comes to successful orchid cultivation and maintenance. Orchid species exposed to municipal water–such as that which the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) currently uses–exhibit detrimental physical manifestations caused by the accumulation of salts in the growing medium. These adverse effects include leaf tip burn, decreased plant vigor, reduced blooming, discoloration, and even death.
To have access to high quality water for the long-term care of SGOC, Smithsonian Gardens recently secured funding from the Smithsonian’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund* to install a customized rainwater harvesting system at its Greenhouse Facility. The system will collect, filter and store rainwater in a large tank or modular chamber. This is a preferable alternative to filtering municipal water for several reasons. First, filtering does not remove all of the added compounds found in municipal water. Additionally, rainwater has a similar pH to that of reverse-osmosis (R/O) water, which is currently used for our most delicate specimens. Smithsonian staff are currently visiting local universities and public gardens with large-scale water harvesting systems to glean ‘lessons learned’ from each project and to determine whether an above-ground or underground cistern (water storage tank) makes the most sense for SGOC’s year-round water use.
The plan is for rainwater to be collected from the roof of the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility then pumped under pressure from a cistern through a filtration system to remove particles at the micron level. From there, the rainwater will be disinfected using ultraviolet light to destroy any microorganisms that are detrimental to orchid health. Finally, the rainwater will be pumped to a hose connector in each of the four orchid greenhouses for use when staff are watering.
*This project supports innovative and sustainable collections care which will have a direct, substantial, and permanent impact on the health and preservation of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. It was made possible with financial support from the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund, administered by the Smithsonian’s National Collections Program and the Smithsonian Collections Advisory Committee.
– Sarah Hedean, Living Collections Manager
One of the most important aspects of managing a museum collection is the inventory. For a living collection like the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SOGC) there is a significant turnover of collection material due to plants’ natural life cycles and/or disease. Therefore, a regular inventory of the contents of each of the orchid greenhouses enables Smithsonian Gardens to reconcile any plants that were not deaccessioned properly in the past, relabel orchids that are missing accession tags, and update plant locations arising from moves in and out of the greenhouses for displays, exhibits, and lectures throughout the year.
Another important reason that Smithsonian Gardens conducts inventories of the orchid collection is to maintain the readability of the plants’ accession labels. The SOGC uses plastic tags that are printed with each plant’s accession number, a scannable barcode, and are overlaid with UV protection. Even with this protection the labels fade over time due to being in the direct sun, generally lasting about four years before they become unreadable.
Each summer, a Smithsonian Gardens intern takes on the responsibility of inventorying a portion of the orchid collection. This year, thanks to a new Collections Information System (CIS), the process of scanning, printing, and reattaching accession labels is much more streamlined. Our exceptional orchid intern, Ming, completed the inventory in one greenhouse in half the time it has taken in years past!
The inventory process requires Ming to scan each plant’s accession label barcode using a handheld device. The handhelds are equipped with a condensed version of the CIS which is adequate for fieldwork. Inventory lists are synced back to the main CIS so that new barcode labels can be generated, printed and reattached to plant pots using hog rings.
Learn more about our collection inventory in July by following Smithsonian Gardens on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!
– Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens
Don’t forget, tomorrow is Father’s Day! Father’s Day means letting dad know you love him, handmade cards, and family get-togethers. Special occasions are the perfect opportunity to learn more about your family history. Is your pops passionate about perennials or peppers? This weekend, trying to get dad gabbing about his garden. Does he remember the first plant he successfully grew? Who taught him how to garden? What’s his favorite thing to grow? Does he have any tips for young gardeners just starting out? Any old photos of his backyard or garden you’ve never seen before? A secret recipe for the perfect compost soup?
In honor of Father’s Day, here are a few of our favorite dad stories from the Community of Gardens digital archive. Community of Gardens is a platform for collecting stories of American gardeners and gardens for future generations. Become a part of the Smithsonian by sharing your dads’s story—or any garden story—today: http://communityofgardens.si.edu
- This sweeping story has it all: A young Italian immigrant arrives in Ellis Island in 1948 in search of his younger brother, settles in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, grows a family, and grows beautiful gardens rooted in his Italian heritage, bursting with fresh figs, tomatoes, and garlic. Read the full story here.
- This story spans three centuries, and many bountiful crops of ripe tomatoes. Paul shared his family’s garden history with Community of Gardens, beginning with his great-grandfather immigrating to America in 1881. His grandfather Harry Sr., above, grew tomatoes, and today Paul maintains a large garden that he tends with his children.
- George and Olivia Napientek raised their children on this family homestead in Franklin, Wisconsin surrounded by bountiful vegetable and flower gardens. George taught all of his children to work on the farm at a young age. With hard work comes delicious rewards; according to his children (who shared this story), “apples for applesauce and pie came from Pa’s orchard.” I’m sure that pie was delicious with a tall glass of milk from the dairy cows! Read the full story here.
Honor a dad in your life by sharing his garden story with the Smithsonian. Share here or email us at email@example.com. Help us grow our archive!
-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator