Posts filed under ‘Education’

The Thrill of the Grill

Farnham Garden

The Farnham family in their Mendham, New Jersey garden, 1960s. Molly Adams, photographer. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens. Note the grill in the background.

Above all else, Memorial Day is a holiday dedicated to honoring those who have lost their lives serving the United States. Unofficially, the long weekend also marks the start of grilling season. As we come together as family, friends, and neighbors to celebrate the arrival of summer and strengthen community bonds, the grill is the hearth around which we gather in backyards across the country. Barbecue and grilling have a long history in America, an ebb and flow of foodways coming together and drifting apart. Each region in America has their outdoor cooking traditions, from the vinegary pulled pork of North Carolina to bean-hole beans in Maine, to tri-tip grilled on the spit in southern California. Immigrants from as far away as Korea and Brazil have introduced new flavors and cooking methods to the American picnic table, expanding our ever-changing menu.

Our newest traveling exhibit is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Services and the Smithsonian Gardens’ Archives of American Gardens. Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the rise of outdoor living in the decades after World War II, as the suburban backyard became the setting for pool parties, barbecues, and family fun. The exhibit is currently on view at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum and travels next to the Tampa History Center in June 2015.

Just about every town in America has rows upon rows of suburban tract houses, built as housing for returning veterans after World War II. The GI Bill of Rights placed homeownerships within reach of millions of people; by 1959, thirty-one million people owned their own home. With these homes came backyards, small lots that could be transformed into outdoor living rooms with a little imagination, some elbow grease, and a subscription to Popular Mechanics.

As a garden feature though, the grill really hit its stride in the 1930s and 1940s, gaining popularity on the West Coast before making its way east across the country. Fire pits and permanent brick barbecues complimented the low-slung, L-shaped ranch houses gaining popularity in California. The open architecture of the ranch house seamlessly blended the indoors with the outdoors, expanding the living space of the home. Outdoor kitchens, patios, and swimming pools began to take centerstage in the western backyard.

In the years after World War II, as wartime restrictions on materials were lifted and consumers flexed their newfound buying power, novel products for outdoor living flooded the market. The Weber kettle grill was invented in 1951 by combining two metal marine buoys, and was just one of many popular options sold at department and hardware stores nationwide. Pop culture portrayed grilling as a gender-specific activity, with women preparing side dishes indoors and men toiling away outside at a smoking grill. Cliché imagery of the cave man was often invoked when describing the art of grilling, such as in this quote from a 1956 issue of Kiplinger Magazine: “Give a man a patch of yard to call his own, and soon you will see him, garbed in white hat, funny apron and asbestos gloves, solemnly practicing that most ancient of masculine arts—the cooking of raw flesh at an open fire.”

Popular Mechanics April 1960

The April 1960 issue of Popular Mechanics highlighted a number of options for building an outdoor kitchen, including plans for a permanent outdoor kitchen with storage, a serving cart, and a number of budget-friendly simple grills. An outdoor kitchen could fit any budget, small or large. Courtesy of Popular Mechanics.

Grilling was well established in the cultural zeitgeist of the time. Big brands hopped on the barbecue bandwagon as well, even those not peddling grills and ketchup. Want to be reminded of outdoor grilling season in the middle of winter? Why not choose this barbecue-themed wallpaper for your next remodeling project. From aprons to children’s toys, the barbecue motif was as hot as a burger just off the grill. In the 1957 I Love Lucy episode “Building a Bar-B-Q” Ethel and Lucy comically take on the typical suburban do-it-yourself task with humorous results (to which I am sure many homeowners could relate).

Cookbooks provided endless ideas for Jell-O salads and baked beans to accompany your grilled shish kebobs. This weekend, if you’re firing up the grill for a gathering, use it as an excuse to peak into your personal archives. Do you have a favorite family recipe from your mother, grandfather, or great-aunt? Our family recipes are our family stories, whether the ingredients came from the garden or a tin can. I leave you with two summer recipes from my grandmothers, both of whom grew up during the Depression, married veterans of World War II, and raised their families in the Maryland suburbs in the 1950s. Remember, it wouldn’t be a mid-century recipe without either pineapple or mayonnaise—or both!

Isabel's layered salad recipe

Isabel Clough’s recipe for a layered salad from her church cookbook, circa 1960s.

Jean's pineapple recipe

Jean Fox’s recipe for a cream cheese and pineapple spread, written in her own hand, circa 1960s.

-Kate Fox, curator, Patios, Pools & the Invention of the American Backyard

Do you have a favorite family recipe for barbecue, or a side dish with a story? Memories of your backyard or garden from the 1950s and 1960s? Share it with Community of Gardens, our digital archive! We are collecting stories from the public about gardens and backyards in America and building a digital archive of our shared landscape history.

May 24, 2015 at 8:00 am 1 comment

Chutes, Ladders, and Buckets: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Garden’s Orchid Collection

There are few orchids as unusually delightful and whimsical as the genera Gongora, Stanhopea, and Coryanthes in family Orchidaceae. Largely distributed through the neotropics, these genera are closely related under the subtribe Stanhopeinae. Though they share a similar way of enticing pollinators to visit their flowers, each of these orchids offer something unique as well.

L to R: Gongora aff. quinquenervis, Stanhopea jenischiana, and Coryanthes trifoliate  from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

L to R: Gongora aff. quinquenervis, Coryanthes trifoliate, and Stanhopea jenischiana from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Gongora, Stanhopea, and Coryanthes all attract euglossine bees to pollinate their blooms by producing highly aromatic oils on their flowers. Male euglossine bees, drawn by the intense fragrance, land on the flowers, scrape up the scented oil, and then collect it in spongy pouch-like structures on their back legs. It is believed that the male bees use this behavior is to help attract mates. The more complex the aroma compounds a male bee creates by visiting multiple flowers, the more attractive he appears to female bees.

Transferring collected oils onto its back legs requires a male euglossine bee to release its grip on a flower momentarily. Rather amazingly, these three genera of orchids have each developed a way to capitalize on this moment of vulnerability. Gongoras and Stanhopeas  orchids use a “slide” structure formed from the petals and dorsal sepal of each bloom to guide the upside-down tumbling bee past the pollen on the end of the column and out of the flower. It’s nature’s version of “Chutes and Ladders!”

Coryanthes or Bucket Orchids, on the other hand, trap their bee visitors in liquid pooled in the bucket-shaped lip of their flowers. With its wings submerged, a male bee must exit out back of the bucket and past the column containing the pollen to escape the flower. In the process pollen from the flower attaches to the bee’s back. Since this is a traumatic experience, the bee temporarily avoids similar flowers. Eventually, the bee forgets the experience and falls into the same trap on another flower. The pollen already attached to its back then is deposited in the appropriate place on the flower’s column before new pollen adheres to the bee. Unbelievable, right?

Although flower spikes in all three species extend and hang pendulant from the base of the psuedobulbs, the more interesting phenomenon is that all three develop inverted flowers. This adaptation guides the fall of the visiting bee downwards through each orchid’s respective structure to help pollinate the plant.

Though similar in many ways, each genus exhibits a radically different shape. Below is a photo of Gongora aff. quinquenervis from the Smithsonian Garden Orchid Collection. The flower shape is fairly representative of the Gongora genus as a whole and makes for a great model to understand the pollination process. Some say Gongora tend to look like a bird or insect in flight because of its wing-like reflexed lateral sepals. What strikes me in this particular species, however, is its jaggedness and the small barbs coming off the lip. The barbs remind me of a fishing hook with a lure. Considering how the flower uses its structure to attract a pollinator, it’s actually not a bad analogy

Gongora aff. quinquenervis from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Gongora aff. quinquenervis from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Stanhopea jenischiana, most recognizable for the dark eye spots on its yellow lip (see below), pollinate very similarly to Gongoras via a “slide” method. The fall bees experience after entering the flower led these orchids to be nicknamed “Fall-Through” Orchids.

Stanhopea jenischiana from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Stanhopea jenischiana from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

And finally, below is Coryanthes trifoliata. Though the lateral sepals unfortunately are past their peak in this photo, the bucket lip is still intact and shows off some this bloom’s stunning detail! Notice the liquid dripping into the flower’s bucket. The second image shows more clearly the channel through which the orchid forces visiting bee to escape.

Coryanthes trifoliata from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Coryanthes trifoliata from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

While these fantastic orchids abound in the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses, a few have made their way into the Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History over the past several months. Have you had a chance to see any of them? With the show closing this Sunday, April 26 there’s still time to see a few new additions including a Gongora! Don’t miss them!

Alan M., Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Exhibition Intern

April 23, 2015 at 4:17 pm Leave a comment

From One Flower to Many and Some In Between: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Orchids come in an incredible variety of shapes, sizes, and number of blooms. This week’s “What’s In Bloom” looks at some of unique plants in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection that highlight the impressive diversity of the Orchidaceae family. From large, single-flower plants to plants with spikes full of tiny blooms; these species are awe-inspiring!

Phragmipedium longifolium

Phragmipedium longifolium

Pictured above is Phragmipedium longifolium with its large, roughly eight inch bloom on display. This orchid is native to the costal and mountain regions of Ecuador and into Latin America. The beautiful thing about Phrag. longifolium is that while only one flower may be in bloom at a time, it’s possible for mature orchids to produce blooms year round under ideal conditions. This makes the orchid very popular and many hybrids are made with this species as one of the parents.

Mormolyca rigens

Mormolyca rigens

Located in the same global region as Phrag. longifolium, Mormolyca rigens displays much smaller, one inch flowers. Unlike Phrag. longifolium, when Morm. rigens blooms many flowers pop out all over the orchid, capping the ends of thin growing shoots. Morm. rigens is also able to maintain bloom most of the year. This orchid is particularly attractive to bees who, lured by its shape and coloring, pollinate the flower by trying unsuccessfully to mate with it.

Dendrobium speciosum

Dendrobium speciosum

Dendrobium speciosum is suited for prolific reproduction in the wild. It produces many, many fragrant blooms on just a single vegetative spike. While the blooms pictured here are conveniently located in the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouses, in the wild Den. speciosumis is commonly found throughout Australia. This plant showcases white flowers with purple-spotted, red-veined labellums, but there are many variations of this orchid in the wild because its pollen readily crosses with other Dendrobium species. With upwards of two hundred and fifty flowers opening synchronously on one stalk, this orchid releases an incredibly aromatic scent to attract potential pollinators from all directions.

Regardless of if an orchid blooms with one large flower, many tiny flowers, or anything in between, the incredible variety of this family is always a pleasure to view.

– Alan M., Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Exhibition Intern

April 6, 2015 at 1:56 pm Leave a comment

Behind the Orchids: Exploring from Behind the Lens

Smithsonian Gardens 20th annual orchid exhibition is well underway at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. Walking around the exhibit hall, you can’t help but appreciate at the multitude of colors, shapes, and sizes of the orchids on display. How is it possible to capture such beauty? If you’re like me, you take hundreds of photos on your phone.

In addition to the seemingly endless pictures I’ve taken on my phone, I’ve had the opportunity as an orchid exhibition intern to get behind a DSLR camera and experiment with orchid photography. I’m by no means a professional photographer, but experimenting with settings and subjects has given me a new-found appreciation for photography and shown me there’s more to understand about orchids than meets the eye.

There’s a lot to understand about how to take a photo at the show, and it all begins with the orchids themselves.

Phalaenopsis hybrid from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Phalaenopsis hybrid from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

First Element: Subject

When taking a photograph, first consider what’s in your viewfinder. It’s helpful to try and center your shot on an orchid bloom to give yourself the most unobstructed view. Bloom-centered orchid photos are beautiful, but there also is a great appreciation that can come from taking photos that capture the plant as you would view it in real space. When up close with an orchid, you have the opportunity to view the plant from all different angles. I’ve found that taking different approaches to photographing an orchid subject can capture facets of its beauty that you may not have noticed before. The orchid Ornithidium coccineum ‘Superman David’, for example, has both a delicate flower and interesting plant structure which both deserve recognition. ‘Superman David’ is subject in both photos below, but taking photos from different viewpoints can help viewers better appreciate the orchid as a whole.

Ornithidium coccineum 'Superman David'

Ornithidium coccineum ‘Superman David’

Second Element: Light

Another element I focused on when learning to use the camera is lighting. Clearly, there is different lighting outside than in greenhouses or even in the orchid exhibit hall. Different types of lighting have different benefits and can result in interesting images. The natural light outside or in the greenhouse makes an orchid come to life. You get the feeling of how the orchid would appear in nature.

In the exhibit hall, the lighting is designed to really bring out the dazzling and detailed displays of each orchid arrangement. Aside from beautiful vignettes, the smallest individual orchid flowers are showcased with breathtaking brilliance. Whereas natural light shows orchids in context, the spotlights and other lighting features in the exhibit bring a greater focus to orchid details. These orchids are here to perform, to play both lead and support. That’s what makes an exhibit interesting.

Plants from the Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty exhibition (Left) and a well-lit Bublaphyllum (right)

Light in the Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty exhibition helps highlight orchid details.

Third Element: Focus

There is something to discover in both blurred images and sharp photographs. Whether intentional or not, capturing a blurred image creates an interesting experience for the viewer. It’s almost as if you’re outside looking in or looking over someone’s shoulder. You can see enough to make out the shape of the object, but can’t quite focus on the details. It produces an exciting feeling, because you want to know the specifics and there are still things you don’t know yet. With blurred images, you hone on different features of a plant than you normally would. You pay closer attention to the shape of the flower, or notice the overwhelming color which may be lost to the intricacies of orchid patterns in sharply-focused frames. Look at the following three photos, what changes and what new views appear for you with each progressive shot?

focus 1

focus 2

focus 3

As the images get progressively less focused, what stands out to me in the above images is the “C” shape of the Oncidium Tiger Crow ‘Golden Girl’ on the right hand side of the photo.

Regardless of what kind of camera you may have, there’s ample ways to tailor a unique photo by experimenting with these elements. Visit the orchid exhibition and get creative!

– Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern

March 19, 2015 at 9:27 am Leave a comment

Behind the Orchids: Orchid Family Day

Orchid Family day booths set up in the National Museum of Natural History

Orchid Family day booths set up in the National Museum of Natural History

After working with orchids for five weeks, I could not have been more thrilled to share the splendor of orchids with families and museum-goers at Orchid Family Day. The event was held Saturday, February 22nd on the ground floor of the National Museum of Natural History, and drew a large crowd even in the face of a snowstorm. Smithsonian Gardens, the United States Botanic Garden, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center joined together to engage and educate Orchid Family Day participants about orchids and orchid care. Stations included building terrariums, creating botanical illustrations, making paper orchid corsages, asking an expert any orchid question, learning about orchid research, and potting an orchid to take home.

Naturally, there’s always some amount of preparation work that goes into any event. Planning Orchid Family Day took a team of Smithsonian Gardens staff and volunteers. Over numerous weeks, the group developed activities, prepared necessary materials, and helped gather the staff and volunteers needed to run activities. We also created orchid information panels from scratch to pair with the day’s activities. As an intern, I was able to collaborate and create the initial drafts of three display panels. The text then had to pass through several people for editing and revising to ensure quality and accuracy. After having gathered some of the first research for these panels, it was incredible to see the transformation from a simple word document into a professional looking display panel. It was a great opportunity, and I’m proud to have played an influential role in the development of Orchid Family Day.

The Orchid Family Day Panels in final form.

The Orchid Family Day Panels in final form.

Aside from event logistics, Orchid Family Day also needed publicity. Event details were posted online but word of mouth brought more people than the publicity alone could have. In fact, even with the threat of a snowstorm, hundreds of people showed up for the event. Impressively, as the doors to the National Museum of Natural History opened, countless families and individuals flooded into the museum. Although many patrons were excited to be the first in the exhibit halls, a steady stream of people made their way to the family day activities.

Making orchid corsages!

Making orchid corsages!

The enthusiasm of people bouncing between tables, building terrariums then potting orchids, made for equally enthusiastic staff and volunteers at each table to engage the ever changing visitors. I had the chance to witness several staff and volunteers of the gardens participate in demonstrations that were very unlike the work I’ve what previously seen them do. For example, one of the Smithsonian Gardens supervisors was helping make paper orchid corsages! It was incredibly enjoyable seeing the staff engaged with participants whether it was through drawing, potting, building, or teaching. I had the opportunity to staff the botanical illustration table, which is something I’ve never studied or worked much with before. Regardless, it was a lot of fun watching children color in orchid outlines and use their illustrations for all kinds of art projects. We initially intended for them just to create bookmarks, but they got creative and made necklaces and pictures to give to their parents too. Their enthusiasm was endless and parents often had to gently coax their children away from the table when it was time for them to go.

Examples of the terrariums visitors got to make and take home with them.

Examples of the terrariums visitors could make and take home with them.

Many curious minds wandered into the exhibit, and not all were children. Adults wishing to learn more about orchids made the “ask an expert” table very popular. They also enjoyed discovering the latest in orchid research and conservation at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center table. And of course, the ever popular “pot an orchid” station may have stolen the show for most individuals as the U.S. Botanic Garden brought a thousand orchids to give away for free. Orchid Family Day activities offered something for everybody, so make sure to come out to the next one in 2017!

– Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern

February 26, 2015 at 11:00 am Leave a comment

Behind the Orchids: The Living Collection

Orchids are full of wonder. They have a vast amount of habitat diversity across the globe including swamps, deserts, tropics, and tundra. In fact, orchids are so diverse there’s almost no end to them, and this doesn’t even include the ones human have hybridized. You name a part of the plant and it’s bound to be different from genus to genus in the family Orchidaceae. To illustrate, take a look at Ludisia discolor and Oncidopsis Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty’ currently on display in the exhibit “Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty.”

Oncidopsis Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty’

Ludisia discolor

Ludisia discolor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two plants show just how varied orchids can be in color, flower size, number of blooms, and even the general foliage. Though different, each still retains a beauty in its own way. Ludisia discolor, also called a jewel orchid, is sought after for its foliage rather than its flowers. It’s a terrestrial orchid found in Asia and its leaves are a deep green lined with red veins. Oncidopsis Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty,’ on the other hand, is distinguished by its pleasant red blooms and gives off a unique fragrance. Furthermore, Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty’ is a hybrid containing a mixture of four different species, while Ludisia discolor is a species found in the wild. And these two only make up a fraction of the 8,000+ orchids in Smithsonian Gardens’ collection.

Fortunately, there’s a system in place that helps keep track of the many plants in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. This is extremely important because as a “living collection” it’s always growing and changing. Each orchid in the collection is given a specific barcode label that links to a database record containing important information about the plant. In addition to keeping basic information like its genus and species, the record reveal the plant’s current location, condition, and notes about its current use. All of this information is important for consistent record keeping. After scanning upwards of 80 to 100 plants each week, eventually you begin to pick up some interesting information. For example, some of these orchids are over 30 years old!

Orchid display labels

Orchid display labels

Maintaining the database is essential to keeping the orchid exhibit running smoothly. Plants selected for the exhibit are scanned at the beginning of each week in order to keep track of their changing location. Every Monday and Tuesday, I work to arrange these selected orchids into rank and file at the greenhouses with the help of several other greenhouse staff and volunteers. This makes scanning the pants’ barcodes and recording whether they’re leaving for the show or returning a simple process. It also makes it easy to pull the corresponding display labels. If you’ve made it to the show, you probably recognize those gleaming black and white labels in the photo. Smithsonian Gardens actually keeps label library chock full of thousands of these labels!

Plastic wrapped carts ready to go downtown

Plastic-wrapped carts ready to go downtown

Once all the tags are scanned and display labels staked, plants have to be loaded onto carts and plastic wrapped. It’s lovely that orchids bloom during the winter, but it’s dangerous for us to have to move them outside in cold weather! The plastic wrap provides a temporary buffer from the cold temperatures, which could otherwise harm the blooms and overall health of the orchids. We then swiftly move these carts from greenhouse to box truck and box truck to exhibit hall; minimizing the time they’re outside in the cold. All this scanning, packing, and loading is a bit of a logistical feat, so it’s no surprise something may get left along the way. Case in point, I once forgot to bring the roll of plastic wrap to the exhibit hall.

Now those plants wrapped in the picture above look pretty professional, but that’s only half the battle. It’s incredibly important to take the plastic wrap to the museum because the carts bringing plants back from the exhibit really need protection from the cold as well. These are, after all, orchids that are stressed out from the less than ideal conditions of the exhibit hall. Since we did not have plastic wrap available the Smithsonian Gardens staff improvised and obtained trash bags. The bags made for sufficient protection during the trip back, even if it looked like we were stealing the plants. That was, however, an incredibly stressful experience for me because I was sure we were going to lose part of the collection. I’ll make sure to bring the plastic wrap in the future!

National Herbarium tour

National Herbarium tour

To help balance stressful moments like this, Smithsonian Gardens regularly offers really great opportunities for interns to experience. There are internal tours, in-service sessions, and other educational opportunities that I’m able to attend with my intern status. Recently, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the National Herbarium at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. If you’re like me, you had to look up the definition of a herbarium and figure out what all the commotion is about for a library of dried plants. Aside from the general appealing aesthetics of neatly dried and pressed plants, the National Herbarium has millions of specimens. Its collection includes type specimens, around thirty plants currently extinct in the wild, and even plants collected by former presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Chester Arthur. It also contains some seriously historical plants, like one collected in the 1500s! It’s almost inconceivable to think about everything that’s housed in the herbarium. Check it out online at http://botany.si.edu/colls/collections_overview.htm.

World's largest seed

World’s largest seed

After the tour, I’m really excited for what other opportunities may pop up next. I’m looking forward to making the most of these experiences and sharing them on the Smithsonian Gardens’ blog. That’s all for now, but enjoy another photo from the herbarium of the world’s largest seed. This dried seed still weighs a cool twenty pounds!

-Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern

February 12, 2015 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Behind the Orchids: Setting Up the Show

Exhibit Hall Setup

A lot of work goes into making an exhibit like this year’s orchid show, “Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty.” Of course there’s the joint effort of Smithsonian Gardens, U.S. Botanic Garden and National Museum of Natural History staff, but what about all the finer details? How do those beautiful orchids and other plants made it onto the show floor? Was all that Spanish moss really hung by hand? What about the angle of that delicate little orchid you didn’t notice until your second or third time visiting? Are the plants changed each week?

My name is Alan Marcus and I’m currently the spring exhibition intern with Smithsonian Gardens. I wasn’t ready for the barrage of work to address all the little details of this year’s orchid exhibit when I arrived this month, but I’ve tried my best to keep up. It was fun getting thrown into the mix of preparation and I love telling everyone about all the effort that goes into it. Honestly, the work wasn’t nearly as tedious as I make it seem. In fact, it was quite the opposite! Hopefully I’ve piqued your interest to explore and continue reading into the less glamorous side of this year’s beautiful orchid exhibition. Let’s take a look at a somewhat typical work day for exhibition set up.

Mornings. Start. Early. OK, so 6:30 am isn’t the earliest start for work, but it can be a little exhausting after a while. What really motivates the staff to arrive for work every day is that everyone loves what they do. It’s simple. I know that sounds corny, but honestly its something I think is so important for visitors to know about this exhibit. On top of arriving early at the greenhouses, every day starts with a morning meeting (where you can imagine everyone’s at their finest). The staff is a true cast of characters, but the plants and the work they do for the public are things everyone comes together on. Every orchid you see, every minute detail from the mulch in the planters to the hook the lab coat rests on, was labored over with love for the exhibit and the potential joy it can bring to all visitors. That’s what gets the staff to the greenhouses in the morning to meet and load plants onto trucks bound for the National Museum of Natural History by 7 am.

Staff working on the green wall.

Staff working on the green wall

012115 SCJMWorking

Exhibit hall from above

Once in the exhibit hall, staff worked on their various assignments from the morning meeting. Some spent the morning visualizing and creating a steamy jungle display, while others busily ensured plants have the proper drain plates underneath them and are covered with mulch on top. My work was really all over the place, but that was great because I had the chance to work closely with a different staff member each day. This allowed me to ask all sorts of questions about the orchids. Two orchids in particular struck me with awe. Those orchids were Psychopsis mariposa and Maxillariella elatior. They’re both strangely attractive plants and their biology reveals something unique about each orchid. The shiny bottom lip of the elatior orchid fooled me in thinking there’s some kind of nectar present, but it’s actually dry to the touch. This is one way it tricks pollinators into landing on its flower. On the other hand, the mariposa flower has a beautifully eerie shape that appears as a butterfly frozen in flight and can successively bloom for several months.

Just as my work changed, work on the show floor can be very different from person to person and from day to day. It’s nothing short of impressive watching the staff move about the room to fix up their areas. Something I was not expecting to see, but that is also worth mentioning, is that staff members did not just focus on their part of the display alone. For the sake of the exhibit’s theme, staff members were often asked to opine on specific design choices and how plantings could better fit in overall. Often, I was asked for my opinion about the color arrangements of orchids or about the positioning of certain plants to help make the display look more authentic and easier to view from the floor.

Lunch time!

Lunch time!

After working through the morning, lunch comes, and it was eagerly greeted by most. It’s surprisingly challenging work trying to coordinate all parts of the exhibit together, and I think it takes a full belly to complete the work efficiently. Either way, lunches were enjoyable. Work sometimes carried into the conversation, but mostly lunch was a time to relax and help get refocused for the afternoon. After lunch, work continued with renewed vigor as portions of display installments came to a close for the day. More often than not, these “finished” portions were revisited several times during the week as the overall design of the exhibit developed and grew to include more elements of the theme. For example, different orchids now line the portion of the exhibit by the laboratory scene than were first placed, and the beautiful white Phalaenopsis near the exit were a last-minute change. Clean up followed shortly after and carts and baskets were loaded back onto trucks to return to the greenhouse for the following day’s deliveries. It took the entire week to get every plant down there!

And that’s how a typical day went for the set-up of this exhibit. There’s really a lot to look at when you make your visit. There will continue to be new orchids to explore since plants need to be swapped out regularly to display the freshest blooms. I ask you to return to the exhibit again and again over the next couple months to take some time to really soak it all in. I promise there will be something new for your visit every time, whether it’s a new plant altogether, or simply a small detail that went unnoticed on your last visit. Everything is placed with a purpose, and there’s no doubt something for all to enjoy.

-Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern

January 28, 2015 at 11:00 am 1 comment

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