Posts filed under ‘Exhibits’

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

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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

The Great Auk

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), now displayed in sculpture on the southeast corner of the Enid A. Haupt Garden, was a flightless bird that fell prey to exploitation. A fast and facile swimmer and diver, the auk was characterized by its stubby wings, high-contrast black and white feathers, tall body, clumsy waddle, and large ribbed beak.  It was initially found in dense colonies in the subarctic Atlantic, along the coasts of Canada, the United States, Iceland and Norway. But human predation caused its numbers to dwindle over the course of several centuries.

The Great Auk

A hand coloured lithograph of Pinguinus impennis from John Gould’s The Birds of Great Britain, Vol. 5 (1873). Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum of London via eol.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History, on the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.

Great auks spent most of their lives in the sea, seeking out land only during the spring breeding season. Their breeding sites were limited: the only suitable areas were those with reefs or rocky ledges, where the birds could waddle ashore to lay their eggs.  Because the birds tended to concentrate in a few coastal areas, they were an easy target for hunters. Indeed, they were subjected to large-scale massacres, hunters killing them for their meat, oil, and feathers. The latter were used for clothes and pillows, the comforts of humans and profits of businesses taking precedence over the survival of the bird.

 Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain

The Great Auk sculpture by Todd McGrain on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

The last two Great auks were killed in 1844, although there were reports of a single bird remaining in 1852. The remains of the last two confirmed birds are preserved in formaldehyde in a museum in Denmark, a sad reminder of the bird’s demise.

The Great auk inspired Ogden Nash’s A Caution to Everybody:

 

          Consider the auk;

Becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.

Consider man, who may well become extinct

Because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.

 

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens Volunteer

 

November 12, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Carolina Parakeet

The Carolina Parakeet, one of the bird sculptures currently on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, was distinguished by its beautiful plumage and its very long tail. Although it was initially found in vast areas of the United States, its numbers began dwindling in the 19th century. The last parakeet was sighted in 1904, and the bird was declared extinct in 1939.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History.

The Carolina Parakeet Sculpture

The Carolina parakeet sculpture in the Enid A. Haupt Garden by artist Todd McGrain.

The Carolina parakeet was found in forested areas and swampy regions of the United States, stretching from the southeastern United States to the Great Plains and west to the Mid-Atlantic region. A small bird, it weighed a mere ten ounces. It was distinguished by its colorful feathers, which ranged from yellow and orange to several shades of green. Due to urbanization, its habitats began to contract in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even in 1831, John James Audubon commented that, along the Mississippi, the number of Carolina parakeets was less than half those that existed a mere fifteen years earlier.

The demise of the parakeet was the result of several trends or causes which operated individually and collectively; these can be summarized as deforestation, decoration, displacement, and disease.

Deforestation robbed the birds of food and nesting sites, thereby killing or displacing many flocks. Moreover, habitat destruction made hunting more effective because it concentrated the birds, making them more vulnerable to hunters. Farmers and those who had small orchards saw the birds as pests. Many parakeets fell prey to hunters trying to protect their crops. When one bird was wounded, it would cry in distress, a call that summoned others of the flock. Entire flocks were shot as the birds rallied around a wounded bird.

Carolina Parakeet by Audubon

Plate 26 of Birds of America (1827-1838) by John James Audubon depicting the Carolina Parrot. (via eol.)

The birds were also vulnerable to tastes in fashion: the parakeet’s beautiful feathers were used to decorate hats. In 1886, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York noted that, walking around Manhattan, he had spotted feathers from some 40 native species of birds decorating woman’s hats. The feather trade was a lucrative business, with hunters receiving twice the price of gold for an ounce of the coveted plumes. Although Congress enacted legislation to prohibit interstate commerce in certain types of feathers, the laws had too many loopholes to curtail the trade. By 1898 the prevailing fashion had had such an impact that environmentalists and ornithologists attempted to shame women for wearing hats with feathers. One New York Times article titled “Murderous Millinery” stressed that women invited public stigma “by exhibiting themselves . . . in the relics of murdered innocence.” The Audubon Society also urged “bird hat boycotts,” suggesting that women instead wear environmentally-correct “audubonnets” bedecked with ribbons and other non-feathered ornaments.

Another contributory cause of the Carolina parakeets declining numbers may have been the importation of honeybees, which evicted the birds from the cavities in hollow trees where they nested. Finally, some scientists have hypothesized that exotic poultry diseases may have decimated the parakeet population that had survived other threats and were in protected habitats. Whatever the reason or reasons, today Carolina parakeets can be appreciated only in museums and ornithological collections, where they are mounted specimens rather than part of a gregarious flock.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

The Lost Bird Project is a companion exhibit to “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” on view at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries through October 2015.

October 14, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

The Labrador Duck

Labrador duck sculpture by Todd McGrain

Labrador Duck sculpture by Todd McGrain.

Of the four birds currently on display as sculptures in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, the Labrador duck is the one about which we know the least. Despite this—or perhaps because of this— the bird has spawned different theories about how it lived and how it eventually became extinct.

The sculpture is part of The Lost Bird Project, which seeks to create awareness about our fragile bird species. The creation of artist Todd McGrain, the project has been sponsored by the Smithsonian and other organizations. Four birds will remain in the Haupt Garden until spring 2015; a fifth bird is in the garden of the National Museum of Natural History, on the corner of 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.

The Labrador duck lived along the east coast of North America, from Canada to the Chesapeake. A small bird, it was a good diver and swimmer. It had a flat, square bill that allowed it to scoop up small fish and shells, on which it lived.

Labrador Duck

Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), USNM 61300. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History.

Unlike other birds that became extinct because of specific practices or even a single cataclysmic event, the Labrador duck declined for unknown reasons. Its meat did not taste good, so the duck was not hunted widely. Nor was its plumage unique or particularly desirable. There is some speculation that the number of ducks began to decline when their main source of nourishment, a specific mollusk, was depleted by overfishing. Another possibility is that its eggs were widely hunted by predators, thereby reducing the number of birds. The story of the Labrador duck therefore underscores the interconnectedness of the natural world: change in one element can trigger further changes, eventually jeopardizing the existence of unique species.

Interestingly, the extinction of the Labrador duck has inspired both research and whimsy. Biologist Glen Chilton embarked on an 82,000-mile journey to explore the bird’s history, which he captured in his book The Curse of the Labrador Duck  (2009). More recently, A Birder’s Guide to Everything (2013), a movie starring Ben Kingsley, centers on a group of teenagers’ quest to find the duck, which they do not think is extinct.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

The Lost Bird Project is a companion exhibit to “Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America” on view at the Smithsonian Institution Libraries through October 2015.

August 12, 2014 at 7:27 am Leave a comment

The Heath Hen

The Enid A. Haupt Garden is a symmetrical, manicured Victorian parterre gracing the Smithsonian Quad. While the design of the garden changes with the seasons, it usually has topiaries or tall urns in each of its four corners. This year, however, the plants have been replaced by four large bronze birds, each one representing an extinct species native to North America.

The birds, the work of artist Todd McGrain, are part of the Lost Bird Project. The project seeks to create awareness of the vulnerability of living things when they are hunted or their habitats are destroyed. The sculpture closest to the southeast corner of the garden  is the heath hen, whose history is closely entwined with that of the areas where it once thrived, from Maine to Virginia.

Heath Hen by Todd McGrain

Heath Hen by Todd McGrain

A subspecies of the prairie chicken, the heath hen was considered a culinary treat. Indeed, some have suggested that it was the heath hen rather than the turkey that the Pilgrims consumed during the first Thanksgiving. Because they were a cheap food source, heath hens were hunted and eaten, and their numbers dropped sharply. By 1870, there were none in the US mainland; their dwindling population was confined to the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. By the turn of the 20th century, only 100 heath hens were left and the island placed a ban on hunting. This measure, together with the creation of a sanctuary, increased their population to 800 by 1916. But a fire destroyed much of their breeding ground that year, and that, together with a harsh winter, disease, and the rise of predatory birds, once again imperiled the heath hen. By 1927, there were only 13 birds left. The last heath hen, known as Booming Ben for his distinctive and haunting hoot, died in 1932.

Heath Hens

This illustration shows a male and a female heath hen. From Illustrations of the American ornithology of Alexander Wilson and Charles Lucien Bonaparte Prince of Musignano With the addition of numerous recently discovered species and representations of the whole sylvae of North America (1835) by Thomas Brown and illustration by James Turvey. Wikicommons.

McGrain has depicted the hen with an open beak, as if Ben were trying to tell us something. The sculpture was made using the lost-wax method. The bird was first carved in wax, then covered with a ceramic material and baked in an oven. This burned away the wax, leaving a mold in the shape of the bird. The molten bronze was then poured into the mold, after which it hardened and assumed the desired form. The artist has therefore created a memorial to the extinct bird, both honoring the heath hen and reminding us of its extinction, an event that could have been averted with greater environmental knowledge and awareness.

-Annette B. Ramírez de Arellano, Smithsonian Gardens volunteer

June 4, 2014 at 7:00 am 1 comment

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