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Interview a Gardener: Smithsonian Gardens Green Ambassador Challenge

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Gardeners have many stories to tell about their lives and communities. Clockwise from left to right: Four Generations of Gardeners, A Passion for Insects, Watson and Bassett, and Women in the Food Movement.

Smithsonian Gardens is excited to announce a new Community of Gardens Classroom Challenge for teens: Interview a gardener in your community and share the story with the Smithsonian!

Stories about gardens can tell us about where we’ve been and where we’re going. The beliefs we hold, scientific innovation, foodways, and cultural and community traditions are reflected back at us in the why and how of our gardens. From the Victory Gardens of World War II to community garden plots in cities and the tomatoes growing in our own backyards or balconies today, gardens are an expression of our social, cultural, artistic, and environmental values. How can documenting and sharing these garden stories in our own communities inspire others? Why is it important to save these stories for future generations?

This is a project about sharing wisdom, life experiences, and community history from a gardener’s point of view. It is also an opportunity for educators to engage teens in real-world fieldwork. Our lives are local, and investigating local stories and local voices can help students explore how they are part of a community, learn more about where they live from fellow citizens, and learn where they can do good in their own community. Storytelling is an act of sharing and participating in civic life.

By interviewing gardeners in their own community teenagers have the opportunity to connect with fellow citizens and learn more about the impact of greenspaces and gardens where they live.

Get started here or email us at communityofgardens@si.edu for more information. We welcome the opportunity to work with educators and schools from around the country!

Check out our other education resources for teens and teachers:

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

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June 11, 2018 at 8:45 am Leave a comment

Winter Pest Alert

As the cold days and nights of winter settle in, you might find relief from some of the nuisance pest outdoors – such as mosquitoes, aphids and other general insect invaders. However, what this may also mean for you, especially if you live an older home, is that you will start to notice some pests indoors that you might not have expected.

Brown Marmorated Stinkbug

Brown Marmorated Stinkbug (BMSB). Photo courtesy: PSU Extension

One such invader that moves inside as temperatures drop is Halyomorpha halys, also kindly or not so kindly known as the Brown Marmorated Stinkbug (BMSB). For anyone who has encountered these mottled brown shield-shaped insects, you know that if you agitate them enough you will get a nasty response in the form of a chemical scent defense, a smell that can persist long after they are dead.

BMSB is an introduced insect pest species native to Japan, China, Taiwan and both North and South Korea. BMSB was introduced to the U.S. in the late 1990’s and is considered a problematic agricultural pest as it attacks a wide range of crops and fruits including soybeans, apples, grapes, and raspberries. In their native range, BMSB have natural predators that help to keep populations low; however, here in the U.S. there are few predators that will take on eating the distasteful and odorous insect.

One feature that makes BMSB more aggravating to the homeowner is that they overwinter in large groups, using an aggregation pheromone to call other BMSB to them. They usually overwinter in protected areas such as the underside of bark and trees, though this could also mean along the edges of your house. And BMSB are very opportunistic in that if they can find a way inside when the temperatures really drops they will. You might find a large number in your attic, chimney, or crawl space.

It is a good idea to start seal up any cracks or crevices you may have in your home, fix any torn screens, and DON’T SQUISH THEM! If you see a few it’s fine to remove them by hand, with a pair of gloves if you are concerned with the smell, but this should lead you to start checking seams around your house to see where they might be getting in. I would not suggest using harsh pesticides around your home. If you have a really bad infestation contact an experienced pest control agent.

Spined Soldier Bug next to BMSB

Photo courtesy: stopbmsb.org

Finally, it is important to note that not all stinkbugs are bad; we even have a species native to this area that is considered a beneficial insect – the Spined Soldier Bug. The Spined Soldier Bug looks very similar to BMSB and can be difficult to distinguish in the field. If you are unsure, reach out to a local extension agency who can make the identification for you.

– Holly Walker, Smithsonian Gardens Plant Health Specialist

January 26, 2018 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

Identifying Tree Problems & Preparing for Next Year’s Pruning: Winter Tree Inspections

As the brilliant fall colors fade and the north winds blow in the first flurries, activity in the garden may slow. But during this time of year, we can turn our attention toward the trees and learn so much more about their architecture, longevity, and safety with a simple visual inspection of stems and branches previously obscured by lush summer foliage.

No fancy equipment is needed. Winter tree inspections can be done by anyone with a keen attention to detail. A pair of binoculars and a short ladder might help. A tree inspection can be completed by visually scanning the tree from bottom to top, slowly circling 360 degrees around the tree to view as many perspectives as possible. Perspectives can be expanded by viewing the tree from higher vantage points such as near by upper-story windows or even a short ladder.

A winter tree inspection can identify and inventory potential problems and hazards. It is also an excellent precursor for pruning early next year, when young and mid-sized trees can be proactively pruned to discourage and avoid weaknesses in the future.

Winter Tree Inspection Problems Checklist
A few obvious problems may especially reveal themselves in winter. Many of these issues are associated with a damaged and declining tree. A Certified Arborist may need to be called in to examine and monitor these sorts of issues for safety.

Hollow Tree Cavity

Hollows and Cavities
Injured and damaged trees may decay from the inside until a tree or stem is completely hollow.

Sapwood Damage

Sapwood Damage
Many stressors can damage the vital protective shell of live sapwood just under the bark around the tree. This damage may not heal and will lead to exposed soft, discolored, decaying heartwood underneath.

Broken Branch

Dead, Broken, and Hanging Branches
In most any tree, a few small dead, broken, or hanging branches will appear from time to time.

Tree Mushroom

Mushrooms
Anytime mushrooms (i.e. fungal fruiting bodies) appear from the roots or stems of a tree, advanced decay has already set in.

Tree Crack

Cracks
Fresh cracks, characterized by a clearly visible split through a stem or branch and the color of freshly split wood, often forewarn a bigger problem.

Co Dominant Stem

Codominant Stems
Two or more large stems competing for dominance, attached at the same point, and heavily side-weighted are often quite weak. This is especially problematic when the connecting junction is V-shaped rather than U-shaped, leaving little wood remaining for strong attachment of all stems.

Leaning Tree

Excessive Lean
Trees with excessive lean, increasing lean, or soil heaving up around the roots may be compromised.

Root Damage

Root Damage
Roots circling around the base of the tree, visible root cutting, or heavy disturbance in the root zone can kill and destabilize trees.

Toward Strong Tree Architecture

The rewarding aspect of proactive, conscientious tree care is that the issues above are largely preventable and should not be common. A winter tree inspection should also provide an opportunity to assess the success of efforts to produce strong tree architecture, and formulate plans for next year’s pruning cycle. The next newsletter will discuss proactive tree pruning for strong architecture and extended tree longevity.

– Jake Hendee, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist

January 12, 2018 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

Providing Winter Habitats in the Garden

Most of the birds and some of the insects we find in the Washington, D.C. area migrate to warmer climates during the winter. However, many species stay in the DC Metro region throughout the year and must rely on a favorable habitat for food and shelter.

Caterpillars in the garden

Unfortunately, many natural areas are shrinking due to human development. As a result, gardening choices made by the home gardener and in our public spaces are more essential than ever to the diversity of our wildlife and their continued survival.  At Smithsonian Gardens, we strive to provide habitat for wildlife that goes beyond the arrival of killing frost in the fall. Here is why:

Habitat includes the food, water, and cover such as shelter and nesting sites that all living creatures need. Sometimes as gardeners, our need to clean and control our surroundings is overwhelming and the urge to “Mow and Blow” before winter is very strong: perennials and grasses cut back, all leaves removed, and everything cleaned up with the rake and the leaf blower.

leaves providing habitat for a chrysalis

However, many perennials and grasses provide an attractive winter aesthetic at the same time they offer food and shelter for overwintering species. For example, in the Washington, D.C. area, by January or February, many perennials and grasses look sloppy and flattened by ice and snow. In that mash of dead vegetation, many butterfly eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalises will be overwintering and are counting on leaf litter and dead grasses left on the ground to provide shelter.

Birds are another backyard creature that depend on the plants in your yard. Leave the seed heads of coneflowers, black-eyed Susan and grasses as they will provide needed food for foraging. Birds also benefit from the height, the layered effect and the food from many of our native shrubs including the evergreen American holly, eastern redcedar, northern bayberry and southern waxmyrtle (evergreen in town) and inkberry. Deciduous shrubs that also attract a wide variety of bird species include arrowood viburnum, staghorn sumac, winterberry holly, red and black choke cherry. These native shrubs provide overwintering birds the height they need to protect themselves from predators, food in the form of berries and, in the case of evergreens, protection from winter winds.

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A source of water can be easily overlooked in the garden, particularly in winter. Overwintering birds need access to unfrozen, clean water. If you can make a heated birdbath a possibility, you will be surprised as to the number of winter visitors you get.

To encourage habitat biodiversity, keep in mind food, water and cover. When planning your garden, select native trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses for the bounty they furnish backyard critters. Remember that you do not need to clean the garden as you would your home in preparation for holiday guests. It may look a little unkempt to you, but to a foraging finch or hibernating ladybug, it is paradise.

– Alex Dencker, Horticulturist with images by Elizabeth Miller, volunteer photographer

December 15, 2017 at 10:00 am 2 comments

Mmm, mmm, berry delicious jelly!

Pumpkin-based goodies may be all the rage this time of year, but other plants from the garden also lend themselves to home-made treats.

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Freshly harvested beautyberries

Callicarpa americana, also known as beautyberry, is now in season with the dazzling fruits that it bears. Beautyberry is typically grown as an ornamental shrub, with its purple drupes (or stone fruit) ripening during early autumn. It addition to the vibrant color that the fruit adds to the garden, it also provides a much appreciated food source for birds during the cooler months of the year. Smithsonian Gardens cultivates beautyberries on the grounds around the National Museum of Natural History for that very purpose. But avian friends aren’t the only ones who can enjoy the fruit; they’re edible for people as well!

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Beautyberry fruit on the plant

Why not try a recipe for beautyberry jelly? The flavor is similar to a mild grape jelly and can be paired nicely with a cheese dish. Harvesting enough berries to make jelly takes time and commitment. But for those of you interested in making this treat from scratch, we have a recipe to share with you:

Ingredients:
6 cups of beautyberries
4 cups of water
¼ tablespoon of butter
4 ½ cups of sugar
1 package (1.75-2 oz.) of pectin

Directions:

  • Harvest and clean beautyberries.
  • Place berries in large pot on stove along with 4 cups of water.  Boil for 20 minutes, remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
  • Line a sieve with cheesecloth and place over a bowl. Pour the boiled berries into the cheesecloth-lined sieve; mash the berries and squeeze the cloth to get 3 cups of juice (add water to make 3 cups, if necessary). Discard the mashed berries.
  • Pour the juice back into the large pot, add pectin and butter. Bring to a boil, stir in sugar, and continue to boil for 2 minutes. The mixture will start to thicken and set.
  • Pour into 6 half-pint jars.
  • If the jelly will be consumed within a few days, store in the refrigerator; otherwise, process the jars in boiling water for 5 minutes to sterilize and preserve.
  • Serve and enjoy!
Beautyberry 2

Mmm, jelly!

 

– Allison Dineen

 

 

November 6, 2017 at 4:55 pm 3 comments

Munch, crunch, lunch: Hungry caterpillars in the Ripley Garden

For years I have been enamored with the Dutchman’s Pipe family – especially the large showy tropical varieties with their flamboyant flowers. Despite the cool features of these plants they are not palatable to our local Pipevine Swallowtails. Although the plant is in the right family for them to lay their eggs on, the larvae do not feed on it.

Swallowtail pic 1

Aristolochia gigantea ssp. Brasiliensis

Swallowtail pic 2

A. gigantea 

While I would love to have our native Pipevine in the Ripley Garden, I do not have the space for the east coast native Aristolochia macrophylla which can quickly take up 20-35 feet with each leaf being 12 inches across.  It is a big time real estate consumer!  Instead, I found that Aristolochia fimbriata is a perfect surrogate host for the wee caterpillars. This plant hails from regions of Brazil and northern Argentina and forms a low mass 6 inches tall by 2 feet wide of heart-shaped foliage with white venation.  The flowers of this beauty look like wonderfully small golden pipes with lovely fringed ‘eyebrows’ and are pollinated by fungus gnats. In the D.C. metro area, the plant is deciduous (meaning it sheds its leaves annually), but root hardy and happy in either full sun or dappled shade and is easy to grow from seed or stem cuttings.

Dutchman's Pipe, White Veined

Aristolochia fimbriata

Swallowtail pic 3

Leaves of Aristolochia fimbriata

I tried a couple of times to establish this plant in the Ripley Garden only to have it eaten to the ground by a single caterpillar. This year, seeds were started at the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility and the small plants were installed during the spring so that they had time to put on some growth before the butterflies arrived and started laying their eggs.

Swallowtail pic 4

Swallowtail eggs on the A. fimbriata

Once the plants were established, the female Pipevine swallowtails found them and started laying little masses of bright orange eggs. These then hatched out into caterpillars who started munching away on the foliage. The little ones stuck together at first, and then spread out among the foliage.  As the caterpillars go through various instars (phases between periods of molting), their appearance changes until they are about 4 inches long, with velvety dark purple-black coloring and bright orange markings down their back side.  They will then stop eating and find a place to create a chrysalis, or protective covering, which looks like dried leaves. At this point they will either metamorphosize into an adult butterfly, or stay in the chrysalis to overwinter. The whole process from egg to butterfly takes about 35 days.

I am delighted to see a profusion of Pipevine swallowtail butterflies flitting about the garden knowing that these beautiful creatures have found a safe home in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden!  You too can enhance your garden with this airborne wildlife, just by planting the food they need to survive.

Swallowtail pic 5

Caterpillars munch away on the Aristolochia foliage until they reach maturity. 

Swallowtail

Swallowtail butterfly 

Janet Draper – Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

September 26, 2017 at 1:00 pm 1 comment

Transforming the Heirloom Garden into Common Ground: Our American Garden

The National Museum of American History has welcomed visitors to its doors since 1964. The landscape at the entrance consists of raised stone planters that hug the building. In the sixties, these beds were ‘green and clean,’ a mass of nondescript groundcovers. Over the years the creative vision of Smithsonian Gardens horticulturists brought a more diverse array of plantings, including a bounty of perennials and cottage garden flowers. Thus, the Heirloom Garden was born.

Opened in 1998, the Heirloom Garden highlighted plants grown in American gardens before 1950. These included old-fashioned, grandmother’s favorites and pass-along perennials like irises and blackberry lily, as well as spring-flowering bulbs like crocus, daffodils, and tulips. The garden featured plants that Thomas Jefferson grew, Dahlias that made the All-America Selection cut, and heritage roses.

Heirloom Garden 2012

Heirloom Garden, 2012

The biggest challenge turned out to be interpreting the garden. As we researched the definition of “heirloom,” we discovered no clear answer. After consulting with experts and a myriad of published resources, we found that roses, bulbs, and annuals each had to meet a different standard to be considered heirloom. Depending on the criteria, plants had to be 50, 75, or 100 years old to make the grade. Sometimes newer varieties were included, as long as they were open-pollinated (pollinated by pollinators, not by the efforts of humans). In vegetable gardening, heirloom plants such as tomatoes must be open-pollinated as opposed to hybridized (two parent plants are crossed to produce a plant with specific traits).

Try putting all that information on a sign or explaining it in a tour! We needed a new approach. How could we best share the stories of plants and their importance to people in this country? While we were reimagining the garden, curators from the National Museum of American History were researching and planning their own exhibition, Many Voices, One Nation, which asks the question, “How did we become US?” As they were nearing the end of their choices of objects and themes, the curators reached out to Smithsonian Gardens. Could we make a garden that echoed the themes of the new exhibition?

IMG_0766

Eryngium zabelii ‘Big Blue’

The resounding answer was yes! Smithsonian Gardens staff met with museum staff to collaborate on what would become a companion garden exhibit. Eventually, we chose four themes to capture the essential connections Americans have made with plants. Plants evoke Memory through flavor, fragrance, beauty, or herbal traditional use. Likewise, many cultures in the United States use special Healing or medicinal plants. Ingenuity and Discovery rounded out the themes that define how people throughout America’s history discovered and used plants and how Americans today continue to depend on them in new ways. These themes have been translated into interpretive sign panels for the garden, now called Common Ground: Our American Garden.

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New interpretive panel for the garden.

Our gardeners and horticulturists took special care to prepare the new garden, salvaging plants from existing raised beds, scraping and removing soil around existing crape myrtle trees and replacing it with an engineered soil, as well as adding organic fertilizer and a topdressing of fine mulch.  We “limbed up” or pruned 24 crapemyrtles and tucked small, shade loving “plugs” of perennials such as golden sedge, columbine, and sweet woodruff between them. We followed with over 500 Mexican feather grass and more than 1500 flowering perennials such as Echinacea (in orange, purple and green), bee balm, catmint, blanketflower, and butterflyweed.

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Smithsonian Gardens staff planting for the new garden.

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Mexican feather grass and Echinacea

The new garden is a bright stretch of raised beds with native and exotic perennials, revealing gems of useful plants and garden history along the visitor’s path. We worked to create a flowing, cohesive design. One team member brought the idea of color-blocked beds to the table, making each bed a different color. Another brought the idea of a cohesive planting mix of grasses and prairie flowers. The result is a series of orange beds punctuated by beds of blue, green and purple. Each outset bed features the same vibrant hot color while each inset bed shows a receding cool color.

Common Ground sketch

Sketch for the southwest terrace, illustrating the color blocked design.

After 2 years of planning, the garden opened on June 28th in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s new wing, The Nation We Build Together, which showcases the exhibition Many Voices, One Nation. The garden now feels complete, yet it is never finished, as new seasons will continue to bring change.

IMG_2147

Completed garden

– Erin Clark, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

 

July 6, 2017 at 3:10 pm Leave a comment

Welcome to Common Ground: Our American Garden

Common Ground Blog 1Completed in June 2017, Common Ground: Our American Garden is an outdoor exhibit that looks at historic and contemporary America through a plant lens. Formerly the site of the Smithsonian’s Heirloom Garden, this space features raised planting beds along the National Museum of American History’s south side facing the National Mall.  The exhibit was created and installed by Smithsonian Gardens horticulturists, who worked with historians at the museum to embody themes found in the recently opened exhibition, Many Voices, One Nation.

Within the colorful landscape, specific plants are highlighted based on their importance to Americans in the following ways:  Memory, Healing, Discovery, and Ingenuity. Interpretive panels invite visitors to connect with their own cultural heritage, discover plants beloved for their fragrance and beauty, and enjoy a handsome vista of color befitting a museum garden in the nation’s capital.

Common Ground Blog 2

Newly installed interpretive panels highlight the four themes of the garden.

Memory: These plants, originating from America and elsewhere, are grown to remember heritage. They provide flavor or fragrance to remind gardeners of family and home.

Healing: These plants are grown for their traditional or modern medicinal qualities. In America, entire landscapes and gardens have been cultivated to promote the health of people, especially as a respite in urban areas. New medicinal uses for plants and benefits of green spaces continue to be found today.

Discovery: These plants have been discovered, collected or documented by Americans abroad or here at home, often as part of expeditions.  New discoveries continue to be made in horticulture and plant science thanks to innovative plant breeding and propagation techniques.

Ingenuity: These plants illustrate efforts by Americans to use plants in unusual ways.  Some of these plant uses have grown to industrial proportions. All remain a fascinating thread in the fabric of the American garden story.

Common Ground Blog 3

Asclepias tuberosa is both a native and a medicinal plant. One of its most interesting uses in America, however, comes from its seeds. Each seed is carried on a billowy sail of cottony fluff. Someone noticed this and utilized the fluff as stuffing for life-jackets.

Starting July 6th, twenty minute tours of Common Ground: Our American Garden will start at 9:30a.m. every Thursday through October at the National Museum of American History’s south entrance.  Come and enjoy this new multi-seasonal exhibit!

Do you have memories of a garden in your community or neighborhood? Have you or someone you know grown a Victory or flower garden, or passed along plants, seeds or knowledge to family, friends and neighbors? Smithsonian Gardens invites you to share your own garden story with Community of Gardens, a collection of stories from around the nation. Stories and images can be contributed through the Community of Gardens app or at communityofgardens.si.edu

– Erin Clark, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist

July 3, 2017 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

Changing Roles of Gardens

As a college student many years ago, (ok, decades ago) I was taught about “good garden plants.” These were roughly defined as long blooming, pest- and disease-free, and non-self-sowing. All these qualities sounded great to me. Horticulturists wanted gardens to work for us; and for plants to do what we wanted them to do. A garden’s primary purpose was to provide pleasure. But as time has passed, I’ve realized that a garden can be so much more than just pleasing to ME –and it only takes a few simple changes.

First, let’s take a closer look at those ‘Good Garden Plants.’

Plants ‘that bloom all summer’ are usually either

1) an annual that is naturally programmed to bloom its head off, set seed and die

or 2) a perennial that has been bred for repeated blooms, larger flowers, compact form, and/or more intense color. However, somewhere along the breeding path things like fertility, nectar production, and fragrance have been lost—these may be non-essential elements for people, but fundamental for insects and birds which feed on nectar and nutritious seeds.

Bee

Bumble bee feeding on Physostegia virginiana (Obedient plant)

…and what about those ‘pests’ that we try to avoid?  Don’t those include caterpillars which pupate into butterflies?  And some of those other ‘pests’ – aren’t they essential pollinators or food for birds?  A garden made of only “good garden plants” can be very beautiful, but lacking in LIFE which comes from the nature a garden can attract. Without wild areas to nest, feed and breed, many species face an uphill challenge.

Butterfly

Skipper butterfly feeding on Verbena bonariensis 

There is a revolution going on in America’s gardens though. Gardeners are recognizing that a garden can be more than just a combination of perfect posies that please humans. Gardeners are starting to realize that their gardens can replace some things that may be lost due to human activities. Gardens can still be beautiful while also providing food, water, and overwintering habitat for creatures large and small.

I find myself adding more and more native plants and their cultivars to both the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden and my home garden because of the additional layer of LIFE certain plants attract. As I mentioned earlier, not all plants offer the same benefits to insects.

So how do you know which plants entice pollinators?  One easy way is to slow down and watch. Simple as that!  Visit public gardens or garden centers and study which plants are visited by certain insects. Last summer I let the bees decide which Coreopsis I added to the Ripley Garden just by watching which cultivars the bees visited.  There were 12 different cultivars of Coreopsis in bloom on the sales bench, but the bees were not attracted to all of them equally.  The bees ignored some cultivars completely, while others were abuzz with activity.  Those were the plants I added to the gardens I cultivate.

Another thing I am doing more of is RELAXING!!  I no longer feel compelled to keep everything staked and pruned perfectly. I allow the gardens I tend to become more rumpled and natural looking.  Plus, I am embracing the winter garden and loving the juxtaposition of evergreen and tawny winter browns.  Yes, I still tidy up a little in the fall, cutting selective plants back, but I no longer ‘put the garden to bed’ by cutting everything to the ground. Instead, this past winter I enjoyed watching birds take advantage of the cover provided by Panicum grass, and knew that there were insects and other creatures cozily tucked in there for the winter.

Leaf litter

Example of leaf and foliage bits left as nesting materials for birds. 

Foliage

Example of leaf and foliage bits left as nesting materials for birds. 

When I do cut old stems down in the spring, I leave bits and pieces for the birds as nesting materials as well as small piles of leaves which robins and other birds rummage through looking for insects that munch on the decaying leaves. Along with building bug houses for insects to overwinter in, I also leave piles of twigs and stems in out-of-the-way locations, and old rotting branches to decompose in place – anything to help Nature continue to coexist with our ever-growing population.

These are little changes in the way I garden, but they have a huge impact on providing habitat for wildlife.  I encourage you to embrace a little messiness in your own garden–you will likely be rewarded by a whole new dimension of life your garden will support.

Happy gardening!

Janet Draper – Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

April 19, 2017 at 12:59 pm 2 comments

‘Bucky,’ the Stinkiest Bulbophyllum

Bucky 1

“Bucky’ and its large leaves

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.

Bucky 2

Inflorescence of Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis

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 

April 13, 2017 at 1:48 pm 5 comments

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