Three Cheers for Spring: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

It’s finally spring! Today marks the fifth day past the Spring Equinox and it seems like nature is as ready as we are for the change in season. Around the city cherry and magnolia trees are bombarding the city with their pink blossoms and fresh fragrance. Splashes of color from daffodils and pansies are everywhere. Though the season’s change is much more gradual in our orchid greenhouses, this time of year still finds unparalleled variety and interesting stories to tell in our species collection.

This first species was part of a donation we received last summer. It entered our collection as Acianthera aculeata, but now that we have seen the plant in bloom, it doesn’t quite match the type description for the species. A proper identification will require more research for our orchid curators.

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Acianthera sp.

Regardless of its specific name, one characteristic I find fascinating about this orchid and many other Pleurothallids is that the flower spikes arise from the base of the leaf rather than closer to the root structures. This makes the flowers appear to grow right on the leaf surface, which has an interesting effect. Many Pleurothallids are thought to engage in brood site deception, and it can be speculated that these small, wine colored flower umbels mimic the perfect egg-laying site for the plant’s pollinators.

Mediocalcar decoratum is a mat forming epiphyte found in the cloud forests of New Guinea. The miniature orange and yellow bell-shaped flowers are scattered evenly throughout the foliage like someone’s lost candy corn and lend a generally cheerful aspect to the plant. This may be why it is commonly known as the Charming Mediocalcar.

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Mediocalcar decoratum

Last but not least is the ever popular Dendrobium secundum, commonly referred to as the Toothbrush Orchid. This often pendulous species is found throughout Southeast Asia. Its inflorescence of bright pink flowers opens successively (but not fully) at the end of a leafless cane giving it the appearance of bristles at the end of a toothbrush handle. The alba form is also quite beautiful with waxy white flowers and a yellow lip.

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Dendrobium secundum

To see more of our collection, visit the orchid exhibit, Orchids In Focus, at the United States Botanic Garden now through April 17th.

-Julie Rotramel, Orchid Collection Specialist

 

March 25, 2016 at 8:15 am Leave a comment

The Great American Lawn

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

Street of houses with lawns

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Bulbophyllum compressum

 

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

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Tolumnia bahamensis

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

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

Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

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

What Time Is It? Garden Time!

Floral clocks started appearing in outdoor public spaces at the turn of the twentieth century. Not to be confused with botanist Carl Linnaeus’ flower clock which laid out a variety of flowers in a clock-like design according to the hour of the day they opened and closed, the floral clocks referred to here were large-scale timepieces placed amongst richly colored and contrasting carpet plants in elaborate patterns. Some worked like sundials, dependent on the sun to mark time, while others were fully functioning timepieces.

The design for one of the earliest floral clocks, at Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, is credited to Parks Superintendent John

McHattie who arranged to have clockmakers Ritchie & Son install the necessary mechanical parts. When the clock began operating in 1903, it had only an hour hand; a minute hand was added the following year. The Princes Street Gardens’ floral clock featured a twelve-foot dial and hands created from long, shallow troughs of sheet metal planted with flowers. It was not only a work of ingenuity for masterfully combining the technology of clock making with the art of garden design, but also for the engineering it took to install the clock on a forty degree incline.

princes street gardens clower clock

Princes Street gardens Floral Clock in Edinburgh, Scotland, between 1920 and 1940. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection.

Floral clocks were regularly showcased at world’s fairs and in public spaces ranging from parks to cemeteries around the turn of the century. They were perfect for ornately planted Edwardian-era carpet beds that featured sometimes over-the-top figurative designs such as historic scenes, lettering, or coats of arms. In America there were floral clocks displayed on the slope of the Agricultural hill at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Water Works Park in Detroit Michigan featured a water powered floral clock and by 1948, America was home to the world’s largest floral clock in Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Maryland, which still operates today.

Louisiana Purchase Exposition flower clock

Stereograph of the Great Floral Clock in front of the Agricultural Building at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Historic Gardens Stereograph Collection.

Floral clocks have their place as a trend or fad in gardening history and are wonderful examples of the use of technology in the garden. The ability of landscape architects, gardeners, and clock makers to collaborate on such beautiful and yet demanding pieces is what makes the floral clock so special.

-Jessica Brode, Archives of American Gardens Intern, Smithsonian Gardens

Original version of this post published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog.

February 12, 2016 at 10:00 am 1 comment

An Exploration of the Fringe: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Winter is one of the most prolific bloom times in the Smithsonian Gardens orchid greenhouses and each year I am astounded by the diversity that is on display. I have a predilection for miniature orchids, for bizarre traits and unique stories and the two orchids featured today will not disappoint.

Bulbophyllum saltatorum var. albociliatum is an exquisite species found widely across Central Africa. Its winter-blooming flowers are no bigger than a thumbnail, and like many Bulbophyllums, the lip has been dramatically modified. In this case, the modification takes the form of a bright pink fringe, which acts as a lure for small flies who end up inadvertently pollinating the flower.  This species is also rather unique for a Bulbophyllum because its scent is quite pleasant (at least to my olfaction).

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Fringe is not purely used for deceptive purposes. This characteristic, along with colorless flowers and night fragrance is a pollinator syndrome for Hawk Moths. Various species of Brassavola and Habenaria exhibit a unique variation of this morphological adaptation, and offer nectar rewards to their nocturnal visitors. It is not certain what characteristic of this fringed lip appeals to the Hawk Moth, but the convergence of this trait across unrelated orchid genera implies that it is pollinator specific.

In their infinite diversity, orchids always manage to deconstruct the carefully deduced generalizations scientists make about their biology. The Clowesia below, Clowesia Grace Dunn, is a hybrid between Clowesia rosea and Clowesia warzewiczii and as you can see, has an arresting display of fringe on its lip as well.

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These flowers are NOT moth pollinated, rather they are visited by crepuscularly active Euglossine bees that collect their fragrances in the form of oils to woo lady bees. Typically, Euglossine bees are generalists, and will collect fragrances from a number of different species. It has been theorized that the fragrances of Clowesia species change throughout the day, with an “optimal fragrance” either before dawn or just after dusk when their pollinators are most active. This may seem like a wild concept, but many biological functions occur in a cyclical fashion, and solely night fragrant orchids are commonly referenced. It makes sense that the same mechanism would be at work in crepuscularly, diurnally and nocturnally fragrant plants.

Daily fragrance fluctuations are not unique to Clowesia, and have been studied previously in Arachnis, Vanda, Spathoglottis and Oncidium (Goh, 1983), among others. The variation in fragrance could be influenced by changes in acidity due to CO2 production during Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (Goh, 1983) and is decidedly affected by photoperiod, an indication that fragrance is regulated by a circadian rhythm (Altenburger & Matile, 1990).

I never considered the importance of physiological constraints playing such a vital role in the evolution of plant-pollinator relationships, but evidence for this “biological clock” of fragrance emission throughout the plant world is incredibly fascinating. Orchid pollination is a beautifully complex fabric of not only interactions (deceptive or otherwise), but the timing of these interactions. As I am often reminded, NOTHING is coincidence, but the intricacies of evolution often seem astoundingly fortuitous.

 

Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

References:

Altenburger, R., & Matile, P.. (1990). Further observations on rhythmic emission of fragrance in flowers. Planta,180(2), 194–197. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23380097

Goh, C. J.. (1983). Rhythms of Acidity and CO2 Production in Orchid Flowers. The New Phytologist, 93(1), 25–32. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2431891

February 5, 2016 at 12:18 pm Leave a comment

Chasing the Meadow: A Trip through Midwest Gardens

This past October I had the wonderful opportunity to visit public gardens in the Midwest thanks to the Smithsonian Gardens Staff Travel Grant Program.  I planned an amazing chlorophyllic journey from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin, hitting as many gardens as possible in 7 days. I think I could churn out a book based on all of the details that I saw, but two places really stood out to me – Lurie Garden and Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Lurie Garden is a 3-acre garden designed by Piet Oudulf and nestled within Millennium Park, a 25-acre public space adjacent to Lake Michigan in Chicago.  It is a magnificent setting literally humming with people enjoying all aspects of the park—from selfies at ‘The Bean’ to wandering the gardens or just hanging out on the lawns, this is a space that is obviously beloved by all. And me? Mesmerized.

Lurie Garden

Looking up the slope in the Lurie Garden to the Chicago skyline.

The garden is divided into a full sun area and a shade area; Oudulf calls them the light and dark planes. I found the light plane captivating from every angle. This completely herbaceous garden is on a gentle slope. When viewed from the bottom of the slope, the naturalistic garden leads the eye up to the reflective skyscrapers creating a stunning juxtaposition. The garden belongs here. It is like a small portion of prairie has been overtaken by the city. The plantings are all relatively low so you can look over the space from every angle.  The plantings are complex with featured plants intermingling as they do in the wild.

During my visit I was able to meet with Lurie Garden Director Scott Stewart and Horticulturist Laura Ekasetya who were very generous with their time and answered my plethora of questions.

The other garden which stood out to me during my trip was the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin which is a shared undertaking between the city of Madison and the non-profit Olbrich Botanical Society. Even before you enter the front door of the visitor center for this 16-acre garden you know it is different. The parking lot and the beds surrounding the visitor center feature drought-tolerant gravel gardens rather than the riot of exuberant color that normally frames entry spaces.

The garden prides itself on being sustainable and earth friendly—something especially evident when you enter the conservatory since it not only highlights awesome plants but also houses canaries, waxbills, and tropical quail. No chemicals could possibly be used in here! I saw quite a few lust-worthy plants impeccably displayed. My nerd senses were piqued!

Olbrich’s outdoor garden is arranged with themed “rooms” radiating off a circular lawn area. In addition to traditional favorites like herb, rose and perennial gardens, Olbrich also features gravel gardens, a prairie drop-seed meadow, and a sedge meadow. Some of these areas are quite small – for example, the sedge meadow is a narrow pathway leading to two chairs. The space is a sweet, intimate nook showing an attractive alternative to the typical American Lawn. The meadow’s simple signage identifies the species used to create the low maintenance lawn and the seating area invites you to sit and absorb the bucolic environment. It really did show that you can live large in a small space and do it beautifully while respecting the environment.

Gravel Garden - Olbrich

One of the cutting-edge gravel gardens at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

The gravel gardens at Olbrich might look like normal perennial gardens, but they are actually some of the most cutting edge of gardens. Olbrich’s Horticulture Director Jeff Epping starts these gardens with an application of 5-6 inches of gravel over the planting soil and then plants drought-tolerant species in the gravel so their roots just touch the soil.  Not only do these gardens require up to 80% less maintenance than a typical perennial garden, they also need less water and weeding since any weed seeds normally dry out in this environment before successfully establishing. Maintenance involves an annual cutback and removal of all material to keep the soils lean.  This may prove to be a great way to expand the hardiness of many more drought-tolerant things here in the D.C. area since we often lose plants due to winter wet rather than cold temperatures. The process really sparked my curiosity and interest.

Overall, what are the big impressions I came away with?

  • Integrate more grasses! Molinia, Sesleria, Bouteloua and Sporobolis can add movement, texture, and depth without being overpowering.
  • Tropical plantings are fun to play with, but–for me–well designed ‘naturalistic’ plantings trigger a more emotional reaction.
  • A garden does not need to be large or complex to be moving and contemplative.

– Janet Draper, Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens

January 22, 2016 at 10:16 am Leave a comment

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