Celebrating Trees: Inspiring Arbor Day Stories

It’s Arbor Day! That means it’s time to celebrate all of the wonderful benefits that we get from trees, and to plant trees to increase those benefits. Newspaper editor J. Sterling Morton is usually credited with first proposing the tree-planting holiday called “Arbor Day” in Nebraska in 1872. While Morton’s Arbor Day was a first in the United States, the celebration of a day devoted to trees actually has roots hundreds of years earlier.

The first documented celebration of an Arbor Day was organized by the mayor in the Spanish village of Mondoñedo in 1594. Today, a small marker commemorating this event can still be found in the town (now known as Alameda de los Remedios). The first “modern day” Arbor Day happened in Spain in 1805 in the village of Villanueva de la Sierra and was organized by a local priest, Don Ramón Vacas Roxo. According to author and professor Miguel Herrero Uceda, Don Ramón was “convinced of the importance of trees for health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment and customs” and decided “to plant trees and give a festive air.” After celebrating Mass on Carnival Tuesday, Roxo, accompanied by other clergy, teachers, and villagers, planted a poplar tree. The celebration and plantings lasted three days. The priest was so moved by the importance of trees that he wrote a manifesto in their defense and sent it to neighboring towns to encourage people to protect nature and establish tree plantations.

Villanueva de la Sierra Arbor Day monument

A monument commemorating the first modern day Arbor Day in the village of Villanueva de la Sierra, Spain. Photo by Miguel Herrero Uceda.

Many decades later, the message and spirit of Arbor Day had spread throughout the world. In 1977, Kenyan political and environmental activist Wangari Maathai started a grassroots movement known as the Green Belt Movement. It organized women in rural Kenya to plant trees in order to combat deforestation and erosion and provide future food and firewood, all the while empowering the women involved. The movement has planted over 50 million trees, and tens of thousands of women have received training in environmentally sustainable trades. Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Women planting trees

Kahuro Women’s Group planting trees in Kiharu, Kenya as part of the Green Belt Movement. Photo courtesy of the Green Belt Movement.

One of the most inspiring stories about people and trees comes out of India. In 1979, a local teenager named Jadav Payeng began noticing that on the island of Majuli, his home, erosion was taking vegetation and land away, and many of the native animal species along with it. Majuli is the largest river island in the world, located in the middle of the Brahmaputra River, and is vulnerable to the tides of many tributaries. Seasonal flooding was leaving large areas of the island barren, while washing other areas away completely. Payeng was concerned by what he saw, so he planted twenty bamboo seedlings on a sandbar to help prevent this erosion from continuing. He was so inspired to save his home in this way that he continued to plant trees and scatter tree seeds to help reforest the island. Today, he is responsible for planting a forest that is now approximately 1,400 acres, more than one and a half times larger than New York City’s Central Park! Deer, tigers, rhinoceroses, and elephants have moved into the dense forest, along with returning bird species that had not been seen in the area for decades.

Jadav Payeng standing in the forest

Jadav Payeng, known as “The Forest Man of India,” looking over his forest. Polygon Window Productions.

This Arbor Day, let’s be inspired by these stories of how individuals can make a large and lasting impact on our world. If you can, plant a tree (or several), care for the trees that you already have, or volunteer for a neighborhood tree advocacy group. We can all make a difference and improve our world with trees!

-Greg Huse, Arborist, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist and Tree Collection Manager

The Smithsonian Tree Collection is maintained by Smithsonian Gardens and features close to 1,900 accessioned specimens throughout the Smithsonian museum grounds and gardens surrounding the National Mall, the Anacostia Community Museum, and the Smithsonian support facilities in Maryland. Click here to learn more about the Smithsonian Tree Collection.

April 29, 2016 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

Smithsonian Gardens Receives Grant Award to Fund a Water Conservation Project

In honor of Earth Day, Smithsonian Gardens is proud to announce a $146,200 grant award from Smithsonian Institution’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund for a water conservation project at our Suitland Greenhouse Facility.  The award supports the purchase and installation of a rainwater harvesting system to irrigate the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection by collecting and using rainwater to water the collection rather than municipally-treated water as we use now. This project is a collaboration between Smithsonian Gardens and the Smithsonian Facilities Energy Management Branch of the Systems Engineering Division which is responsible for Smithsonian’s energy use and conservation techniques.

Rainwater harvesting is a technique used for collecting, storing and using rainwater for landscape irrigation and other uses. The rainwater is collected from hard surfaces such as rooftops and is a cost effective method of water conservation.  Rainwater is superior for plant watering because it is free from pollutants like dissolved salts, minerals, and chemicals such as fluoride and chlorine.

Water quality is of critical importance when it comes to successful orchid cultivation and maintenance. Orchid species exposed to municipal water often show detrimental physical manifestations caused by accumulated salts building up in the orchid growing medium. These adverse effects include leaf tip burn, decreased plant vigor, reduced blooming, discoloration, and even death.

Many of the best orchid collections and commercial growers in the United States, Europe, and South America use either purified water or rainwater for irrigating orchids. Switching from municipal water to rainwater is like ‘flipping a switch’ with regard to orchid growth. Seedlings irrigated with rainwater grow two to three times faster and the plants often have cleaner, unblemished foliage. A resent comparison of Atlanta Botanical Garden seedlings sired at the same time as ones grown by Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection show they are more than triple the size of those being grown by Smithsonian Gardens. Clear evidence of the need to implement better water quality for the over 8,000 orchids in our collection. We hope to have the new water harvesting and irrigation system installed by the end of this year.

This project celebrates innovation and supports sustainable collections care which will have a direct, substantial, and permanent impact on the health and preservation of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. This project received Federal support from the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund, administered by the National Collections Program and the Smithsonian Collections Advisory Committee.

-Sarah Hedean, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

April 22, 2016 at 8:00 am 2 comments

A Floral Firework Display: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Sunday is the final day of the 2016 orchid exhibit, Orchids In Focus, at the United States Botanic Garden (USBG). It has been an interesting season to say the least, with seventy degree weather in January and gusting winds throughout March. Most of our show plants are bloomed out and will start their recovery for next year’s blooming cycle. Our species orchids are not on such a rigid schedule and are still living the slow life in the greenhouses, blooming when they please and offering visual fireworks of color amidst the overwhelming background of green foliage.

Scaphyglottis bidentata is a dazzling miniature orchid from Central and South America. This species exhibits spectacular red-orange flowers, a pollination syndrome for ornithophily, or bird-pollination. Several other Scaphyglottis with large (relatively), bold flowers were previously classified under a distinct genus, Hexisea but were morphologically similar enough to the former Scaphyglottis grouping to be lumped together. One of the major defining morphological characteristics of species in this group is that the pseudobulbs are stacked (see inset photo).

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(left) Scaphyglottis bidentata, (right) illustration from Edwards’s Botanical Register

Another striking pop of color found in our species greenhouse comes from Dendrobium bracteosum var. tannii. If you look this one up, you won’t find tannii mentioned anywhere because the name has never been formally published. This variety is a miniature form of the species. To give you an idea of the size difference the flowers on our specimen are no longer than a centimeter in diameter, which is less than half of the typical size.

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Dendrobium bracteosum var. tannii

Dendrobium sanguinolentum is a pendant growing epiphyte found in Thailand, Western Malesia and the Philippines. This species is known as “The Blood Stained Dendrobium” because the flowers typically have splotches or stains of violet at the edges of the sepals and petals. The plant below may be an alba form of this species since there are no stains evident on the pale yellow flower.

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Dendrobium sanguinolentum

This week’s grand finale is Myrmecocattleya Claudia Elena. This fantastic hybrid with such vivid coloration is a cross between Myrmecophila tibicinis and Cattleya dowiana. In the wild, the ranges of these two species do not overlap, but since they are both part of the Cattleya alliance, hybridizers are able to successfully interbreed them. Myrmecophila flowers are typically one to two inches in diameter, but when crossed with a large flowered Cattleya, they almost triple in size!

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Myrmecocattleya Claudia Elena

Photographs are a wonderful way to explore nature’s diversity, but nothing compares to experiencing it in person. If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, make sure to take a final trip to the USBG to see our orchids on display before the exhibit ends on the 17th!

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

April 15, 2016 at 8:41 am Leave a comment

Preserving Our Garden Heritage One Pixel at a Time

What better way to celebrate National Garden Month in April than to spend some time enjoying historic garden images from the J. Horace McFarland Company Collection!  Thanks to a Smithsonian preservation grant, thousands of images from this collection at the Archives of American Gardens (AAG) were digitized recently and are now available online through the Smithsonian’s Research Information System (SIRIS).  These images–produced by McFarland’s publishing firm which specialized in printing horticultural publications–are just some of the treasures found in AAG which is administered by Smithsonian Gardens and tasked with collecting historic and contemporary garden documentation as a means of preserving our garden heritage.

Very much a renaissance man, J. Horace McFarland (1859-1948) of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,was a publisher, author, lecturer, horticulturist and authority on roses.  As the first President of the American Civic Association—a position he held for 20 years—McFarland also advocated for effective civic planning and improvements throughout the U.S. during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) when living and community conditions called out for significant reforms.

McFarland looking over the gardens at his home.

A newly digitized photograph from the J. Horace McFarland Collection showing McFarland looking over the gardens at his home, Breeze Hill, in Harrisburg, Penn. 1942. (PA083039)

McFarland’s printing company, Mount Pleasant Press, published many of the seed and nursery trade catalogs in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century.  The J. Horace McFarland Company Collection at AAG includes over 3,000 of the firm’s images, many of which were published in books, catalogs, newspapers, and journals.

The images document an extensive variety of gardens across the U.S. dating from the 1900s to the 1960s, everything from popular parks to small flower patches planted behind crowded urban row houses.  Thanks to the broad range of private and public gardens photographed by the firm, the J. Horace McFarland Company Collection provides glimpses into historic trends and events of the times including World War II’s victory gardens and post-war neighborhood development.  Images that show people working in or enjoying these gardens are especially captivating.  In many cases the photographs are the only evidence left of certain gardens and public spaces.

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A World War II-era victory garden at Breeze Hill in 1944. The gardens at Breeze Hill were often employed to stage photographs used by McFarland’s firm, Mount Pleasant Press. (PA083362)

This digitization project was timely since the photographs—which had been pasted onto brittle cardboard mounts –are fragile and subject to continued deterioration.  Rather than scanning the thousands of photographs on a flatbed scanner—both a time-consuming and potentially damaging procedure—each was photographed with a Phase One digital camera under controlled lighting conditions.  High resolution digital images are now readily available for research use and the need to handle the originals has been significantly reduced.  We hope you get a chance to search the McFarland Company Collection online and enjoy the garden history that it documents.

– Joyce Connolly, Museum Specialist, Archives of American Gardens

April 8, 2016 at 9:00 am 2 comments

Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden Expansion and Renovation

The Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden has been a treasured component of the Smithsonian landscape since 1998. For nearly two decades it has served as a place to enjoy beauty, learn about modern roses and showcase gardening. This year, the garden will undergo an expansion and renovation to continue that legacy. This exciting project is made possible through a generous grant from the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund.

Axonmetric sketch Rose Garden 10-15

Sketch of the forthcoming Folger Rose Garden renovation and expansion.

In addition to physically increasing the garden’s footprint by developing existing turf areas in front of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, the renovation will include the installation of interpretive signage highlighting information about roses as well as the important roles that beneficial insects and companion plants play in the garden. The signage will encourage visitors to more fully appreciate the garden’s four-season design and understand the advantage of variety and balance in nature and in garden design. Smithsonian Gardens will also install a custom-designed garden feature that complements the garden’s Victorian cast iron fountain and urns and ties in with the beautiful architecture of the historic A & I Building.

Many people envision a rose garden as a formal, symmetrical design consisting solely of roses surrounded by tightly-clipped boxwood edges — a near monoculture. While this type of design can be beautiful, it can also lead to an imbalance in the garden. Smithsonian Gardens wanted to design a rose garden that reflects balance as found in nature complete with structural complexity and plant diversity which allows for both pest and pest predator (a.k.a. benefi­cial insect) populations. By taking this approach we hope to cultivate a healthier garden with a lesser reliance on pesticides.

2010 Garden Fest Long XV4A0120 Graham Davis & sons, SI staff

Young visitors to the Folger Rose Garden learning about the use of beneficial insects for pest management.

The redesigned Folger Rose Garden will embody the best practices in modern rose care and culture. When planning for this project, Smithsonian Gardens staff spent months carefully selecting rose varieties that are fragrant, disease resistant, and–whenever possible–“own-root roses” meaning they are grown from cuttings rather than grafted onto another rootstalk. Good selection is critical to maintaining a beautiful and scented garden without constant disease pressure and pesticide application.

When the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden was originally designed and installed in 1997-1998, the vision was to create a four-season garden with year-round interest. That vision guides this redesign as well. Roses will bloom in the spring, summer, and fall. A few specimen conifers and evergreens will punctuate and anchor the garden during the winter months but also supply some of the desired structural complexity. A variety of groundcovers and other perennials will add to the display and ensure plant diversity. These companion plants have been chosen specifically for their ability to attract a variety of beneficial insects into the garden, thus aiding in a natural balance and rose protection.

It is our hope that when the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden reopens in the summer of 2016 it will give visitors the opportunity both to surround themselves with beauty and better understand roses as a part of a larger ecosystem.

-Shelley Gaskins, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens 

March 30, 2016 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

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

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