The Critical Importance of Water Quality for Living Collections: Planning Ahead

Objects and artifacts in a museum collection are typically housed in cases and cabinets with drawers or shelves. As a living museum, Smithsonian Gardens’ plant collections are maintained in the landscape and in a large greenhouse facility. Because plants are living specimens that require vitamins, nutrients and other sources of energy, they must be monitored and nurtured daily. Water is a critical component of this care. Photosynthesis, transpiration (water movement through a plant and subsequent evaporation from plant leaves), and the transfer of vitamins and minerals from the soil to the plant are all dependent on the presence of water.

Water quality and availability are key factors to plant maintenance in a public garden. Things like droughts, floods, and other natural disturbances must be considered when developing a plan of care for each garden and/or collection. Throughout its gardens and landscapes, Smithsonian Gardens utilizes an irrigation system that uses 30-50% less water than conventional watering, improves plant growth by extending watering times, prevents soil erosion and nutrient runoff, and ensures that plants are watered without wetting leaves, which helps prevent fungal disease.

Water Harvesting

Irrigation system visible during construction of Folger Rose Garden 

Water quality is also of critical importance when it comes to successful orchid cultivation and maintenance. Orchid species exposed to municipal water–such as that which the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) currently uses–exhibit detrimental physical manifestations caused by the accumulation of salts in the growing medium. These adverse effects include leaf tip burn, decreased plant vigor, reduced blooming, discoloration, and even death.

Water Harvesting 2

Dendrobiums grown with municipal water (left) compared with ones grown with reverse osmosis water. 

To have access to high quality water for the long-term care of SGOC, Smithsonian Gardens recently secured funding from the Smithsonian’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund* to install a customized rainwater harvesting system at its Greenhouse Facility. The system will collect, filter and store rainwater in a large tank or modular chamber. This is a preferable alternative to filtering municipal water for several reasons. First, filtering does not remove all of the added compounds found in municipal water. Additionally, rainwater has a similar pH to that of reverse-osmosis (R/O) water, which is currently used for our most delicate specimens. Smithsonian staff are currently visiting local universities and public gardens with large-scale water harvesting systems to glean ‘lessons learned’ from each project and to determine whether an above-ground or underground cistern (water storage tank) makes the most sense for SGOC’s year-round water use.

Water Harvesting 3

Example of above-ground cistern at the University of Maryland. 

Water Harvesting 4

Example of a modular storage chamber which allows for a much shallower excavation and ease of transport to a site. 

The plan is for rainwater to be collected from the roof of the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility then pumped under pressure from a cistern through a filtration system to remove particles at the micron level. From there, the rainwater will be disinfected using ultraviolet light to destroy any microorganisms that are detrimental to orchid health. Finally, the rainwater will be pumped to a hose connector in each of the four orchid greenhouses for use when staff are watering.

*This project supports innovative and sustainable collections care which will have a direct, substantial, and permanent impact on the health and preservation of the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. It was made possible with financial support from the Smithsonian Collections Care and Preservation Fund, administered by the Smithsonian’s National Collections Program and the Smithsonian Collections Advisory Committee.

– Sarah Hedean, Living Collections Manager 


August 1, 2016 at 12:47 pm Leave a comment

Things are getting fat in the Ripley Garden!

Fat in a succulent sort of way, that is!

Two years ago, I started playing around with growing plants vertically using a system of trays specifically designed for such use (Going Vertical in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden). During that first year, I planted the trays with creeping thymes, and other low-growing selections in an effort to create a mosaic of colors and form. This was successful, but I knew it could be better.

The next year I used all sun-loving succulents in an awe-inspiring range of colors, textures, and forms which allowed me to have fun creating a living tapestry that would thrive with low-water usage.

Succulents Greenhouse

Succulents overwintering in our greenhouse facility.

The response to my succulent experiment was so positive that I knew it had to come back. So before deadly frosts arrived, I dismantled the wall and sent it back to the care of our wonderful growers, Joe Curley and Jill Gonzales, to overwinter in the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility. The plants flourished under their care and the wall is back this year, bigger and better than before!

Succulent wall

2016 Green Wall 

But what else can be done with succulents? Could I create succulent topiary-like balls? Why not try?!  Again with the help and support of our greenhouse staff, this past winter, I purchased some pre-made metal frame spheres that were stuffed with sphagnum moss and secured with fishing line.

Moss spheres

Sphagnum moss spheres ready for succulent additions.

I got various sizes of these spheres and plugs (small rooted plants) of assorted succulents.  The first thing I did was submerge the dry spheres in a bucket of water to soak the moss thoroughly.  Then I started playing with the little plugs and began creating artistic designs of color and form all over the spheres. I added holes in each moss ball and placed starter plants in, securing them with florist pins when necessary.

Succulent plugs 2

Succulent plugs

succulent balls - me

Me, enjoying design experimentation with the succulent spheres

After creating the spheres, they were once again in the hands of our great growers who cared for and nurtured them until they were established enough to put on display in the garden.

succulent balls 3

Early phase succulent sphere 

They are now scattered throughout the Ripley Garden, hanging from various structures and lamp posts.  Come on by and check them out—I think they turned out pretty well and am excited to see them completely filled in.

Succulent balls in the garden 2

The succulent spheres at home in the Ripley Garden!

I check them frequently to see if they need watering since the sphagnum moss dries out quickly, but succulents are engineered to handle times of drought, so they should continue to thrive in the absence of much water, though I am not sure just how much!

So, once again, I am experimenting and learning new things all the time.  I have no idea how the succulent spheres will do this summer, but that is part of the fun of gardening, isn’t it?

Happy Gardening!

– Janet Draper, Mary Livingston Ripley Garden Horticulturist 

July 18, 2016 at 10:05 am Leave a comment

Smithsonian Gardens Living Collections: The Orchid Inventory

One of the most important aspects of managing a museum collection is the inventory. For a living collection like the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SOGC) there is a significant turnover of collection material due to plants’ natural life cycles and/or disease. Therefore, a regular inventory of the contents of each of the orchid greenhouses enables Smithsonian Gardens to reconcile any plants that were not deaccessioned properly in the past, relabel orchids that are missing accession tags, and update plant locations arising from moves in and out of the greenhouses for displays, exhibits, and lectures throughout the year.

Another important reason that Smithsonian Gardens conducts inventories of the orchid collection is to maintain the readability of the plants’ accession labels. The SOGC uses plastic tags that are printed with each plant’s accession number, a scannable barcode, and are overlaid with UV protection. Even with this protection the labels fade over time due to being in the direct sun, generally lasting about four years before they become unreadable.


Example of a new accession label vs. an older accession label.

Each summer, a Smithsonian Gardens intern takes on the responsibility of inventorying a portion of the orchid collection. This year, thanks to a new Collections Information System (CIS), the process of scanning, printing, and reattaching accession labels is much more streamlined. Our exceptional orchid intern, Ming, completed the inventory in one greenhouse in half the time it has taken in years past!

The inventory process requires Ming to scan each plant’s accession label barcode using a handheld device. The handhelds are equipped with a condensed version of the CIS which is adequate for fieldwork. Inventory lists are synced back to the main CIS so that new barcode labels can be generated, printed and reattached to plant pots using hog rings.


Our orchid intern, Ming, hard at work in one of the greenhouses.

Learn more about our collection inventory in July by following Smithsonian Gardens on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!

– Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens

July 5, 2016 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

Smithsonian Gardens Unveils Newly Renamed Pollinator Garden

Smithsonian Gardens kicked off Pollinator Week this Tuesday, June 21, 2016 by unveiling its newly renamed Pollinator Garden outside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and holding its third annual Pollination Party.

Unveiling of sign in front of Pollinator Garden

Smithsonian Gardens Director Barbara Faust and Pollinator Garden Horticulturist James Gagliardi unveil new signage in the renamed Pollinator Garden on Tuesday, June 21, 2016.

When Smithsonian Gardens first opened the 11,000 square-foot Butterfly Habitat Garden in 1995, its goal was to emphasize natural plant/butterfly partnerships and educate visitors about ways they could help these partnerships thrive. Twenty years later, we saw a need to expand the mission of this garden to tell a broader story of the often fragile relationships between plants, pollinators, and people.

This change reflects the growing importance of supporting pollinator health championed by the formation of a task force by President Barack Obama in 2014 and the implementation of the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. As a participant in this task force, Smithsonian Gardens hopes that the reinterpretation of this garden will educate visitors about the wide diversity of pollinators and the types of plants that support them. The garden’s assorted plantings also show strategies for creating beautiful pollinator-friendly gardens.

The garden’s new theme leads visitors on a ‘Pollination Investigation’ to discover the who, what, when, why, where, and how of pollination by examining the unique relationships between a variety of pollinators—from butterflies and bees to flies and beetles—and flowers. With one in three bites of food we eat dependent on pollinators, it is vitally important that we all work to protect and strengthen pollinator populations.

We hope you can visit the newly renamed garden and join us in protecting the pollinators all around us!

June 24, 2016 at 9:44 am Leave a comment

Dad’s Garden

Don’t forget, tomorrow is Father’s Day! Father’s Day means letting dad know you love him, handmade cards, and family get-togethers. Special occasions are the perfect opportunity to learn more about your family history. Is your pops passionate about perennials or peppers?  This weekend, trying to get dad gabbing about his garden. Does he remember the first plant he successfully grew? Who taught him how to garden? What’s his favorite thing to grow? Does he have any tips for young gardeners just starting out? Any old photos of his backyard or garden you’ve never seen before? A secret recipe for the perfect compost soup?

In honor of Father’s Day, here are a few of our favorite dad stories from the Community of Gardens digital archive. Community of Gardens is a platform for collecting stories of American gardeners and gardens for future generations. Become a part of the Smithsonian by sharing your dads’s story—or any garden story—today:

Francesco Pietanza holding squash from his garden.

Francesco Pietanza holding up a prize squash grown in his Brooklyn, New York garden, circa 1950s or 1960s.

  • This sweeping story has it all: A young Italian immigrant arrives in Ellis Island in 1948 in search of his younger brother, settles in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, grows a family, and grows beautiful gardens rooted in his Italian heritage, bursting with fresh figs, tomatoes, and garlic. Read the full story here.


Harry Sr. holding his tomato harvest in his home garden.

Paul’s grandfather Harry Sr. with his prized tomatoes in his Colonial Beach, Virginia garden, 1960s.

  • This story spans three centuries, and many bountiful crops of ripe tomatoes. Paul shared his family’s garden history with Community of Gardens, beginning with his great-grandfather immigrating to America in 1881. His grandfather Harry Sr., above, grew tomatoes, and today Paul maintains a large garden that he tends with his children.
George Napientek outside cleaning up tree damage after a storm on his homestead

George Napientek (on the right) cleaning up tree damage after a storm on his homestead, November 1946.

  • George and Olivia Napientek raised their children on this family homestead in Franklin, Wisconsin surrounded by bountiful vegetable and flower gardens. George taught all of his children to work on the farm at a young age. With hard work comes delicious rewards; according to his children (who shared this story), “apples for applesauce and pie came from Pa’s orchard.” I’m sure that pie was delicious with a tall glass of milk from the dairy cows! Read the full story here.

Honor a dad in your life by sharing his garden story with the Smithsonian. Share here or email us at Help us grow our archive!

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator 


June 18, 2016 at 8:51 am Leave a comment

A New Day, a New Database: Smithsonian Gardens Living Collections Management

World-class orchid collections like the one at Smithsonian Gardens are more than an assemblage of pretty flowers. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes like maintaining good plant culture, regular and judicious watering, and dealing with insect pests and viruses. Another aspect of a well-kept collection is vigilant record keeping and data management.

There are several collections information systems (CIS) in use by botanic gardens that keep track of accessioned plant material. In the past, Smithsonian Gardens used a relational database tailored specifically to orchid collections for this purpose. This program worked well for many years but our growing online presence, digitization and IT requirements, and opportunities to expand SG’s plant collections prompted us to search for a more robust system.

In November 2015, Smithsonian Gardens switched to a botanical collections database with a more flexible framework. This new framework enables us to expand our plant records to encompass gardens surrounding the Smithsonian museums, in addition to managing our living collections of orchids and trees. Using this new tool to accession “unofficial” collections such as SG’s tropical plants will improve our horticulturists’ ability to track plant usage, longevity, and vitality.

Visitors to the Smithsonian will also benefit from this database transition. As Smithsonian Gardens tracks new plants in its gardens, staff will be able to plot their locations on a map, create tours, and compile images and other plant data on SG’s website. For on-site visitors, this will be an invaluable trip-planning tool; for online visitors, this will be a fantastic way to explore plants on the Smithsonian campus from afar.

View of Smithsonian Gardens' living collections mapping and information page.

Draft view of Smithsonian Gardens’ living collections mapping and information page.

The switch to a more flexible database also allows SG to better integrate its collections information with existing Smithsonian IT systems. This compatibility enables automatic syncing of collection images between the plant database and the Smithsonian’s main Digital Asset Management System rather than having to link the images separately in both places. Cross-talk between the systems cuts out redundant steps from our previous workflow and frees up collections staff to work on other projects. In addition, the process used to update collection images and information to the online Smithsonian Collections Search Center is more streamlined.

Orchid entries in Smithsonian's Digital Asset Management System

Screenshot of Orchid Collection images in the Smithsonian’s main Digital Asset Management System.

SG’s living collections team is currently cleaning up and enhancing the migrated data. With over 30,000 records of both living and historic plant assets, there is a lot of verification and editing to accomplish. This fall the focus will shift to the Smithsonian Gardens Tree Collection, the other living collection entrusted to our care.  Our goal is to integrate Tree Collection data from an existing database with accession records in the new database, while maintaining the ability to track tree locations across more than 180 acres of grounds through mapping software.

Smithsonian Gardens is excited to grow its living collections management program. The implementation of a new database is just a first step, but it paves the way for future progress and enables more efficient and effective management of the Smithsonian’s living plant collections for the benefit of both on-site and virtual visitors.

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens


May 31, 2016 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

On Display: Spectacular Spider Orchids

The Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection contains an amazing assortment of species and hybrids. I come to work each day with great anticipation of what new marvel has unfurled overnight. I am never disappointed. Our interiorscape staff selects the most stunning plants for our orchid display cases outside the Warner Bros. Theater on the first floor of the National Museum of American History (NMAH). This week’s display features a group of orchids from one of my favorite genera, the fascinating Brassia.

Brassia Rex ‘Sakata’

Brassia Rex ‘Sakata’ from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection on display at the National Museum of American History.

Better known as spider orchids, Brassias are beloved for their long, narrow, ribbony sepals and petals. One of the orchids currently on display is Brassia Rex, a hybrid of Brassia verrucosa X Brassia giroudiana, which is known to have greater vigor and larger flowers than either parent. Created in the 1960s by the venerable orchid breeder Goodale Moir, this exceptional hybrid is a wonderful addition to every collection that has space for it. Beware, however, as it can grow into a monstrously large plant.

OFEO-SG-2009-1460_A-2_ec (1)

Brassia Rex, 2009-1460A, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection.

It has long been believed that Brassias evolved flowers which—through a strategy known as brood site deception—mimic the appearance of spiders in order to attract female parasitic wasps of the genera Pepsis and Campsomeris that target spiders as hosts on which to lay their eggs. This ‘imitation’ strategy is evident in many types of orchids that use flower smell, color, and texture to appear to be suitable places for pollinators to deposit their progeny. Ecologists in Central America, however, have recently noted that while parasitic wasps do indeed visit Brassias and pollinate them, they do not appear to lay eggs on these orchids. As a result, this finding disproves brood site deception as the reason for Brassias’ spider-like appearance. While the true reason for the spider orchid’s form remains unknown, discussion at a recent orchid conference brought up the possibility that these wasps simply like the look of these flowers.

This raises a fascinating question I’ve been mulling over recently: Is it possible that there is an aesthetic component to orchid evolution? Charles Darwin thought this to be the case and pointed to the sexual selection of mates in various animal species as evidence. Perhaps pollinators also select showy flowers such as Brassias for their ‘attractiveness.’ This question has yet to be answered and is just one of the many reasons I find the mysterious field of orchid ecology so fascinating.

-Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist

May 13, 2016 at 8:50 am Leave a comment

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