Posts tagged ‘flowers’

The Language of Flowers

In literature, mythology, love, and everyday life flowers—light as a feather—are weighted with meaning. In the Victorian era entire guides were published dedicated to the “language of flowers” and the idea that a single flower, or a particular arrangement of flowers, could communicate complex emotions and social cues. Of course, these guides were often at odds with each other and were most likely a faddish folly rather than a prescription for concrete communication in everyday life. One could only hope that if a courting couple were signaling each other with posy holders they were referencing the same book. For instance, a white rose symbolizes “I would be single” according to the 1852 book The Language of Flowers, but in The Illustrated Language of Flowers (1856) a white rose signaled “I am worthy of you.” Unless it was wilted, for then it meant “transient impressions.” Confusion sets in when a white rose was worn with a red rose, which symbolized “unity.” If these books were taken at face value, how easy it would be to send mixed messages. What a beginning to a romantic comedy!

Throughout history flowers have symbolically marked weddings and funerals, the change of seasons, state and national pride, and have symbolized love, hope, rebirth, death, and everything in between. The state flower of Hawaii is the yellow ma’o hau hele (Hibiscus brackenridgei). Hibiscus flowers are often given to visitors to Hawaii as a gesture of welcome. Mexican marigolds (cempasúchil) are known as the flor de muertos and used to decorate the graves of loved ones for Día de los Muertos celebrations.

Flowers find their way into our everyday lives through more personal channels. Our Community of Gardens digital archive is a home for these stories of flowers and gardens and their impact on our daily lives. From the unique peony cultivar developed by a flower-loving neighbor to cakes flavored by the vanilla orchid to memories of a childhood spent in shady backyard abundant with colorful azalea bushes, anyone can share their story with the Smithsonian Institution. We are collecting stories of gardens and plants past and present to preserve for future generations.

Here are some of our favorite flower stories from Community of Gardens—all have a story to tell about the meaning of flowers in our personal histories and culture at large:

Light purple iris in a garden bed

The beautiful “ditch” irises passed down through a family in this Community of Gardens story. The original irises were found on the author’s great-grandparents’ land growing in a swampy area and were transplanted from generation to generation, from garden to garden.

Old photo of a grafted Christmas cactus in a pot

The holidays are just around the corner when the Christmas cactus blooms! At one time Rose Villa Nursery in New Orleans was the largest supplier of grafted Christmas cactus. Read, and listen, to one family’s story of their nursery business and their famous Christmas cactus. 

Close-up of light pin 'Pier Bugnet' rose

The ‘Pier Bugnet’ rose is particularly suited to growing in the cold northern climate of Fairbanks, Alaska. When the rose was in danger of being lost, the Fairbanks Garden Club banded together to save this beautiful flower for their town. Read the full story here.

Do you have a personal story of flowers to share with our archive? We welcome stories about:

  • The development of a particular flower cultivar.
  • Flowers rescued and replanted from family homesteads or lost or destroyed gardens.
  • Family florist businesses or flower farms.
  • Edible flowers. Share your best recipe for squash blossoms with us!
  • Did you grow up in a different country? Is there a flower that reminds you of home, or a flower from your culture you have incorporated into your life in the United States?
  • Flower gardens of all shapes and sizes.
  • What flowers mean to you in your life.

Get started by visiting the Community of Gardens website and clicking on “Share a Story” or emailing us at

 -Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

August 17, 2016 at 12:29 pm 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

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

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).


(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.


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.


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!


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

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.


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.


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.


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

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…


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.


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.


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.


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

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