Posts tagged ‘flowers’

Beguiling Bulbophyllums: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Bulbophyllum is one of the largest orchid genera with around 2,000 species. This genera’s name refers to the leaf-bearing pseudobulbs that are characteristic of plants in this group. An encounter with a Bulbophyllum for the first time can be a rather unexpected olfactory experience, potentially unpleasant, but ultimately a fascinating example of brood site deception between plants and their pollinators.

Bulbophyllum echinolabium

One of the best examples of the odoriferous Bulbophyllum is Bulbophyllum echinolabium is a beautiful, large-flowered specimen with a putrid and pervasive stink. While the smell makes me want to get away fast rather than stick around to take more photographs, the plant’s fly pollinators are wooed closer by the ripe suggestion of rotting meat.  Obviously they are deceived (beguiled, you could say) into pollinating the flower for no reward, and they leave without laying their eggs.

Not all Bulbophyllums exude such a foul odor. Many have a more floral or fruity scent to attract fruit fly pollinators. Others, like Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis ‘Joe Palermo’ have no detectable smell but are equally compelling with impressive rachises of flowers that curve towards the sky like cobras rising from the ground.

Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis 'Joe Palermo'

Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis ‘Joe Palermo’

Another beautiful specimen in bloom is the otherworldly Bulbophyllum medusa, named after Medusa the Gorgon. The flowers’ sepals have evolved dramatically over time to mimic fungal mycelia which attract fungus gnat pollinators.

Bulbophyllum medusae

Bulbophyllum medusae

It is exceedingly difficult to choose just three Bulbophyllums to feature since there is such a diversity of form and color in this genus. We recently accessioned a large number of Bulbophyllum species into our collection and below are two others I couldn’t leave off this post. Bulbophyllum guttulatum, from section Cirrhopetalum, displays an arc of speckled flowers with bright purple lips. The much larger, green and brown mottled specimen is one of our current mysteries. It could be one of three similar species, B. arfakianum, B. frittilariflorum or B. burfordiense. Each species exhibits wide variation in phenotype, therefore an exact species determination must be made by comparing specific parts of the flower anatomy.

Bulbophyllum guttulatum

Bulbophyllum guttulatum

Bulbophyllum sp.

Bulbophyllum sp.

There is always something blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Stay connected with us to see more plants from the collection!

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

November 20, 2015 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

June is National Rose Month


Glass lantern slide of roses

Glass lantern slide of an unidentified garden, c. 1920. Archives of American Gardens, J. Horace McFarland Collection.

We’re bringing our month of wedding-themed #ThrowbackThursdays to a close with tips for caring for roses at home from Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist Shelley Gaskins. Shelley manages the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden next to the Smithsonian Castle.

June is one of the most popular months for weddings, and it’s also National Rose Month! Roses are a traditional and elegant flower choice for wedding bouquets and decorations. Did you know that Tricia Nixon was married in the White House Rose Garden in June of 1971? The White House Historical Association has a new exhibit exploring the Rose Garden during the Kennedy administration opening on July 16th. “The Kennedy Rose Garden: Traditionally American” features a few photographs and letters from the Archives of American Gardens. Did you choose roses for your wedding? Share your story in the comments!

'Amber Queen' rose

‘Amber Queen.’ This rose, and all of the roses pictured below, can be found growing in the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden next to the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C.

Rose Tip #1: Do your research! Roses are rated on several characteristics. Choosing roses that are rated as resistant to fungal diseases such as black spot and powdery mildew should top your list.

'Angel Face' rose

‘Angel Face’

Rose Tip #2: Roses require at least 6 hours of full sun (preferably in the morning), a well-drained and nutrient-rich soil, and moderate amounts of water. Water should only be applied directly to the root zone, not to the leaf surface. Adequate sunlight and water will help decrease the spread and incidence of fungal diseases.

'Charlotte Armstrong' rose

‘Charlotte Armstrong’

Rose Tip #3: When pruning roses in early spring, prune with the understanding that opening up the center of the plant allows for light penetration and air circulation. Allowing light and air into the center of the plant will create an environment that is less favorable to fungal diseases. Be sure to clean the edge of your pruners with alcohol to avoid spreading viruses.

'Grand Finale' rose

‘Grand Finale’

Rose Tip #4: Eliminating dead, dying and diseased plants and plant parts from your garden will help to keep your garden healthy. This includes cleaning up potentially diseased rose leaves that have fallen from the plant. Fungal spores can overwinter and return to the plant from the fallen leaves.

'New Year' rose

‘New Year’

Rose Tip #5: Not all bugs are bad! get to know the insects that visit your garden. Find out which insects truly pose a threat to the health of your plants (pests). Find out if the pest has any natural predators (beneficial insects). A healthy garden should have both. If necessary, you can introduce mail-order beneficial insects into your garden.

'Purple Tiger' rose

‘Purple Tiger’

Rose Tip #6: Beneficial insects are often beneficial only at certain stages in their life cycle. For example, the syrphid fly only feeds on prey while they’re in their larval stage. Adult syrphids don’t eat other insects, they eat nectar and pollen. You should plant flowers that provide a variety of nectar and pollen sources throughout the growing season.

'Tropical Sunset' rose

‘Tropical Sunset.’

Rose Tip #7: Last one! Plant families that will help attract beneficial insects to your rose garden, including:

  • Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae) -Carrot Family- attracts lady bugs, parasitic wasps, and predatory flies.
  • Lamiaceae or Labiatae -Mint family
  • Asteraceae -Daisy Family- attracts hoverflies, lacewing, lady bug beetles, minute pirate bugs, and spiders.

June 25, 2015 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

A Backyard Bouquet Inspired by the 1950s

DIY Backyard bouquet

Burpee seed annuals from the 1950s, left, were the inspiration for our DIY backyard bouquet, right. Seed annual, Archives of American Gardens, W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection.

We continue our June #ThrowbackThursday theme of mid-century matrimony with a fun project that combines two of our favorite trends from the 1950s: DIY and classic backyard flowers. Melanie Pyle, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist, shows us how to create a do-it-yourself wedding bouquet. We peeked into the special collections of the Archives of American Gardens, finding inspiration in the bright and cheery seed catalogs of the W. Atlee Burpee & Company Collection. Melanie carefully chose classically beautiful flowers reminiscent of those found growing in grandma’s backyard garden, such as snapdragons and football mums. Our new traveling exhibit Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard explores the do-it-yourself trend, flowers, and outdoor living in the years after World War II. It opens at the Tampa Bay History Center this Saturday, June 20th.

Flowers have played an essential role in weddings throughout history as symbols of love, chastity, hope, and beauty. The practice was not truly institutionalized as a marriage custom until Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Victoria wore a simple headdress of orange blossom, with additional blossoms trimming her dress, which in turn became a favorite flower for Victorian and Edwardian brides. Though she was not the first bride to wear white, her wedding cemented the popular and ubiquitous tradition of wearing of white for brides in the Western world.

Of course, many brides have taken the traditional bouquet and made it their own, with unique twists. The June 22, 1942 cover of Life magazine featured a bride carrying a bouquet composed of ten-cent to five-dollar war stamps, which could be used to buy a twenty-five dollar bond. According the article on “furlough brides” the bouquet was first popularized in the Midwest and became all the rage nationwide—they sold for the cost of stamps plus the time taken to craft the bouquet or bridesmaid corsage. It was just one of the many ways wartime brides made-do and supported the war effort, from dresses with shorter hemlines that used less fabric to hurried weddings between deployments.

Bouvardia, white orchids, and gardenias were popular choices for wedding bouquets in the 1940s and 50s, as well as a simple palette of white and pink. Shirley Temple carried both bouvardia and orchids in her 1945 wedding and Jacqueline Kennedy carried orchids, gardenias, and stephanotis in her 1953 wedding to John F. Kennedy. Our bouquet runs with the white and pink palette, but subs out the fancy flowers for the more down-home feel of backyard blooms. Hippie culture loosened up the traditional formal bouquet in the 1960s and 1970s, favoring “common” flowers such as daisies. Today, anything goes, from a farm-fresh locavore bouquet to one made of felt flowers to no bouquet at all.


DIY it!

Flowers: Melanie chose flowers that were commonly grown in backyard gardens in the 1950s and 1960s, taking inspiration from the vintage W. Atlee Burpee & Company seed catalogs in the Archives of American Gardens. Wholesale flower sellers and farmers’ markets are great places to start when sourcing flowers for your bouquet.

Dusty pink stock
White snapdragons
White roses
White football mums (chrysanthemums)
Pale pink carnations
Baby’s breath
Bakers fern

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Floral wire
Floral tape 
Small pieces of tulle
Satin ribbon
Pen knife


  1. Prepare your flowers by removing the bottom leaves from the stems.
  2. Wrap flowers with larger blooms and floppier stems (the mums and stock) with floral wire, starting at the top, and hiding the mechanics by wrapping the stems with floral tape. Leave four to five inches of exposed stem at the bottom.
  3. Trim the stems. Using a pen knife, rest the stem on your index finger with your thumb on top and carefully cut the stem from bottom upwards at angle and away from you. The angle allows the stems to soak up more water. Trim about two inches off the stem.
  4. Choose two or three favorite flowers to anchor the bouquet.
  5. Begin to make a bunch around the anchor flowers by adding more flowers and greens, turning your bouquet as you add more flowers or greens. This is an opportunity to play with texture, height, and color based on your flower choice! A looser bouquet will have a more informal feel, and a tighter, rounder bouquet a more classic look.
  6. Pause for a moment and take a look at your bouquet from all angles. Do you need more flowers? More greenery?
  7. When you are happy with the size of the bouquet, surround the base of the arrangement with pieces of white tulle and secure with floral tape.
  8. Starting where the tulle is attached to the stems, wrap the stems with floral wire, leaving about two inches of exposed stem at the bottom. Conceal the mechanics with floral tape.
  9. Take your satin ribbon and starting at the topmost part of the floral tape, making sure none is showing, tightly wrap the ribbon down the length of the stems. Secure with a pin two inches from bottom, hiding all floral tape. Push the pin towards the stems at a slight angle. It may take a few tries to get it to stick.
  10. Using a second piece of satin ribbon, tie a bow around the base of the bouquet and attach with a pin.

There you go! A beautiful backyard bouquet, inspired by the gardens of the 1950s. What types of flowers were growing in your backyard in the 1950s? Do you remember the flowers from your wedding bouquet or boutonnière? Did the flowers you chose have a special significance to you?

-Kate Fox, Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard curator and Melanie Pyle, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist





June 18, 2015 at 10:49 am Leave a comment

Flanders Field Poppies at the National Museum of American History

The poppy became an international symbol of remembrance of World War I through the efforts of an American professor from Georgia, Moina Michael. While working at the 25th Conference of the Overseas YMCA War Secretaries in New York City Michael heard a reading of the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Michael was so moved by the poem that she resolved to wear a poppy in remembrance of the war and bought them for attendees of the conference on November 9, 1918. Two days later, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies thus ending the war. Michael carried on work to make the poppy a symbol for honoring the war dead as well as a way to raise funds for veterans, a symbol that endures today.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the World War I, Smithsonian Gardens planted corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) outside the National Museum of American History. The seeds sown were, in part, collected from the Flanders Fields of Belgium.

Corn Poppies planted by Smithsonian Gardens outside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Corn poppies planted by Smithsonian Gardens outside the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

To learn more about WWI, visit The Price of Freedom exhibition on the 2nd floor, East Wing of the National Museum of American History.

In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae, 1872 – 1918

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

May 11, 2015 at 10:34 am 1 comment

Long Lasting Enjoyment and Ephemeral Beauty: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

At the annual orchid exhibit, we often display highly resilient orchids with long blooming periods to maximize their time on view. Masdevallia Cheryl Shohan ‘Red Hot Momma’ has uniquely shaped, brilliant red flowers that can last up to three weeks. This genus is a less common find in our exhibits, so I am thrilled to see it going downtown this coming week. If time or distance keeps you from visiting, enjoy this cheery photo. It will last a lot longer than the flower anyway!

Masdevallia Cheryl Shohan 'Red Hot Momma'

Masdevallia Cheryl Shohan ‘Red Hot Momma’

Sobralia wilsoniana has much more ephemeral, but brilliant purple flowers, which are at their peak for a little over a day. This isn’t a good candidate to bring to the orchid exhibit, but it is stunning to see in the greenhouse. For the most part in the wild sobralias are bee pollinated. The bright yellow splash on the labellum is a guide that draws pollinators into the center of the flower.

Sobralia wilsoniana

Sobralia wilsoniana

This last featured orchid this week is a hybrid bulbophyllum—Bulbophyllum Thai Spider. This is a cross between Bulbophyllum medusae and Bulbophyllum gracillimum, and characteristics of each are very obvious when looking at the flowers of this hybrid.

Bulbophyllum Thai Spider

Bulbophyllum Thai Spider


Bulbophyllum Thai Spider


Bulbophyllum medusae contributes its long, white tendril-like sepals, which become slightly shorter and more orderly in the hybrid under the influence of bright red Bulbophyllum gracillimum. These flowers, like those of Sobralia wilsoniana, only last for about a day before they start to wither.

There is always something blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Stay connected with us to see more plants from the collection, and visit the exhibit downtown through the end of April to experience our orchids firsthand!



-Julie R., Living Collections Specialist

March 5, 2015 at 11:00 am 1 comment

Weird and Wonderful: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

I think we can all agree that orchids display some of the weirdest morphological adaptations in the plant world. Phragmipediums are already unique because of their highly modified, pouch-like lip, which evolved as a strategy to direct pollinators towards the pollinia during their struggle to escape the flower. The hybrid below, Phragmipedium Giganteum, has another unique feature—extremely long, ribbon-like petals that can grow up to four times the length of the flower!

Phragmipedium Giganteum

Phragmipedium Giganteum


Phragmipedium Giganteum

These long petals are a characteristic feature of Phragmipedium caudatum, one of the parents of Phrag. Giganteum and the type specimen for the genus. Look for the hybrid and its gigantic petals next week at the orchid exhibit, Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty.

I am always captivated by orchids with the most miniscule flowers, and the grassy-looking Dendrochilum stenophyllum definitely fits the bill. This species is found in the wild on the Philippine island of Luzon. The inflorescences look almost like spiky grass plumes, but they are actually dense arrangements of the tiniest flowers, with up to 40 per inflorescence! I can only imagine what tiny insect pollinates these delicate blooms.

Dendrochilum stenophyllum

Dendrochilum stenophyllum

Dendrochilum stenophyllum

Dendrochilum stenophyllum

Last, but most certainly not least, is the stunning purple Bletilla striata. This terrestrial species is native to China, Japan and Korea and is known for its extreme hardiness and ease of cultivation. I remember when I first moved here, recognizing a Bletilla growing in a Northwest DC garden and being incredibly shocked that a non-native orchid was growing outside. The genus in general comes from a more temperate environment and plants are found growing in soil, rather than on trees, making them a well-adapted addition to outdoor gardens in the DMV.

Bletilla striata

Bletilla striata

There is always something blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Stay connected with us to see more plants from the collection, and visit the exhibit downtown through the end of April to experience our orchids firsthand!

– Julie R., Living Collection Specialist

February 20, 2015 at 1:00 am Leave a comment

Behind the Orchids: The Living Collection

Orchids are full of wonder. They have a vast amount of habitat diversity across the globe including swamps, deserts, tropics, and tundra. In fact, orchids are so diverse there’s almost no end to them, and this doesn’t even include the ones human have hybridized. You name a part of the plant and it’s bound to be different from genus to genus in the family Orchidaceae. To illustrate, take a look at Ludisia discolor and Oncidopsis Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty’ currently on display in the exhibit “Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty.”

Oncidopsis Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty’

Ludisia discolor

Ludisia discolor








These two plants show just how varied orchids can be in color, flower size, number of blooms, and even the general foliage. Though different, each still retains a beauty in its own way. Ludisia discolor, also called a jewel orchid, is sought after for its foliage rather than its flowers. It’s a terrestrial orchid found in Asia and its leaves are a deep green lined with red veins. Oncidopsis Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty,’ on the other hand, is distinguished by its pleasant red blooms and gives off a unique fragrance. Furthermore, Nelly Isler ‘Swiss Beauty’ is a hybrid containing a mixture of four different species, while Ludisia discolor is a species found in the wild. And these two only make up a fraction of the 8,000+ orchids in Smithsonian Gardens’ collection.

Fortunately, there’s a system in place that helps keep track of the many plants in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. This is extremely important because as a “living collection” it’s always growing and changing. Each orchid in the collection is given a specific barcode label that links to a database record containing important information about the plant. In addition to keeping basic information like its genus and species, the record reveal the plant’s current location, condition, and notes about its current use. All of this information is important for consistent record keeping. After scanning upwards of 80 to 100 plants each week, eventually you begin to pick up some interesting information. For example, some of these orchids are over 30 years old!

Orchid display labels

Orchid display labels

Maintaining the database is essential to keeping the orchid exhibit running smoothly. Plants selected for the exhibit are scanned at the beginning of each week in order to keep track of their changing location. Every Monday and Tuesday, I work to arrange these selected orchids into rank and file at the greenhouses with the help of several other greenhouse staff and volunteers. This makes scanning the pants’ barcodes and recording whether they’re leaving for the show or returning a simple process. It also makes it easy to pull the corresponding display labels. If you’ve made it to the show, you probably recognize those gleaming black and white labels in the photo. Smithsonian Gardens actually keeps label library chock full of thousands of these labels!

Plastic wrapped carts ready to go downtown

Plastic-wrapped carts ready to go downtown

Once all the tags are scanned and display labels staked, plants have to be loaded onto carts and plastic wrapped. It’s lovely that orchids bloom during the winter, but it’s dangerous for us to have to move them outside in cold weather! The plastic wrap provides a temporary buffer from the cold temperatures, which could otherwise harm the blooms and overall health of the orchids. We then swiftly move these carts from greenhouse to box truck and box truck to exhibit hall; minimizing the time they’re outside in the cold. All this scanning, packing, and loading is a bit of a logistical feat, so it’s no surprise something may get left along the way. Case in point, I once forgot to bring the roll of plastic wrap to the exhibit hall.

Now those plants wrapped in the picture above look pretty professional, but that’s only half the battle. It’s incredibly important to take the plastic wrap to the museum because the carts bringing plants back from the exhibit really need protection from the cold as well. These are, after all, orchids that are stressed out from the less than ideal conditions of the exhibit hall. Since we did not have plastic wrap available the Smithsonian Gardens staff improvised and obtained trash bags. The bags made for sufficient protection during the trip back, even if it looked like we were stealing the plants. That was, however, an incredibly stressful experience for me because I was sure we were going to lose part of the collection. I’ll make sure to bring the plastic wrap in the future!

National Herbarium tour

National Herbarium tour

To help balance stressful moments like this, Smithsonian Gardens regularly offers really great opportunities for interns to experience. There are internal tours, in-service sessions, and other educational opportunities that I’m able to attend with my intern status. Recently, I had the opportunity to take a tour of the National Herbarium at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. If you’re like me, you had to look up the definition of a herbarium and figure out what all the commotion is about for a library of dried plants. Aside from the general appealing aesthetics of neatly dried and pressed plants, the National Herbarium has millions of specimens. Its collection includes type specimens, around thirty plants currently extinct in the wild, and even plants collected by former presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Chester Arthur. It also contains some seriously historical plants, like one collected in the 1500s! It’s almost inconceivable to think about everything that’s housed in the herbarium. Check it out online at

World's largest seed

World’s largest seed

After the tour, I’m really excited for what other opportunities may pop up next. I’m looking forward to making the most of these experiences and sharing them on the Smithsonian Gardens’ blog. That’s all for now, but enjoy another photo from the herbarium of the world’s largest seed. This dried seed still weighs a cool twenty pounds!

-Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern

February 12, 2015 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

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