Posts tagged ‘living collections’

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.

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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

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

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

On Display: Highlights from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

One of the best things about working for a botanical garden like Smithsonian Gardens is that part of our mission is to produce splendiferous specimen plants. What makes it even better is that we often get to exhibit these specimens at the peak of their glory!

Alex and Melanie of our interiorscaping staff make sure that many of these extraordinary orchids are on display for the public to see in Smithsonian Gardens’ three display cases at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH). This week is no exception. A superbly bloomed Cattleya alliance hybrid, Brassocatanthe Julie Morrison (Brassanthe Maikai X Brassocattleya Morning Glory), is almost bursting out of one of the cases!

NMAH-brassocatanthe

Brassocatanthe Julie Morrison (Brassanthe Maikai X Brassocattleya Morning Glory), Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

This hybrid is a combination of three species from three different genera; the hearty, purple Guarianthe bowringiana which contributes a large flower count and lovely amethyst color; the Cattleya purpurata from Brazil which contributes a large flower size and tremendous vigor to the hybrid; and the fragrant, white Brassavola nodosa.

Top (L to R): Guarianthe bowringiana and Cattleya purpurata, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Bottom: Brassavola nodosa, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Top (L to R): Guarianthe bowringiana and Cattleya purpurata, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Bottom: Brassavola nodosa, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Brassavola nodosa may be the least colorful of the hybrid’s three parents, but it displays a tremendous variability. Small, barely-discernable spots deep in this orchid’s lip turn into brilliant, spotted patterns when it is used to create a hybrid with a more colorful species, as in the case of this Brassocatanthe. The flower form of the Brassavola also dominates in this type of breeding. No matter what it is crossed with, the resulting hybrids almost always have narrow segments, spots, and a flaring lip.

Brassavola hybrids are always vigorous and charming with wonderful color and are therefore highly recommended for use in tropical gardens and in home orchid growing. Smithsonian Gardens has several clones of Brassavola hybrids and their species parents in its orchid collection; many of them are displayed at NMAH as they bloom. You can also see these and other beauties from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection starting February 27, 2016 at this year’s Orchids in Focus exhibition hosted in partnership with the United States Botanic Garden. Stop by and see these glorious orchids if you’re in Washington, D.C.!

– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist

January 15, 2016 at 9:09 am Leave a comment

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, 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

How the Smithsonian Gardens Tree Collection Benefits the Environment and Our Well-Being

The Smithsonian Gardens Tree Collection currently consists of over 1,900 trees spread across the Smithsonian’s downtown Washington, D.C. campus as well as at the Institution’s support facilities in Maryland.  These trees add great aesthetic value to the grounds, and complement the flowers, shrubs, and other plantings in the gardens here.  However, and perhaps more importantly, these trees offer a myriad of environmental and health benefits.

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Trees along Constitution Avenue at the National Museum of Natural History create a cool, green tunnel for pedestrians. Photo by Greg Huse.

During the summer of 2015, information on all of the collection trees was run through i-Tree, a software program developed by the U.S. Forest Service to calculate the benefits of trees.  The results were eye-opening, and it was encouraging to see how much our trees benefit our campus, city, and planet.

Poor air quality, especially in urban areas, can lead to decreased human health, poor visibility, and damage to plants.  Trees in urban forests help improve air quality by capturing air pollutants, reducing air temperatures, and decreasing energy consumption in buildings which reduces overall air pollutant amounts by lowering demand on power plants.  The SG Tree Collection was calculated to remove 2,700 pounds of air pollutants (carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter) annually with an associated monetary value of $31,185.  This is the equivalent of taking ten cars off the road for a year!

Trees leafing out in spring at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Eric Long.

Trees leafing out in spring at the National Museum of Natural History. Photo by Eric Long.

One of the most important environmental challenges we currently face is global climate change.  Trees can help mitigate this problem by capturing atmospheric carbon and storing, or sequestering, it for many years.  As trees grow, they continually store carbon in the new wood they produce.  The trees in the SG Tree Collection store an estimated 37,877 pounds of carbon annually.  The large majestic oaks, elms, and other trees found at the National Museum of American History sequester twice as much carbon as the trees found in any other Smithsonian garden or landscape.

Surface runoff of stormwater is a cause for concern in urban areas because it can contribute to pollution in streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and oceans.  Precipitation that reaches the ground and does not infiltrate the soil becomes surface runoff, which carries pollutants into waterways.  Urban trees reduce this runoff by intercepting the water in the tree canopy and allowing it to evaporate over time.  Additionally, water that lands on trees may run along the branches and down the trunks which helps it reach the ground more slowly and infiltrate the soil.  Smithsonian trees intercept 383,705 gallons of rainfall annually, thereby preventing it from becoming surface runoff.

tree-collection-benefits-infographic

In addition to these environmental benefits, many recent studies show how trees, especially in urban areas, contribute to better health for people.  Areas that have many trees can lower blood pressure, have a calming effect on teens and adults with ADHD, improve breathing for those with asthma and other lung conditions, decrease healing times for sickness and injury, contribute to overall emotional and psychological health, and even improve birthweights of newborns!

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An oak transformed by autumn color at the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Greg Huse.

We appreciate trees for their beauty and grandeur, especially at this time of year when they come ablaze with autumn colors.  Beyond appreciating their beauty, it’s important to remember all of the environmental and health benefits they provide as well.  Planting and properly maintaining trees are important steps to take to continue to improve the world in which we live.  We here at Smithsonian Gardens are proud to do our part in contributing to that goal.

Greg Huse, Smithsonian Gardens Arborist and Tree Collection Manager

November 13, 2015 at 9:45 am 2 comments

Rare and Beautiful Orchids (and a Horticulturist) Find Home at Smithsonian Gardens

Imagine opening an innocuous cardboard box and finding this inside!

Paphiopedilum Chiu Hua Dancer

Paphiopedilum Chiu Hua Dancer

I was fortunate to have this pleasure on one of my first days on the job as a horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens. Already amazed (and slightly overwhelmed) by the diversity of orchids in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, my first week on the job included helping my colleagues unpack a tractor trailer full of boxes containing a major donation of orchids.

Anne, a Smithsonian Gardens volunteer, assists Emily and the other greenhouse staff unpack boxes of donated orchids.

Anne, a Smithsonian Gardens volunteer, assists Emily and the other greenhouse staff unpack boxes of donated orchids.

Hundreds of specimens were added to the orchid collection at the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility in Suitland, MD. The plants were part of an extensive collection owned by the late Denis Roessiger of Penobscot, ME, that have been generously donated by his wife, Lucybelle.

Horticulturists from the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses journeyed to Maine to select and carefully pack up the orchids, which then travelled overnight by truck to the Suitland greenhouse facility. There, greenhouse staff and volunteers eagerly unloaded and unpacked the vast array of plants. “This donation is exceptional in that 99% of the orchids are species orchids or rare hybrids,” commented Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Specialist, Tom Mirenda.  The donation is a major addition to the Smithsonian Gardens’ collection, adding entirely new genera to it and increasing the species abundance and overall diversity.

I asked Tom Mirenda to give me a walk-through of the highlights of the donation. Here are his top picks:

(L to R) Bulbophyllum claptennse and Bulbophyllum cocoinum

(L to R) Bulbophyllum claptennse and Bulbophyllum cocoinum

Over 200 new Bulbophyllum specimens now complement the already extensive collection of this genus maintained by Smithsonian Gardens. Bulbophyllum is one of the largest and most ancient genus of orchids; found in tropical forests around the world, they are often odd-looking plants with peculiar, sometimes foul, fragrances.  “One of my favorites currently in bloom is Bulbophyllum cocoinum, which has a coconut fragrance,” says Mirenda.  The donation also included fifteen species of Trichoceros, a new genus for the collection. Trichoceros are epiphytic and terrestrial orchids native to the Andean Mountain range in South America.

(L to R) Lycaste deppei Superb and Phrgmipedium Fritz Schomberg

(L to R) Lycaste deppei Superb and Phrgmipedium Fritz Schomberg

The donation tripled Smithsonian Gardens’ collection of hard to find Maxillaria orchids, and added 50 to 70 species of Restrepia and several large specimen Coelogyne and Dendrochilum. Also new to the collection are several Lycaste and Dracula species.  Rare color forms of Laelia and Cattleya now grace the collection. Orchid enthusiasts will swoon at the large addition of South American Slipper Orchids (Phragmipedium), particularly the controversial Phragmipedium kovachii—the orchid at the heart of the book, Scent of a Scandal.

(L to R) Vanda Hiyasmin 'Korat' and Vanda Pachara Delight

(L to R) Vanda Hiyasmin ‘Korat’ and Vanda Pachara Delight “Isabella’

Large, brilliant, purple flowers of an eight-foot Vanda were one of the showiest surprises during unpacking. One of the Smithsonian greenhouses has been transformed with the addition of roughly 40 Vandas now hanging from the ceiling and suspended racks.

Vandas hanging in one of Smithsonian Gardens' orchid greenhouses.

Vandas hanging in one of Smithsonian Gardens’ orchid greenhouses.

With the acquisition of these plants, our orchid collection now has well over 10,000 specimens. “By continually building our collection in this way, we have made the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection a true scientific resource,” says Mirenda.

– Emily Cook, Horticulturist, Smithsonian Gardens

September 4, 2015 at 10:00 am 2 comments

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