Posts tagged ‘National Museum of American History’

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

On Display: Highlights from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

In keeping with my greatest goal in life of turning everyone into an orchid lover (I believe we would achieve world peace if that actually happened), I am starting a series of blog posts about the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. I’m excited to share images and stories about our incredible orchid collection with you.

Last week, I convinced Alex, one of Smithsonian Gardens’ interiorscapers, to exhibit some really special orchids in display cases at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. If you are in Washington, D.C., I hope you’ll visit the cases on the first level of the museum near the Warner Bros. Theater before the display is changed the week of December 21st. If you’re too far away, I hope you’ll enjoy the images of these beauties orchids included here.

Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium

Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium on display at the National Museum of American History.

Angraecum sesquipedale may very well be the most famous of all orchids. This beauty is written up in every botany textbook due to its compelling pollination story. A native of Madagascar, this outstanding species bears truly lovely, white, star-shaped blooms that emit a delicious fragrance to attract its moth pollinator on moonlit nights. Not just any moth, but the equally famous Xanthopan morganii praedicta, so named because its existence was predicted by Charles Darwin before it was known to science. Darwin theorized upon seeing the flowers’ prodigious 12-inch long nectar spurs that a moth with an equally long proboscis had to exist in order for the plant to be pollinated. It will always be one of my favorite orchids because, well, it’s just plain cool! The variety on display, Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium,  is a bit more succulent and smaller in stature than the typical form, but it is easier to grow and quite floriferous.

Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium and a hawk moth

L to R: Angraecum sesquipedale var. angustifolium from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection; Illustration of a hawk moth visiting an Angraecum sesquipedale by Emily Damstra for the Smithsonian Institution; a Xanthopan morganii praedicta (hawk moth) with extended proboscis © kqedquest

A couple of well-bloomed plants from a sister genus, Jumellea, grace the display case opposite the Angraecums. Even though their flowers are smaller, they are plentiful and have an outstanding fragrance. Jumellea flowers are similar in all of their species, even though the plants can vary wildly. They, like the Angraecums, exhibit a moth pollination syndrome, bearing flowers of the purest white color with strong nocturnal fragrance and nectar spurs. This time the spurs are much shorter, about an inch or so in length, indicating a very different moth species as its pollination partner. Jumelleas are also used to make a kind of aromatic tea, known as Faham tea, which was once very popular in Europe.

Jumelleas

Jumelleas from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection on display at the National Museum of American History

These are remarkable orchids that Smithsonian Gardens proudly displays to encourage and educate Smithsonian visitors. We hope you will visit the National Museum of American History and see these botanical marvels for yourself!

– Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection Specialist

December 18, 2015 at 10:00 am 2 comments

The Botany of Survival – Plants that Saved Arctic Expeditions

The heyday of arctic exploration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries represents a significant period in our national history and helped to shape our identity as Americans. While a series of expeditions marked a time of scientific advancement, a deep sense of international competition also fueled the age. Many attempts to push further north resulted in shipwreck and disaster. However, many more of these missions would have failed if it were not for a handful of plants that played an important role in saving them.

Saskatoon berries

Saskatoon berries. Lynette Schimming, photographer.

Berries

The Polaris Expedition of 1871 faced ruin after adverse weather conditions and the sudden death of the captain, Charles Francis Hall, left nineteen crew members stranded on a drifting ice floe. Fortunately for the sailors, their late captain’s foresight gave them a fighting chance. For six months they floated through the Arctic, surviving on a ration of biscuits, chocolate, and pemmican—a mixture of dried meat, animal fat, and berries. Pemmican was a traditional American Indian food renowned for its nutritional content and ability to last without refrigeration. The dish was high in protein, and its berries (usually Saskatoon Serviceberry Amelanchier alnifolia or chokecherries Prunus virginiana) provided necessary vitamins and flavor. Captain Hall, a seasoned explorer, prudently equipped each of his expeditions with a large stock of pemmican. Even though Hall did not survive the journey (and was possibly murdered by his own crew), his pemmican sustained the men of Polaris until they were rescued.

Pemmican is still used today! Its high-energy value has made it a go-to food for backpackers, hikers, and survivalists. Do you have a pemmican recipe to share?

Pemmican container

This pemmican container was discarded by the Lost Franklin Expedition of 1845 and recovered by the Polaris Expedition decades later. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Brett McNish, photographer.

Moss from Bennett Island, Russia

Moss specimen obtained from Bennett Island, Russia, by the crew of the Jeanette Expedition. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. Brett McNish, photographer.

Moss

The 1881 Lady Franklin Bay Expedition was led by Adolphus Greely—a man with no arctic experience. After multiple failed resupply missions, Greely and his crew waited three years for rescue as their food stores dwindled. The crew survived on foraged material, including moss (Polytrichum sp.) and lichens—some of the only things able to grow in the severe environment in which they were stranded. Though starvation seemed certain, this plant enabled Greely and five of his crew to return home. Greely and his men were not the only explorers to dine on moss. The moss specimen in the National Museum of American History collection was obtained from Bennett Island, Russia by the crew of the doomed Jeanette Expedition during their attempt to reach the North Pole from the Bering Sea.

SS Proteus

SS Proteus of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. Brainard Collection of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, 1881-1884. College Park, Maryland: National Archives.

Prunes

In 1908, seasoned explorer Robert E. Peary began his final expedition to the Arctic. Peary’s lifelong obsession paid off, and he became the first man to reach the North Pole. Though recent historians believe he fell a few miles short of the actual pole, Peary’s feat marked a great success for America during the height of arctic exploration. Peary’s team required highly nutritional food that could also remain fresh for months on end. Among the supplies, Peary brought 608 pounds of dried plums, better known as prunes (Prunus domestica). Prunes provided an excellent source of fiber for the crew, ran little risk of spoiling, and added a sweet relief to a monotonous diet of meats and fats. Peary and his men returned from the expedition the following year, successful in their goal.

robert-peary-NPG.93.353

Robert Peary. 1908-1909. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.93.353.

Crate for transporting prunes

Prune crate similar to the ones used by Peary on his exhibition. National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, 1979.0441.336.

– Brett McNish, Supervisory Horticulturist and Sara Kuhn, Smithsonian Gardens Intern

September 10, 2015 at 3:13 pm 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

The ‘Long Island Cheese’ Pumpkin

This month we are collaborating with the National Museum of American History to present the second annual FOOD in the Garden evening series. Every Thursday in September we will explore one of four key maritime regions with connections to the War of 1812: the Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, and New Orleans. Join us tomorrow for a relaxed evening in the Victory Garden & enjoy fresh food and cocktails as we discuss the foodways and waterways of the Long Island Sound. Every week we’ll highlight a different plant from the Victory Garden with ties to the past and present agricultural heritage of the featured region.

'Long Island Cheese' pumpkin

‘Long Island Cheese’ heirloom pumpkin in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History.

The ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkin is a little-known heirloom with a mild, sweet flavor, making it a longstanding regional favorite for pies. This cream-colored pumpkin can be found peeking through its light-green leaves in our Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History. It was a popular variety in the Long Island Sound area in the 1800s, mentioned frequently in cookbooks and farmers’ almanacs, but is less common and harder to find in today’s modern markets. A member of the Cucurbita moschata species, this vine originated in Central or South America and made its way via trade and commerce to European and North American gardens as early as the 1500s. By the time of the Revolutionary War it was commonly found in gardens and markets up and down the Atlantic seaboard. In 1807, Bernard McMahon of Philadelphia introduced cheese pumpkin seeds to the commercial market. Cheese pumpkins made their way into seed catalogs and were popularly cultivated in the Long Island region.

The ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkin does not, in fact, taste like cheese at all—though we think it would make an excellent filling for ravioli. The flattened shape and the ribbed, light skin of the pumpkin resemble a wheel of cheese, a common sight in early American markets. Connecticut and the New England states were famous for their dairy production, exporting their delicious cheeses to other states and territories.

The medium-sized cheese pumpkins have deep orange, stringless flesh and a sweet taste, a perfect choice for pumpkin pie. According to one D.D. Tooker in an 1855 issue of the Michigan Farmer, cheese pumpkins were the pick of the pumpkins for any self-respecting pie baker:

The ‘Sweet pumpkin,’ alias ‘Cheese pumpkin’ or ‘pie squash,’—is the only true article, in my opinion, for making that most delicious of ‘yankee notions’—pumpkin pie—and I am not alone in my opinions, for I have yet to see the individual who would not agree with me in this matter . . . The shape and color of the fruit resembles that of a small sized dairy cheese, its flesh is very firm, fine grained and brittle, is of a rich orange color, and very sweet. They will keep all winter in a cool dry cellar if picked and stored before ‘Jack Frost’ touches them.

Seeds are still available from a variety of heirloom seed companies. Or be on the lookout for one in your local farmer’s market or pumpkin patch for the upcoming Thanksgiving baking season. As Tooker observed, this pumpkin stores very well in a cool, dry place.

Tomorrow evening, September 4th, FOOD in the Garden attendees will have the opportunity to sample spirits from Westford Hill Distillers, learn about the process of salt-making from Amagansett Sea Salt, and chat with the Smithsonian Gardens horticulturists who keep the Victory Garden growing. The evening’s panelists include Cindy Lobel, author of Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York, Stephanie Villani, co-owner of Blue Moon Fish, and Diana Whitsit of Terry Farms.

More information about the program and how to purchase tickets for “Long Island Sound: Human Impact” can be found here.

Up next week: a pepper to spice up your seafood stew just in time for “Cultural Connections: The Chesapeake” on September 11th.

-Kate Fox, Smithsonian Gardens educator

September 3, 2014 at 3:58 pm Leave a comment

Remembering the Medal of Honor Tree on Veterans Day

Medal of Honor Tree planting ceremony at NMAH

Medal of Honor Tree planting ceremony at the National Museum of American History on Veterans Day, 2010.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “We cannot consecrate-we cannot hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” In honor of Veterans Day in 2010, Brian Thacker, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor was joined by representatives from the Medal of Honor Foundation, the National Air and Space Museum, and many veteran Smithsonian staff and volunteers to dedicate The Medal of Honor Tree on the grounds of the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Traditionally, red oaks (Quercus rubra) lined the north side of the museum. However, over time many of these trees were lost. To fill in the spaces left by the missing trees, Smithsonian Gardens collected trees from placed of historic significance to the United States such as the Lexington Green, the Trail of Tears, and the Manassas Battlefield. Brett McNish, Supervisory Horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens, originally had the idea to seek out these historic trees and in conversation with a close friend in the museum community came up with the idea for the Medal of Honor Tree.

Congressional Medal of Honor

The Congressional Medal of Honor.

The tree commemorates recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. This award was created on July 12, 1862 when the bill S.J.R. No. 82 was signed into law by President Lincoln. The law designated that Medals of Honor were to be “presented, in the name of Congress, to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities.” Following the establishment of the Medal of Honor, soldiers quickly began receiving the medals for their valiant efforts in battle. The largest number of Medal of Honor recipients in one day of battle (120) took place at the Battle of Vicksburg on May 22, 1863. Since its creation, 3,463 service men and women have received the Medal of Honor. A variety of individuals have received the Medal of Honor representing the complex fabric of our nation. Medal of Honor recipients include one woman (Mary Walker), eighty-seven African Americans, forty-one Hispanic-Americans, thirty-three Asian-Americans, and thirty-two American Indians. Since 1918, Medals of Honor can only be given to members of the U.S. Armed Forces. However, exceptions have been made in special circumstances. Sixty-one Canadians, for example, hold the Medal of Honor, many of them from actions in the American Civil War. While the Medal of Honor now must be given to a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, they do not have to be U.S. citizens. The most recent Medal of Honor  was awarded to Captain William D. Swenson on October 15, 2013.

Soil samples collected for the Medal of Honor Tree.

Soil samples from 16 battlefields relating to 11 different wars collected for the Medal of Honor Tree planting.

To dedicate the Medal of Honor Tree, consecrated ground from 16 battlefields relating to 11 different wars that the United States was involved in were collected and added to the soil at the base of the tree. McNish discussed the immense task of collecting soil samples from these battlefields: “My goal was to get at least one soil sample from every war the US fought. Then it came down to what was possible to obtain. I think I came close to getting most of them. It took me about six months to get everything.” The process of collecting the soil involved many helping hands from the USDA, Department of State, Department of Defense, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and others, along with “a hefty FedEx bill” McNish noted. He created little collection kits made out of heat-resistant plastic containers.

U.S. Ambassador, Honorable Kathleen Stephens collects soil from the Pusan Area of the Republic of Korea

U.S. Ambassador, Honorable Kathleen Stephens, collects soil from the Pusan Area of the Republic of Korea, Courtesy of Brett McNish.

A number of interesting stories grew out of the soil collection project. The soil collected from Luxembourg was from General George Patton’s grave at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial. The soil from Iwo Jima had its own history; it had been previously been collected by a Marine who visited the island on a pilgrimage. The soil then made its way to numerous veterans who took a little of it for themselves. McNish received the remaining soil from a retired Air Force officer in an airport VIP lounge. Then U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Honorable Kathleen Stephens, collected Korean War soil from the Pusan Perimeter, an area that witnessed some of the first fighting of the Korean War. Soil from Haiti was collected by a group of Smithsonian curators working on post-earthquake relief for Musée National d’Haiti (the National Museum of Haiti). Because of difficulties mail, obtaining soil from Afghanistan was very difficult. The soil went through numerous hands before it was finally spread under the tree by an SI employee who had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Since its planting in 2010, the Medal of Honor Tree at NMAH is decorated every Veterans Dhistoay with a large red, white, and blue ribbon with a yellow center to highlight its significance in remembering the sacrifices of our nation’s service men and women.

-Mattea Sanders, Smithsonian Gardens intern

November 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm 4 comments

Function & Beauty: My Landscape Architecture Internship at Smithsonian Gardens

Sarah G., 2013 Intern

Sarah on site at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Hello! My name is Sarah Gorney, and I was the Landscape Architecture Intern for the Smithsonian Gardens this summer. I am studying Landscape Architecture at Texas Tech University and will be a senior this fall. Despite attending school in Texas, I am actually from the DC Metro area, so it was great to be home for the summer!  And even better was being able to work for the Smithsonian Gardens.

Before I get into some of the many projects I worked on, I’d like to share a small bit about Landscape Architecture. Many people I have run into have been confused as to what Landscape Architecture really is or what we do. Landscape Architecture is defined by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) as,

“…the analysis, planning, design, management, and stewardship of the natural and built environments. Types of projects include: Residential, parks and recreation, monuments, urban design, streetscapes and public spaces, transportation corridors and facilities, gardens and arboreta, security design, hospitality and resorts, institutional, academic campuses, therapeutic gardens, historic preservation and restoration, reclamation, conservation, corporate and commercial, landscape art and earth sculpture, interior landscapes, and more. Landscape architects have advanced education and professional training and are licensed in 50 states” (asla.org).

Arts and Industries Building under renovation.

On a tour of the inside of the Arts and Industries Building during renovations.

I am thrilled to be studying in a profession that is this diverse, and I was able to see all this in action at the Smithsonian Gardens.

This summer has truly been an amazing experience. Landscape Architecture is a synthesis between the built and natural environment, and the Smithsonian Gardens embody this concept to the fullest.  Studying under this organization has allowed me to glean insight into an extremely successful set of on- going designs and what they entail; things such as what factors and issues impact design, the upkeep and daily maintenance of the grounds, cultural requirements, how the gardens relate to specific architecture or time periods, horticultural practices, sustainability, and storm water management.

Rendered Calder Plan

My design concept for the Calder area outside the National Museum of American History.

My work this summer included projects for every museum at the Smithsonian, including the new National Museum of African American History and Culture slated to open in 2015. I worked on planting plans for multiple museums, coordinated with and prepared documents for professionals from multiple disciplines, completed square footage studies, updated AutoCAD plans for the new bike racks around the Mall, helped coordinate and create cost estimates, develop design concepts for the work and storage area at the Ripley Garden, put together plans for a grant proposal for a bird garden outside the National Museum of Natural History, and much more. I also developed design concepts for the re-design of the Alexander Calder sculpture area (the area outside of the National Museum of American History that used to house the Gwenfritz sculpture). The sculpture was relocated in 1983, but is now being re-installed in its original location on the west side of the museum. In addition, I have gone to more meetings than I can count with professionals all over the Smithsonian and was able to work one-on–one with my boss to really get a feel for what he does.

Getting to experience the issues, specifications, requirements, construction, and coordination that these projects entail has given me extremely valuable insight into the process of how a design is actually constructed. This knowledge will be integral as I grow as a Landscape Architect to design projects that are just as feasible to construct and functional as they are beautiful.

-Sarah Gorney, Summer 2013 Landscape Architecture Intern 

September 12, 2013 at 8:00 am 1 comment

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