Posts tagged ‘orchids’

A Spectacular Show: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

The sight of fresh blooming encyclias is one to tease the eyes. Generally small flowered and often less than an inch in diameter, encyclias pack a punch with their unending shape and color variations. Orchid lovers could spend days observing these species and hybrids. This hardly comes as a surprise when you take into consideration that there are over 150 species in the genus.

Encyclia Nursery Rhyme

Encyclia Nursery Rhyme

Originating from the Greek word, enkylein, the name encyclia refers to the way the lateral lobes of the flower encircle the column. Found from central Florida to Brazil, these orchids grow in warmer climates and produce psuedobulbs in clumps. Each clump sends up several flower spikes at a time and each variety of encyclia has flower spikes that range in a length from a foot to several feet long. Since each spike can produce many flowers these spikes make for quite a spectacular show.

A clustering of Encyclia oncidioides behind Encyclia Cindy.

A clustering of Encyclia oncidioides behind Encyclia Cindy.

I find these orchids very pleasing to observe. Their small flowers make them manageable to view, but contain subtle details that are a delight to discover. These flowers have great depth to them, so changing your angle of view can reveal more interesting characteristics.

Encyclias are often crossed with the genera Cattleya and Epidendrum to create lovely hybrids. Encyclias are desirable for their interesting flower shapes and Encyclia cordigera in particular often is selected for hybridization for its darker colors and intoxicating aroma. Encyclia cordigera has received over 40 awards from the American Orchid Society, so why not pass along some of these winning characteristics to other orchids?

Encyclia Atroniceum x bractescens

Encyclia Atroniceum x bractescens

Encyclia alata x mooreana

Encyclia alata x mooreana

In the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, there are currently over 60 examples of these encyclia species and hybrid combinations. Their flowers last up to a month sometimes longer, so they regularly make their way to the display cases in museums around the Smithsonian. Be sure to swing by the orchid cases downstairs in the National Museum of American History sometime in the next few weeks to see one of these incredible orchids on display.

– Alan Marcus, Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Intern

Encyclia Cindy

Encyclia Cindy

July 23, 2015 at 11:18 am 1 comment

Chutes, Ladders, and Buckets: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Garden’s Orchid Collection

There are few orchids as unusually delightful and whimsical as the genera Gongora, Stanhopea, and Coryanthes in family Orchidaceae. Largely distributed through the neotropics, these genera are closely related under the subtribe Stanhopeinae. Though they share a similar way of enticing pollinators to visit their flowers, each of these orchids offer something unique as well.

L to R: Gongora aff. quinquenervis, Stanhopea jenischiana, and Coryanthes trifoliate  from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

L to R: Gongora aff. quinquenervis, Coryanthes trifoliate, and Stanhopea jenischiana from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Gongora, Stanhopea, and Coryanthes all attract euglossine bees to pollinate their blooms by producing highly aromatic oils on their flowers. Male euglossine bees, drawn by the intense fragrance, land on the flowers, scrape up the scented oil, and then collect it in spongy pouch-like structures on their back legs. It is believed that the male bees use this behavior is to help attract mates. The more complex the aroma compounds a male bee creates by visiting multiple flowers, the more attractive he appears to female bees.

Transferring collected oils onto its back legs requires a male euglossine bee to release its grip on a flower momentarily. Rather amazingly, these three genera of orchids have each developed a way to capitalize on this moment of vulnerability. Gongoras and Stanhopeas  orchids use a “slide” structure formed from the petals and dorsal sepal of each bloom to guide the upside-down tumbling bee past the pollen on the end of the column and out of the flower. It’s nature’s version of “Chutes and Ladders!”

Coryanthes or Bucket Orchids, on the other hand, trap their bee visitors in liquid pooled in the bucket-shaped lip of their flowers. With its wings submerged, a male bee must exit out back of the bucket and past the column containing the pollen to escape the flower. In the process pollen from the flower attaches to the bee’s back. Since this is a traumatic experience, the bee temporarily avoids similar flowers. Eventually, the bee forgets the experience and falls into the same trap on another flower. The pollen already attached to its back then is deposited in the appropriate place on the flower’s column before new pollen adheres to the bee. Unbelievable, right?

Although flower spikes in all three species extend and hang pendulant from the base of the psuedobulbs, the more interesting phenomenon is that all three develop inverted flowers. This adaptation guides the fall of the visiting bee downwards through each orchid’s respective structure to help pollinate the plant.

Though similar in many ways, each genus exhibits a radically different shape. Below is a photo of Gongora aff. quinquenervis from the Smithsonian Garden Orchid Collection. The flower shape is fairly representative of the Gongora genus as a whole and makes for a great model to understand the pollination process. Some say Gongora tend to look like a bird or insect in flight because of its wing-like reflexed lateral sepals. What strikes me in this particular species, however, is its jaggedness and the small barbs coming off the lip. The barbs remind me of a fishing hook with a lure. Considering how the flower uses its structure to attract a pollinator, it’s actually not a bad analogy

Gongora aff. quinquenervis from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Gongora aff. quinquenervis from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Stanhopea jenischiana, most recognizable for the dark eye spots on its yellow lip (see below), pollinate very similarly to Gongoras via a “slide” method. The fall bees experience after entering the flower led these orchids to be nicknamed “Fall-Through” Orchids.

Stanhopea jenischiana from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Stanhopea jenischiana from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

And finally, below is Coryanthes trifoliata. Though the lateral sepals unfortunately are past their peak in this photo, the bucket lip is still intact and shows off some this bloom’s stunning detail! Notice the liquid dripping into the flower’s bucket. The second image shows more clearly the channel through which the orchid forces visiting bee to escape.

Coryanthes trifoliata from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Coryanthes trifoliata from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

While these fantastic orchids abound in the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses, a few have made their way into the Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History over the past several months. Have you had a chance to see any of them? With the show closing this Sunday, April 26 there’s still time to see a few new additions including a Gongora! Don’t miss them!

Alan M., Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Exhibition Intern

April 23, 2015 at 4:17 pm Leave a 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

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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

Behind the Orchids: Orchid Family Day

Orchid Family day booths set up in the National Museum of Natural History

Orchid Family day booths set up in the National Museum of Natural History

After working with orchids for five weeks, I could not have been more thrilled to share the splendor of orchids with families and museum-goers at Orchid Family Day. The event was held Saturday, February 22nd on the ground floor of the National Museum of Natural History, and drew a large crowd even in the face of a snowstorm. Smithsonian Gardens, the United States Botanic Garden, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center joined together to engage and educate Orchid Family Day participants about orchids and orchid care. Stations included building terrariums, creating botanical illustrations, making paper orchid corsages, asking an expert any orchid question, learning about orchid research, and potting an orchid to take home.

Naturally, there’s always some amount of preparation work that goes into any event. Planning Orchid Family Day took a team of Smithsonian Gardens staff and volunteers. Over numerous weeks, the group developed activities, prepared necessary materials, and helped gather the staff and volunteers needed to run activities. We also created orchid information panels from scratch to pair with the day’s activities. As an intern, I was able to collaborate and create the initial drafts of three display panels. The text then had to pass through several people for editing and revising to ensure quality and accuracy. After having gathered some of the first research for these panels, it was incredible to see the transformation from a simple word document into a professional looking display panel. It was a great opportunity, and I’m proud to have played an influential role in the development of Orchid Family Day.

The Orchid Family Day Panels in final form.

The Orchid Family Day Panels in final form.

Aside from event logistics, Orchid Family Day also needed publicity. Event details were posted online but word of mouth brought more people than the publicity alone could have. In fact, even with the threat of a snowstorm, hundreds of people showed up for the event. Impressively, as the doors to the National Museum of Natural History opened, countless families and individuals flooded into the museum. Although many patrons were excited to be the first in the exhibit halls, a steady stream of people made their way to the family day activities.

Making orchid corsages!

Making orchid corsages!

The enthusiasm of people bouncing between tables, building terrariums then potting orchids, made for equally enthusiastic staff and volunteers at each table to engage the ever changing visitors. I had the chance to witness several staff and volunteers of the gardens participate in demonstrations that were very unlike the work I’ve what previously seen them do. For example, one of the Smithsonian Gardens supervisors was helping make paper orchid corsages! It was incredibly enjoyable seeing the staff engaged with participants whether it was through drawing, potting, building, or teaching. I had the opportunity to staff the botanical illustration table, which is something I’ve never studied or worked much with before. Regardless, it was a lot of fun watching children color in orchid outlines and use their illustrations for all kinds of art projects. We initially intended for them just to create bookmarks, but they got creative and made necklaces and pictures to give to their parents too. Their enthusiasm was endless and parents often had to gently coax their children away from the table when it was time for them to go.

Examples of the terrariums visitors got to make and take home with them.

Examples of the terrariums visitors could make and take home with them.

Many curious minds wandered into the exhibit, and not all were children. Adults wishing to learn more about orchids made the “ask an expert” table very popular. They also enjoyed discovering the latest in orchid research and conservation at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center table. And of course, the ever popular “pot an orchid” station may have stolen the show for most individuals as the U.S. Botanic Garden brought a thousand orchids to give away for free. Orchid Family Day activities offered something for everybody, so make sure to come out to the next one in 2017!

– Alan M., Orchid Exhibition Intern

February 26, 2015 at 11:00 am Leave a 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

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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 http://botany.si.edu/colls/collections_overview.htm.

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

Put a Spring in Your Step: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Happy February! With the recent news of some rather feisty groundhogs calling for another long winter, I am hoping this week’s edition of ‘What’s In Bloom’ will be an encouraging reminder of what’s to come.

I often pass over phalaenopsis in favor of the more weird and interesting specimens, but this week the novelty hybrids in greenhouse 12 drew my attention and I couldn’t pick just one to feature. The variety of patterns and bold colors splashed across the flowers are seriously amazing. Many of these plants will be making their way down to the exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, so keep your eyes peeled.

Novelty phalaenopsis hybrids

Novelty phalaenopsis hybrids

This next orchid is also slated to make its way downtown in the next week. Prosthechea cochleata is a Central American species known commonly as the ‘cockle shell orchid’ for the distinctive lip shape of its flowers. Notice also that unlike most orchids, the flowers are non-resupinate, meaning the pedicels do not rotate during development to orient the lip below the rest of the flower. Resupination is generally thought of as an evolutionary strategy that proffers the labellum as a landing pad for pollinators. Orchids with non-resupinate flowers may be self-pollinating or their pollinators, for example hummingbirds, may not require a landing pad.

Prosthechea cochleata

Prosthechea cochleata

Inhabiting similar latitudes to the Central American Prosthechea is Polystachya neobenthamia. This tropical, east African species is found growing along cliffs and rock faces in Tanzania. It has an almost weedy appearance with grasslike leaves and erect flower stems holding beautiful puffball inflorescences of tiny white flowers. If orchids were emoticons, this one would be a beaming smiley face.

Polystachya neobenthamia

Polystachya neobenthamia

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 5, 2015 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

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