Posts tagged ‘orchids’

A New Day, a New Database: Smithsonian Gardens Living Collections Management

World-class orchid collections like the one at Smithsonian Gardens are more than an assemblage of pretty flowers. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes like maintaining good plant culture, regular and judicious watering, and dealing with insect pests and viruses. Another aspect of a well-kept collection is vigilant record keeping and data management.

There are several collections information systems (CIS) in use by botanic gardens that keep track of accessioned plant material. In the past, Smithsonian Gardens used a relational database tailored specifically to orchid collections for this purpose. This program worked well for many years but our growing online presence, digitization and IT requirements, and opportunities to expand SG’s plant collections prompted us to search for a more robust system.

In November 2015, Smithsonian Gardens switched to a botanical collections database with a more flexible framework. This new framework enables us to expand our plant records to encompass gardens surrounding the Smithsonian museums, in addition to managing our living collections of orchids and trees. Using this new tool to accession “unofficial” collections such as SG’s tropical plants will improve our horticulturists’ ability to track plant usage, longevity, and vitality.

Visitors to the Smithsonian will also benefit from this database transition. As Smithsonian Gardens tracks new plants in its gardens, staff will be able to plot their locations on a map, create tours, and compile images and other plant data on SG’s website. For on-site visitors, this will be an invaluable trip-planning tool; for online visitors, this will be a fantastic way to explore plants on the Smithsonian campus from afar.

View of Smithsonian Gardens' living collections mapping and information page.

Draft view of Smithsonian Gardens’ living collections mapping and information page.

The switch to a more flexible database also allows SG to better integrate its collections information with existing Smithsonian IT systems. This compatibility enables automatic syncing of collection images between the plant database and the Smithsonian’s main Digital Asset Management System rather than having to link the images separately in both places. Cross-talk between the systems cuts out redundant steps from our previous workflow and frees up collections staff to work on other projects. In addition, the process used to update collection images and information to the online Smithsonian Collections Search Center is more streamlined.

Orchid entries in Smithsonian's Digital Asset Management System

Screenshot of Orchid Collection images in the Smithsonian’s main Digital Asset Management System.

SG’s living collections team is currently cleaning up and enhancing the migrated data. With over 30,000 records of both living and historic plant assets, there is a lot of verification and editing to accomplish. This fall the focus will shift to the Smithsonian Gardens Tree Collection, the other living collection entrusted to our care.  Our goal is to integrate Tree Collection data from an existing database with accession records in the new database, while maintaining the ability to track tree locations across more than 180 acres of grounds through mapping software.

Smithsonian Gardens is excited to grow its living collections management program. The implementation of a new database is just a first step, but it paves the way for future progress and enables more efficient and effective management of the Smithsonian’s living plant collections for the benefit of both on-site and virtual visitors.

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist, Smithsonian Gardens

 

May 31, 2016 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

On Display: Spectacular Spider Orchids

The Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection contains an amazing assortment of species and hybrids. I come to work each day with great anticipation of what new marvel has unfurled overnight. I am never disappointed. Our interiorscape staff selects the most stunning plants for our orchid display cases outside the Warner Bros. Theater on the first floor of the National Museum of American History (NMAH). This week’s display features a group of orchids from one of my favorite genera, the fascinating Brassia.

Brassia Rex ‘Sakata’

Brassia Rex ‘Sakata’ from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection on display at the National Museum of American History.

Better known as spider orchids, Brassias are beloved for their long, narrow, ribbony sepals and petals. One of the orchids currently on display is Brassia Rex, a hybrid of Brassia verrucosa X Brassia giroudiana, which is known to have greater vigor and larger flowers than either parent. Created in the 1960s by the venerable orchid breeder Goodale Moir, this exceptional hybrid is a wonderful addition to every collection that has space for it. Beware, however, as it can grow into a monstrously large plant.

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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

A Floral Firework Display: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Sunday is the final day of the 2016 orchid exhibit, Orchids In Focus, at the United States Botanic Garden (USBG). It has been an interesting season to say the least, with seventy degree weather in January and gusting winds throughout March. Most of our show plants are bloomed out and will start their recovery for next year’s blooming cycle. Our species orchids are not on such a rigid schedule and are still living the slow life in the greenhouses, blooming when they please and offering visual fireworks of color amidst the overwhelming background of green foliage.

Scaphyglottis bidentata is a dazzling miniature orchid from Central and South America. This species exhibits spectacular red-orange flowers, a pollination syndrome for ornithophily, or bird-pollination. Several other Scaphyglottis with large (relatively), bold flowers were previously classified under a distinct genus, Hexisea but were morphologically similar enough to the former Scaphyglottis grouping to be lumped together. One of the major defining morphological characteristics of species in this group is that the pseudobulbs are stacked (see inset photo).

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(left) Scaphyglottis bidentata, (right) illustration from Edwards’s Botanical Register

Another striking pop of color found in our species greenhouse comes from Dendrobium bracteosum var. tannii. If you look this one up, you won’t find tannii mentioned anywhere because the name has never been formally published. This variety is a miniature form of the species. To give you an idea of the size difference the flowers on our specimen are no longer than a centimeter in diameter, which is less than half of the typical size.

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Dendrobium bracteosum var. tannii

Dendrobium sanguinolentum is a pendant growing epiphyte found in Thailand, Western Malesia and the Philippines. This species is known as “The Blood Stained Dendrobium” because the flowers typically have splotches or stains of violet at the edges of the sepals and petals. The plant below may be an alba form of this species since there are no stains evident on the pale yellow flower.

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Dendrobium sanguinolentum

This week’s grand finale is Myrmecocattleya Claudia Elena. This fantastic hybrid with such vivid coloration is a cross between Myrmecophila tibicinis and Cattleya dowiana. In the wild, the ranges of these two species do not overlap, but since they are both part of the Cattleya alliance, hybridizers are able to successfully interbreed them. Myrmecophila flowers are typically one to two inches in diameter, but when crossed with a large flowered Cattleya, they almost triple in size!

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Myrmecocattleya Claudia Elena

Photographs are a wonderful way to explore nature’s diversity, but nothing compares to experiencing it in person. If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, make sure to take a final trip to the USBG to see our orchids on display before the exhibit ends on the 17th!

-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

April 15, 2016 at 8:41 am Leave a comment

Three Cheers for Spring: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

It’s finally spring! Today marks the fifth day past the Spring Equinox and it seems like nature is as ready as we are for the change in season. Around the city cherry and magnolia trees are bombarding the city with their pink blossoms and fresh fragrance. Splashes of color from daffodils and pansies are everywhere. Though the season’s change is much more gradual in our orchid greenhouses, this time of year still finds unparalleled variety and interesting stories to tell in our species collection.

This first species was part of a donation we received last summer. It entered our collection as Acianthera aculeata, but now that we have seen the plant in bloom, it doesn’t quite match the type description for the species. A proper identification will require more research for our orchid curators.

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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

An Exploration of the Fringe: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection

Winter is one of the most prolific bloom times in the Smithsonian Gardens orchid greenhouses and each year I am astounded by the diversity that is on display. I have a predilection for miniature orchids, for bizarre traits and unique stories and the two orchids featured today will not disappoint.

Bulbophyllum saltatorum var. albociliatum is an exquisite species found widely across Central Africa. Its winter-blooming flowers are no bigger than a thumbnail, and like many Bulbophyllums, the lip has been dramatically modified. In this case, the modification takes the form of a bright pink fringe, which acts as a lure for small flies who end up inadvertently pollinating the flower.  This species is also rather unique for a Bulbophyllum because its scent is quite pleasant (at least to my olfaction).

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Fringe is not purely used for deceptive purposes. This characteristic, along with colorless flowers and night fragrance is a pollinator syndrome for Hawk Moths. Various species of Brassavola and Habenaria exhibit a unique variation of this morphological adaptation, and offer nectar rewards to their nocturnal visitors. It is not certain what characteristic of this fringed lip appeals to the Hawk Moth, but the convergence of this trait across unrelated orchid genera implies that it is pollinator specific.

In their infinite diversity, orchids always manage to deconstruct the carefully deduced generalizations scientists make about their biology. The Clowesia below, Clowesia Grace Dunn, is a hybrid between Clowesia rosea and Clowesia warzewiczii and as you can see, has an arresting display of fringe on its lip as well.

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These flowers are NOT moth pollinated, rather they are visited by crepuscularly active Euglossine bees that collect their fragrances in the form of oils to woo lady bees. Typically, Euglossine bees are generalists, and will collect fragrances from a number of different species. It has been theorized that the fragrances of Clowesia species change throughout the day, with an “optimal fragrance” either before dawn or just after dusk when their pollinators are most active. This may seem like a wild concept, but many biological functions occur in a cyclical fashion, and solely night fragrant orchids are commonly referenced. It makes sense that the same mechanism would be at work in crepuscularly, diurnally and nocturnally fragrant plants.

Daily fragrance fluctuations are not unique to Clowesia, and have been studied previously in Arachnis, Vanda, Spathoglottis and Oncidium (Goh, 1983), among others. The variation in fragrance could be influenced by changes in acidity due to CO2 production during Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (Goh, 1983) and is decidedly affected by photoperiod, an indication that fragrance is regulated by a circadian rhythm (Altenburger & Matile, 1990).

I never considered the importance of physiological constraints playing such a vital role in the evolution of plant-pollinator relationships, but evidence for this “biological clock” of fragrance emission throughout the plant world is incredibly fascinating. Orchid pollination is a beautifully complex fabric of not only interactions (deceptive or otherwise), but the timing of these interactions. As I am often reminded, NOTHING is coincidence, but the intricacies of evolution often seem astoundingly fortuitous.

 

Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist

References:

Altenburger, R., & Matile, P.. (1990). Further observations on rhythmic emission of fragrance in flowers. Planta,180(2), 194–197. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23380097

Goh, C. J.. (1983). Rhythms of Acidity and CO2 Production in Orchid Flowers. The New Phytologist, 93(1), 25–32. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2431891

February 5, 2016 at 12:18 pm 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!

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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

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