Posts tagged ‘plants’

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.


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.


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.


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. 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

Cultivate ’14: Plants and Art

I had the opportunity to travel to Columbus, Ohio, last July to attend Cultivate ’14.  This annual conference is held for people from all aspects of the horticulture industry, including growers, retailers, landscapers, interior plantscapers, floral designers, and educators. With educational sessions, the largest horticultural trade show in North America, wonderful tours to attend, and over 10,000 attendees, there was so much to see and learn while I was there.

As part of the conference, I was fortunate to be able to visit the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus.  I have always been fond of conservatories and greenhouses, and this one did not disappoint!  The conservatory itself, comprised of 8,300 sq. ft. of glass roof space, first opened its doors to the public in 1895 to show off its collection of palms.

One aspect that really drew me in to all of the beautiful plant displays there were the Dale Chihuly glass pieces that were exhibited throughout the conservatory.  I learned that Chihuly’s artwork was first displayed in the conservatory in 2003.  Because of a marked increase in attendance, the Friends of the Conservatory decided to purchase many of those glass pieces so that they could be shown permanently.  There is something about the way the beautiful glass, with its electric colors, reflects the sun in such a gorgeous setting.  It warms me from the inside out.

Chihuly 1

Sunset Tower by Dale Chihuly at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Columbus, Ohio

That really got me thinking about how important art is in the garden: bringing these two elements together to draw in people to see the gardens.  It is a way for gardeners and plant lovers to come to such a lovely, natural setting to appreciate art.  It is equally as valuable to bring lovers of art into a garden setting, which is beautiful and imperfect—quite a different setting to display artwork than the stark white walls that we often see in a gallery—and enable them to appreciate the artwork in a more natural setting.  The synergy created by placing these two components of artwork and gardens in the same space makes the combination of the two work that much more effectively together than they would on their own.

Chihuly Pieces at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Columbus, Ohio

Chihuly pieces at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Columbus, Ohio

We at Smithsonian Gardens are so fortunate to have such a beautiful backdrop in which to display our plants.  The museums themselves are works of art, inside and out.  We have entire gardens that are dedicated to displaying artwork (such as the Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden), and others that are gardens, first and foremost, that also display artwork (the Haupt Garden, American Indian Museum, and Natural History Museum, to name a few).

I work primarily with plants used in interior spaces, and while I can’t necessarily work with “gardens” and artwork, the plants I grow and care for in the Smithsonian greenhouses are used inside the museums where even more pieces of art are displayed.  The trip to Franklin Park Conservatory has inspired me to think more creatively about the plants I grow, and to consider new ways in which the plants can be arranged to complement the artwork they will be placed around, or even the space in which the plants will be displayed.

The next time you visit a space that displays horticulture and art, take the time to appreciate how much more you get out of your experience by having both plants and artwork working together.

– Shannon Hill, Greenhouse Horticulturist

March 26, 2015 at 10:00 am Leave a comment

What Happens When a Bunch of Horticulturists Get Together?

They all go to Cultivate ’14 in Columbus, Ohio in July.

I had the wonderful experience of attending Cultivate ’14 in Columbus, Ohio July 12 – 15, 2014. Formally known as the Ohio Short Course, the symposium is one of the largest events in North America. The show is attended by over 9,000 garden retailers, greenhouse growers, landscapers, interior designers, educators, researchers, and many other professionals involved in the green industry.

Top notch educators and speakers are invited to speak on over 140 topics about pest control, new plant varieties, growing techniques, interior design, and green walls. Attendees have the flexibility to attend as many of the seminars as they can. Attending these seminars is a great way to get new ideas on growing techniques, identifying common diseases and insects that may attack greenhouse crops, and even proper techniques on using yellow, sticky insect trap cards.

The trade show is the one of the largest around. I was able to walk around at my leisure and see all of the new and innovative products that are available or will be made available to our industry in the future. The trade show is also a great time to network with sales representatives that I talk to sometimes on a weekly basis. I also establish new relationships with salespeople trying to sell the newest and brightest products in the industry. Personally, the trade show is a wonderful opportunity to “hook up” with former coworkers and sales representatives I have known for over twenty years.

One of the highlights of the show is getting to see many of the new plant varieties and introductions. There are hundreds of new and exciting plants and colors at the show. Aisle after aisle of annuals and perennials line the lobby at the convention center. Many of these new varieties can be seen in the fabulous displays all throughout the show.   I gain a ton inspiration when looking at the wonderful new selections and then enjoy bringing all of my inspiration back to share with my coworkers at Smithsonian Gardens.

Another wonderful highlight of the trip is the bus tour to greenhouse operations in the Ohio area. I was able to tour two family owned production/retail facilities. Going on the tours allows me to see what other growers are doing and taking a peek at their innovative ways of producing large quantities of high quality plant material to be sold to retail garden centers.  The bus trips also establish relationships with other people in the industry. Conversations are started and soon everyone on the bus seems to know one another. Information and ideas are exchanged while spending most of the day on the bus. These people on the bus come from all over the country. My bus had people that came all the way from Canada and Hawaii!

The Franklin Park Conservatory

The Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio.

The really fun part of the trip to Cultivate ’14 was the visit to the Franklin Park Conservatory a couple of miles outside the city limits. Their display of Chihuly glass (more than 3,000 pieces in the permanent collection) was awesome! The plants displays were amazing as well. Highlights of the conservatory included a palm house, a rain forest, a butterfly house, lots of amazing bonsai, and a gift shop and café.

Attending Cultivate is always a wonderful experience. The event is truly a great opportunity to become motivated and inspired by all of the beauty and knowledge the show brings to the green industry and to me.

Jill Gonzalez, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

January 28, 2015 at 7:20 am Leave a comment

Spooky Plants Week

BOO! In honor of Halloween, we are celebrating another #SpookyPlantsWeek.  Here’s our round-up of the weird, creepy, gross, scary, and wonderful plants that we featured on Facebook this week. All can be found growing in our gardens at the Smithsonian museums or in our greenhouses in Maryland.

Tacca chantrieri plant

Tacca chantrieri, also known as the bat flower, is a member of the yam family and native to Southeast Asia. It has unusual black flowers and long whiskers. The “spooky” part about this plant (the name kind of gives it away) is that it looks like a bat. So it’s perfect for Halloween, and the fact that it’s blooming this time of the year makes it even more special. See it on display inside the Ripley Center kiosk entrance.

Brassavola nodosa  orchid

Also known as the “Lady of the Night” or “Flor de la Noche,” Brassavola nodosa has ghostly white flowers that emit a heady, nocturnal fragrance to attract night-pollinating moths. We have a few of these ethereal plants in the Orchid Collection at our greenhouses.

Cliff banana plant

The National Zoo has megafauna, but we have megaflora! Watch out, the Ensete superbum looks hungry . . . lucky for us, the plant only looks like it might be carnivorous. This herbaceous banana is native to India and more commonly known as the cliff banana. The plant may reach ten to twelve feet while blooming. This banana, unlike many others, does not produce suckers and only reproduces by seed. Our cliff banana caused many visitors to the Enid A. Haupt Garden to do a double-take all summer long.

Actaea pachypoda fruit

Found in the Urban Bird Habitat: Actaea pachypoda ‘Misty Blue.’ It is also called white baneberry or doll’s eyes because the fruits look like a cluster of eyes on red stems watching your every move in the garden. Some birds find the fruit to be a tasty treat, but beware, they are poisonous to humans. (Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History Collections.)

Solanum quitoense (naranjilla)

Solanum quitoense, known as naranjilla (”little orange”) is scary in looks only. Spines and purple hairs along the stems give this member of the nightshade family an otherworldly appearance that would be more at home in the Addams Family garden rather than the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian. If you can get past the strange looks of the hairy, orange fruit, a fresh glass of naranjilla juice is a sweet treat.


October 31, 2014 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

Ensete superbum


Cliff banana (Ensete superbum)

Cliff banana (Ensete superbum). Image courtesy of the National Museum of Natural History.

This monocarpic, herbaceous banana is a wonderful specimen in any garden. Monocarpic describes plants that flower, set seed, and then die. Ensete superbum, or cliff banana, is native to India and has a conical pseudo-stem made up of overlapping leaf sheaths.  Its bright green leaves, reaching six feet in length, drop during winter.  The plant may reach ten to twelve feet while blooming.  The inflorescence (or flower head) is a curved terminal spike with triangular oblong fruits and reddish brown bracts that persist for some time to add ornamental value.  This banana, unlike many others, does not produce suckers and only reproduces by seed.  In some extraordinary cases, plants in the wild can go into a three to four year dormancy period.

Cliff banana (Ensete superbum)

The cliff banana (Ensete superbum) in its current home in the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

This rare plant in now on display in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. You can see it for a limited time just inside the west entrance to the garden, close to the entrance to the S. Dillon Ripley Center.

-Matt Fleming, Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist

August 5, 2014 at 7:00 am 1 comment

Plant Pranks

It’s April Fool’s Day! You know what that means . . . Don’t worry, we don’t have any tricks up our sleeves today. We’re going to let the plants pull all the pranks. We asked Smithsonian Gardens horticulturists to think of a few of their favorite plants that deceive and mislead both pollinators and gardeners alike. (Yes, we are anthropomorphizing here; guilty as charged!)

Maianthemum racemosum

Maianthemum racemosum a.k.a False Solomon’s Seal -suggested by James Galgliardi, Butterfly Habitat & Urban Bird Habitat Garden horticulturist: From its foliage one would think this plant to be Solomon’s Seal, but this native plant reveals its true self in bloom. Instead of the drooping bell-shaped flowers from the leaf axils seen on Solomon’s Seal, Maianthemum racemosum’s flowers appear at the end of the stems as fragrant plumy racemes. Attractive berries turn ruby red in summer. These berries serve as a food source for a variety of birds in the Urban Bird Habitat.

Lycoris squamigera

Lycoris squamigera -suggested by Brett McNish, Supervisory Horticulturist: This lily loves to play tricks on unsuspecting gardeners. The green foliage grows in the spring, then dies back in the summer, leaving little evidence the plant ever existed. In late summer the flower scapes shoot up quickly and burst with beautiful pink blossoms. This is why Lycoris squamigera is also know as the ‘Resurrection’ or ‘Magic’ lily. Isn’t nature cool? (Image via eol)


Exochorda -suggested by Erin Clark, Victory Garden & Heirloom Garden horticulturist: Exochorda, also known as pearl bush, has flower buds that look like little pearls. At a glance out the window, it can also fool some of us paranoid sun-seekers into thinking spring has dropped yet another snow. Not to worry, it is just a sign that spring is truly here. Watch for this to bloom within the month. While we grow an heirloom species, there are many modern cultivars to choose from. (Image via eol)


Lithops– suggested by Joe Brunetti, Victory Garden & Heirloom Garden horticulturist: Lithops, also known as ‘living stone,’ is a succulent native to southern Africa. Mimcry helps this plant blend in with its environment. The leaf pairs look like rocks and pebbles, which helps the plant to avoid being eaten. Leaf pairs can be shades of brown, green, cream, or tan and produce yellow or white flowers.  (Image via eol)

Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Gardens orchid specialist and horticulturist, had many suggestions! Orchids are masters of trickery and deception. 

Bulbophyllum beccarii orchid

Bulbophyllum flowers often look and smell like dung, dead animals, or bloody dismembered parts of animals. They do this to attract carrion flies which pollinate them . . . but alas, the flies have been duped and get nothing in return for their pollination services. (Pictured: Bulbophyllum beccarii via eol)

Ophrys orchid

Most famous are the various orchids such as Ophrys (from the Mediterranean ) that use sexual deception to attract bees to their flowers. They have lips that strongly resemble lovely female bees to attract the young, naive male bees. Furthermore, the fragrance of their flowers contains a bee’s sex pheromone, attracting the males and tricking them into ‘pseudocopulation’ to spread the flower’s pollen. (Pictured: Ophrys scolopax via eol)

April 1, 2014 at 7:00 am Leave a comment

Back to School with Plants

As parents, teachers, and students wrap up the first couple of months of the new school year. Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist Christine Price-Abelow thought it would be fun to highlight a few plants with names linked to education. Keep an eye out for these plants growing in the museum gardens on your next class field trip!

1. Chinese Scholar-tree (Sophora japonica)

Chinese Scholar-tree (Sophora japonica)

Chinese Scholar-tree (Sophora japonica)

Chinese Scholar-tree is also known as the Japanese Pagodatree. In its native country of China the Scholar–tree was often planted near Buddhist shrines, hence the name. However it is commonly used as a city or street tree in the United States. It has a moderate to fast growth rate and usually reaches a height of 40-60’ with a nice rounded crown.  Sophora trees have a compound leaf which casts a light shade and they are very tolerant to heat, drought and pollution. They produce creamy white flowers in mid-July followed by a pod type fruit.  This “educational” tree can be found on the west side of the National Air and Space Museum near the McDonald’s trailer and seating area.

2. Princeton Elm (Ulmus americana ‘Princeton’)

Princeton Elm (Ulmus americana ‘Princeton’)

Princeton Elm (Ulmus americana ‘Princeton’)

The next time you visit Smithsonian Gardens and the National Mall, be sure to look up at the large towering trees shading the walkways. A large percentage of this tree canopy is made up of American elms, specifically the ‘Princeton’ American Elm. As you know, most plant cultivars are named for people and places and the ever popular Princeton elm is no exception. The Princeton elm was first introduced in 1922 by William Flemer of Princeton Nurseries located near Princeton, New Jersey. The Princeton elm was originally selected for its resistance to Dutch elm disease and aesthetic beauty.  There are many examples of the Princeton elm planted throughout the U.S. and they can be genetically linked to a 200+ year old American elm tree formerly growing at Princeton Cemetery near Princeton University.

American elms have a beautiful yellow fall color and make excellent shade trees. They are fast growing and reach a height of about 80’ with a spread of 50-60’. The Princeton cultivar is known for its disease resistance and large dark green leaves. They are also a great choice for urban landscapes. Plant your own piece of history!

Smithsonian Gardens is using Ulmus Americana ‘Princeton’ as a street tree and in the tree box planters surrounding the museums.

3. Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli)

Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli)

Pencil Cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli)

In keeping with our “Back to School” theme, our next featured plant is the pencil cactus. Though often referred to as a cactus, this plant is actually a succulent and a member of the Euphorbia family. The pencil cactus is native to Africa and India, therefore it is grown as a seasonal tropical plant or a houseplant in the Washington, D.C. area.  This euphorbia’s distinctive round, rod-shaped branches that resemble the familiar school implement give the plant its nickname.  They are very easy to grow and can be propagated by cuttings.

*A note of caution, you should always wear gloves when working around this plant; it exudes a milky, latex-type sap that can cause an allergic skin reaction for some people.

This plant can be found growing in a large container in the Ripley Garden.

-Christine Abelow-Price, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

October 17, 2013 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

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