January is the nation’s capital is dreary, but the Museum will be bursting with color. We’re filling an entire hall with live flowers for our biannual orchid exhibit, Orchids: Interlocking Science and Beauty, by Smithsonian Gardens and the United States Botanic Garden. The show, which runs January 24th through April 26th, examines how new ideas, technologies, and inventions change the way we study, protect, and enjoy orchids. Just consider the greenhouse, which allows us to grow exotic plants even in the dead of winter.
I took a field trip out to Smithsonian Gardens just to see how the orchids were coming along, and got a tour of the greenhouses from Tom Mirenda, Orchid Collection Specialist. It was the perfect way to spend a drizzly, freezing morning. I asked Tom which orchids were his favorites, which turned out to be an impossible question to answer. His favorites are constantly shifting to whichever plant is “behaving” at the moment. The day I went to visit, that was Angraecum sesquipedale, also known as Darwin’s orchid. In 1862, Charles Darwin famously hypothesized that the large, white, star-shaped orchid was pollinated by a moth with a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar at the bottom of the flower’s 10-16 inchlong spur. Twenty-one years after his death, scientists found the moth with the absurdly long proboscis, Xanthopan morganii praedicta.
Some of the orchids in the greenhouses were rare species with fascinating back-stories. Others were hybrids familiar to anyone who’s ever bought a corsage. All were lovely, and will give our dinosaurs some competition for this winter’s coolest museum attraction.
Speaking of “cool,” how do we get the orchids from their greenhouses at Smithsonian Gardens to the Museum in the bitter cold? With a protective layer of shrink wrap, of course! When the orchids are ready to bloom, we put them on rolling carts, wrap each cart in plastic, load them onto heated trucks, and hustle them over to the Museum. Because this exhibition will be open for a few months, we’ll need to repeat the process many times with new flowers as they bloom.
Images and text by Juliana Olsson, Exhibits Writer/ Editor, National Museum of Natural History