The Global Genome Initiative’s-Gardens team spent the cooler months of January, February, and March within the expansive, climate-controlled confines of the Smithsonian Gardens greenhouses in Suitland, Maryland. We worked primarily with facilities manager, Vickie DiBella; horticulturalist, Matthew Fleming; and orchid collection specialist, Tom Mirenda. Our goal was to collect as many genome-quality orchids for the Smithsonian’s biorepository and our efforts produced nearly 200 specimens.
On any given day, thousands of orchid specimens may be in bloom, displaying anything from a single, extravagant flower to something smaller and nondescript (to the human eye!), or perhaps even an elaborate hanging or stalked inflorescence (the term for the stem where a group or cluster of flowers are born on a plant).
On our last day of collecting, we sat down with Tom to talk about this impressively diverse family of plants and specifically about the living collections stored in the Smithsonian Gardens’ greenhouses. This interview has been edited for length.
GGI-Gardens: How did you first become interested in orchids?
Tom: My interest began when I was eight or nine years old, actually. I used to browse through bulb and seed catalogs and order plants with my Christmas money. The first orchid I acquired was a Habenaria radiata that I grew from a tiny bulb—the egret flower. I would sometimes get in trouble with my mother when bulbs would arrive. My interest really took off when I moved to Hawai’i for college, though—they were so much easier to grow in the tropical climate there.
GGI-Gardens: What is your favorite thing about working with orchids?
Tom: The sheer diversity of the plants—you can just never be bored working with them. There is always something new. This, combined with the artistry of horticulture and the patience required to grow something like this. I’m fascinated by the mystery of why flowers might look the way they do, how they engage in mimicry, deception, and manipulation of their pollinator partners. Some even manage to produce sex pheromones of would-be pollinating insects. The manipulation by orchids of pollinators, the evolutionary history and creativity that is reflected in it. I’ve been reading a lot of Richard Prum (an evolutionary biologist at Yale) who feels that aesthetics play a role in the evolutionary process. Diversity does not seem to be explained by selection alone—we see that in human intervention—resulting in the production of hybrids.
GGI-Gardens: It’s really amazing, the diversity. Do you have any favorites in the orchid family?
Tom: For me it’s the thing that’s flowering the best at the time! That and I suppose the genus Trichopilia, hummingbird pollinated Scaphyglottis, miniatures (Lepanthes for example), Trisetella hoeijeri, which has these remarkable flowers that are three times longer than its leaves, they just sparkle. Unfortunately I’ve never been able to get it to grow here.
GGI-Gardens: Sounds beautiful. So when did the Smithsonian Gardens’ interest in orchid collections really begin?
Tom: 1973, a committee was formed that included Mrs. Ripley as well as then horticulture director, Jim Buckler. It has continued to grow from there, through collections from all over the world, donations—one from the Pabst Blue Ribbon company—and another, more recently, from the estate of the late Dennis Roessiger, in Maine that included about 1,000 species!
GGI-Gardens: Wow! How many total specimens would you estimate are in the collection now?
Tom: Oh, we’re well into in the mid 8,000’s or 9,000s by now.
GGI-Gardens: Do you have an estimate of the number of genera? Species?
Tom: I’d guess about 250 genera and 2,500 species.
GGI-Gardens: How do you envision the collection in the next 20 years?
Tom: It’s always changing and growing. We’re doing some really neat things right now for example, one challenge here in the greater metropolitan DC area is the water quality. Some orchid groups are very sensitive, you have to be careful with chlorine and fluoride especially. We recently received a grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s collections program fund to collect and utilize rain water.
GGI-Gardens: Interesting, not only a means to perhaps improve the quality of collections, but a sustainable approach as well. Along those lines, are there any ongoing conservation or preservation programs that are trying to protect the living collections at SI Gardens other than GGI-Gardens?
Tom: For sure, the North American Orchid Conservation Center (NAOCC) is one. It includes orchids from all over North America. The Smithsonian is interested in taking this model global—if funds become available to do so—to assess the status of and determine priorities for species conservation and reintroductions. We sample populations and add them to a growing seed bank as well as a mycorrhizae bank. This is done at SERC (the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center). It’s extremely difficult work, being led by Dennis Whigham, Melissa McCormick, and Jay O’Neill.
GGI-Gardens: Bringing these communities together is a big deal. How about the public? I’m sure they might be reading this blog article and wondering how they and other members of the Smithsonian community might be able to see the orchid collections throughout the year?
Tom: We have native species planted at the National Museum of the American Indian that should be blooming in May and June. We always have display cases at the National Museum of American History, and also in the Castle building. Smithsonian Gardens has an exhibit called “Design for Small Spaces” running through August 31, 2016 that you will find in the Ripley Center Concourse. The Kogod courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery is another. Definitely keep an eye out for the 2017 Orchid Exhibit that will be in the Hirshhorn. We have a huge online database that is always available, with high quality images. Also, I write two articles each month for Orchid Magazine—these have all been archived and added to Encyclopedia of Life.
GGI-Gardens: It sounds like opportunities are all over the area throughout the year, I look forward to checking them out! Thanks so much for your time.
After our chat with Tom, we head into the greenhouses to resume collections. As we navigate the corridors of neatly arranged potted and hanging epiphytic (plants that grow on other plants) orchids in the greenhouses, clippers in hand, and ask to collect one or another specimen, we sometimes catch something like a protective reluctance in Tom’s answer: “I guess you can have a sample of this—I really love this plant. It’s not for display, but please be careful.” We always are careful and delicate when handling these living treasures and we’re not the least bit surprised by Tom’s reluctance. The nurture and patience required to maintain such an enormous collection is evident and who could not feel a protective, almost parental concern for them.
By Morgan Gostel, GGI Buck Postdoctoral Fellow (edited by GGI staff).