Posts Tagged ‘United States Botanic Garden’

The Orchid Room at the United States Botanic Garden

During today’s lunchtime bike ride, I started off the month by once again stopping by the United States Botanic Garden, located near the U.S. Capitol Building at 1st Street & Maryland Avenue (MAP) in Downtown D.C.  In operation since 1850 and in its current location since 1933, the United States Botanic Gardens houses numerous themed rooms, and is home to almost 10,000 living specimens, some of them over 165 years old.  During this visit I stopped by to spend some time appreciating the flowering plants in The Orchid Room, which are presented annually in collaboration with the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection.

With blooms that are often colorful and fragrant, orchids are easily distinguished from other plants based on some very evident, shared derived characteristics, know as apomorphies.  Among these are:  bilateral symmetry of the flower, also referred to as zygomorphism; many resupinate flowers; a nearly always highly modified petal  orlabellum; fused stamens and carpels, and; extremely small seeds.

Orchids showcase a wide spectrum of color, shape, size, habitat, and scent, and with approximately 30,000 species are one of the two largest and diverse families of flowering plants.  The other are daisies.  And over the past 80 million years, orchids have successfully colonized every continent except Antarctica, and almost every conceivable habitat, from remote Mediterranean mountaintops to living rooms around the world.

And one of the secrets to their success is unusual and highly specialized pollination methods.  Many orchids provide food for insects and birds and even more have symbiotic relationships with micro-organisms that assist with nutrient cycling in the ecosystem.  Butterflies and moths are enticed to pollinate orchids that resemble flowers they normally feed on or orchids that provide a landing area and sufficient nectar rewards. Moth-pollinated orchids tend to have strong nighttime fragrances to attract their pollinators from great distances.  And in higher-elevation cloud forests where there are fewer pollinators, some orchids have evolved to have brightly colored tubular flowers with large nectar rewards to entice hummingbirds.

But the most unusual method is employed by the Ophrys apifera, also known as the “bee” orchid.  The bee orchid, or the “prostitute” orchid as it is less politely called by some botanists, has what is probably the most unusual pollination method.  It can best be described as sex, or pseudo-sex.  Small but flamboyant, the bee orchid is one of nature’s great mimics. Perched within the large pink sepals are petals shaped and colored like a visiting bee. The pink sepals look like wings and there are furry, brown lips that have yellow markings just like a bee.  But the deception goes further than visual appearance alone.  The flower takes on the tactile experience, and even emits the scent, of a female bee.  But the orchid offers the bee no nectar reward or pollen meal.  Instead, it attracts amorous male bee pollinators with the promise of bee sex to ensure its pollination.

So the next time you are walking through The Orchid Room, or admiring the beauty of some orchids, keep in mind that there is often more to them than meets the eye.

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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The Poinsettia Room at the United States Botanic Garden

The Poinsettia is particularly well known for its red and green foliage and is widely used in Christmas floral displays.  No flower says Christmas like the beautiful Poinsettia.  I particularly remember them being used to decorate the pulpit and front of the sanctuary in church when I was growing up.  Our family’s church would sell them during December to help raise money during the holidays for the poor.   The people who bought them would then pick them up after the Christmas Eve worship service to take them home.  And each year my parents would buy several, including one for an elderly widow in the church, who would take it home and eventually plant it in her garden.  A particularly difficult plant to keep alive when planted outdoors in areas that experience colder climates, the widow not only planted it each year, but they thrived.  She had a garden full of the Poinsettias my parents had given her.

During this lunchtime bike ride I made a stop at the United States Botanic Garden.  I was unaware of it until I was actually in it, but they have a Poinsettia Room.  And I was used to Poinsettias with traditional dark red blooms and green foliage, but the Botanic Garden Poinsettia Room is full of a wide variety of different Poinsettias of varying colors.  Though once only available in red, there are currently more than 100 natural and hybrid varieties of Poinsettias available in burgundy, pink, white, yellow, purple, salmon, and multi-colors. They have names like ‘Premium Picasso’, ‘Monet Twilight’, ‘Shimmer’, and ‘Surprise’.  The showy colored parts of poinsettias that most people think of as the flowers are actually colored bracts, which are modified leaves.  The colors of the bracts are created through “photoperiodism”, meaning that they require darkness for 12 hours at a time for at least five days in a row in order to change color.  Then, once Poinsettias finish that process, the plants require abundant light during the day for the brightest color

The word Poinsettia is traditionally capitalized because it is named after a person.  Poinsettias received their name in this country in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the plant into the country in 1825.  Poinsett was a botanist, physician and the first United States Ambassador to Mexico. Poinsett sent cuttings of the plant he had discovered in Southern Mexico to his home in Charleston, South Carolina.  The poinsettia is a perennial shrub that will grow 10-15 feet tall in their native Mexico, where they are found in the wild in deciduous tropical forest at moderate elevations from southern Sinaloa down the entire Pacific coast of Mexico to Chiapas and Guatemala.  They are also found in the interior of Mexico in the hot, seasonally dry forests of Gurerro and Oxaca.  In Mexico they are known as “”La Flor de la Nochebuena”, meaning “Flower of the Holy Night, or Christmas Eve.

Paul Ecke, Jr. is considered the father of the Poinsettia industry due to his discovery of a technique which caused seedlings to branch. This technique allowed the Poinsettia industry to flourish, and for the Ecke Ranch in California to nearly corner the market.  Today Poinsettias are the best selling potted plant in the United States and Canada, and the Ecke Ranch grows over 70 percent of all Poinsettias purchased in the United States and about 50 percent of the world-wide sales of Poinsettias.

A popular rumor over the years resulted in the misperception that Poinsettias are poisonous if eaten.  However, scientific studies have determined that, for example, a 50-pound child would have to eat more than a pound-and-a-quarter of Poinsettia leaves, which is the equivalent of between 500 and 600 leaves, to have any side effects. The same is true with animals. The most common side effects that have been reported from Poinsettia ingestions are upset stomach and vomiting. The leaves are reportedly not very tasty, so it’s highly unlikely that kids or even pets would be able to eat that many.

Today is Poinsettia Day, which marks the anniversary of the death of Poinsett in 1851.  So enjoy the following photos of some of the different Poinsettias I saw today.  And I encourage anyone who is able to stop by the Botanic Garden between now and January 1st to see the Poinsettia Room and all of the other holiday decorations and displays.

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Plant-Based D.C. Landmarks

Sadly, despite having worked in downtown D.C. for the past 30 years, I had never visited the United States Botanic Garden during the Christmas holiday season before this year.  I’ve been there many times but not during the holidays. But a friend who only lived here for a year before moving out of the area knew about the Botanic Garden’s annual holiday display, entitled Season’s Greenings, and the sights, smells, and sounds that accompany it.  When she asked me about this year’s display, it prompted me to go check it out.  And I’m so glad I did.

This year’s display is a multifaceted one that stretches throughout the Botanic Garden.  First, it includes the return of a series of D.C. landmarks made out of plant materials.  The holiday display also includes thousands of blooms throughout the Conservatory, from exotic orchids to a showcase of heirloom and newly developed poinsettia varieties in the seasonal Poinsettia Room.  Lastly, this year’s holiday decorations include a showcase of model trains chugging around, below, through, and above plant-based recreations of iconic sights and roadside attractions from across the United States.

I will be covering the Poinsettia display, and the model train and roadside attractions showcase in the near future.  Today’s blog post focuses on the collection of D.C. landmarks, all made from a myriad of plant and other natural materials, which is displayed in the Garden Court.  There are a dozen local landmarks and memorials on display this year.  The White House swing set, which had been included in previous years, was not present this year because the actual swing set is no longer at the White House.  In it’s place is the Albert Einstein Memorial.  Also new this year is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened a little over a year ago.  All of the landmarks would be incredible in and of themselves.  But knowing that they are made of plants adds to the experience.

For added holiday cheer at the Botanic Garden, there are concerts on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in December, when hours are extended until 8pm.  If you can, I highly recommend going on one of these days for both the music and to see the exhibit and plant collections illuminated by colorful lights.  One of my first thoughts after seeing Seasons Greenings was wishing that I had known about it and gone in previous years.  So do yourself a favor and go so you don’t have the same thought years from now.

 

[Click on the photos above to view the full size versions]

1 – U.S. Capitol Building
2 – The Thomas Jefferson Memorial
3 – Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building
4 – Lincoln Memorial
5 – National Museum of African American History and Culture
6 – National Museum of the American Indian
7 – Smithsonian Institution, The Castle
8 – U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory
9 – U.S. Supreme Court
10 – Washington Monument
11 – White House
12 – Albert Einstein Memorial

NOTE:  My blog post on “Seasons Greetings: Railroads and Roadside Attractions” will appear next Monday.

Titan Arum

Three corpse flowers (Amorphophallus titanium), also known as titan arum or the stinky plant, are currently in the process of blooming at The United States Botanic Garden on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building here in D.C.  I have been stopping by daily for the past couple of weeks to monitor their progress.  But on today’s bike ride I was pleased to see that the largest of the three plants is now in full bloom.  Peak blooms for the second and third plants are currently predicted to be between tomorrow and August 30th.

The three plants currently on display, which vary in age from five years up to 12 years old, have never bloomed before.  And this appears to be the first time in North America that an institution has three corpse flower plants all blooming at the same time.

For more information about corpse flowers in general, please see my blog post about the most recent previous bloom at the Botanic Garden, which occurred in 2016.

         

    
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The Bartholdi Fountain

Of all the monuments, statues, memorials, and other interesting places and events in D.C., some of my favorite destinations on my lunchtime D.C. bike rides, especially during the warm months of summer, are public fountains. And there are many of them in the National Capitol City from which to choose. One of the most famous is officially named “Fountain of Light and Water,” but is more commonly referred to as the Bartholdi Fountain.  Located at the corner of Independence Avenue and First Street (MAP) in The United States Botanic Garden in southwest D.C., it was the destination for this ride.

The fountain is referred to as The Bartholdi Fountain because it was created by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the French sculptor who is best known for designing the Statue of Liberty. The fountain is based on Classical and Renaissance sculpture, and is composed of a series of basins, supported by sculptures of classical figures. The fountain was cast in Paris by A. Durenne Foundry, and the cast iron is coated with bronze. Standing in the center of a circular marble pool, the fountain weighs 30,440 pounds, stands 30 feet high, and has three caryatid figures 11 feet in height.

The three-level fountain is topped by a mural crown resembling a crenellated city wall. Water spills from the crown over three youthful tritons playfully holding seaweed and splashes into the upper basin. Twelve lamps surround the basin. The crown appears to be held by caryatid figures depicting nereids, or sea nymphs, standing on a triangular pedestal with an ornamental design of seas shells and coral. Three reptiles are positioned at the pedestal’s corners, and spout water while supporting the fountain’s lower vasque. Water spouts from a crown at the top, cascades down into the smaller vasque, and then down into the larger vasque before spilling into the main basin.

The cast-iron fountain was made for the first official World’s Fair in the United States, also known as the Centennial Exposition, which was held in Philadelphia in 1876 to celebrate the 100th birthday of the United States. After the conclusion of the Centennial Exposition, Bartholdi offered the statue for sale for $12,000. However, he could not find a buyer. The following year, at the suggestion of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who designed the Capitol Building grounds, the U.S. Congress offered him $6,000 for the fountain, half his original asking price. Bartholdi begrudgingly agreed, and in 1877 the fountain was placed at the base of Capitol Hill on what used to be Botanic Garden grounds. It was removed and placed in storage in 1926 in order to facilitate completion of The George Gordon Meade Memorial, and for landscaping improvements around the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial. Then in 1932, the sculpture was placed at its current location in the United States Botanic Garden, within the grounds of the United States Capitol Building.

Since the bike rides I write about in this blog take place during my lunchtime breaks at work, I did not visit the fountain at night. But if you are in the city after dark, I highly recommend a visit because to really appreciate the beauty of the Bartholdi Fountain, you’ll need to see it when the cascade of water is illuniated after the sun sets.  Originally designed and fitted with gas lamps, it was one of the first monuments in D.C. to be lit at night. Other than the fact that the lamps were later converted to electricity in 1915, the Barholdi Fountain remains the same popular evening destination that it has been since the 1880s.

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The United States Botanic Garden

The United States Botanic Garden

The United States Botanic Garden is a living plant museum that informs visitors about the importance, and often irreplaceable value, of plants to the well-being of humans and to the earth’s fragile ecosystems. During the late 18th Century it was the dream of a number of key political figures, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to have a national botanic garden at the seat of government. In 1820, President James Monroe set aside 5 acres for a “national greenhouse,” and the U.S. Botanic Garden was established by an act of Congress later that year, making it the oldest continually operating botanic garden in this country. The garden “was formally placed under the jurisdiction of the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress in 1856 and has been administered through the Office of the Architect of the Capitol since 1934. It is located near the U.S. Capitol Building at 1st Street & Maryland Avenue (MAP) in southwest D.C.

The Botanic Garden grows and displays a variety of plants. The staff keeps computerized records on important botanical collections used for exhibition, study and exchange with other institutions. The Garden’s noteworthy collections include economic plants, orchids, begonias, carnivorous plants, cacti and succulents, bromeliads, epiphytes, palms, and cycads and ferns set in a Dinosaur Garden. However, of all the different plants and exhibits, my favorite remains the recent blooming of a rare titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum).

Public viewing of titan arum plant in bloom has occurred only a limited number of times in the United States, and this unique plant coming into flower is as spectacular as it is rare. The time between flowerings is unpredictable, which can span from a few years to a few decades. And when the special event happens, the bloom lasts only 24 to 48 hours, before it quickly collapses. Some people travel around the world hoping to see a titan arum at the moment it flowers. For botanists and the public, being “in the right place at the right time” to see one of these magnificent plants in bloom can be an once-in-a-lifetime treat. There have been only 150 recorded instances of blooming since records began.

The particular plant that was on display at the Botanic Garden is approximately eight years old, and is the largest specimen of the fourteen plants in the Botanic Garden’s possession. The plant on display was the size of a penny the last time there had been a blooming specimen at the Botanic Garden. But by the time it was on display, it was approximately 250 pounds, almost nine feet tall, and was experiencing its first ever bloom.

Part of the magic of the titan arum comes from its great size – it is the largest known unbranched flower in the world. In its natural environment it can grow to a height of 12 feet, and when blooming has been known to grow an inch per hour. However, it is more widely known for its odoriferous qualities. It is commonly referred to as the corpse flower because its fetid odor is often compared to the stench of decomposing flesh. The botanist charged with the care of this particular plant has stated that it gives off a scent “like a very dead elephant.” Its putrid smell is most potent during peak bloom at night into the early morning. The flower also generates heat, which allows the stench to travel further. This combination of heat and smell efficiently attracts pollinators, such as dung and carrion beetles, from across long distances.

Even if a titan arum is not in bloom, I highly recommend visiting the United States Botanic Garden. And as an added bonus, when you visit the Botanic Garden at any other time, it does not smell like decomposing flesh.

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