Orchids, orchids, everywhere. You will be amazed at the orchid display in the courtyard of the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery (between 8th and 9th Sts NW, at F and G). They are there through April 28th, planted in hip-high planters so you can get close to the blooms.
This is the annual orchid show put on by the Smithsonian Gardens and the U.S. Botanic Garden. The exhibit is called Orchids: Amazing Adaptations, and it’s part of a Smithsonian Gardens-wide show called Habitat to emphasize that many orchid habitats need protection.
The picture above shows several orchids classed as “epiphytes,” meaning they grow on trees. About 75% of orchids worldwide are epiphytes, particularly those in tropical regions. Anyone who has been to a rain forest in Costa Rica or Brazil has looked up and seen orchids hugging the branches overhead. They get their food through fleshy roots that spread out around the branch and pick up nutrients and moisture from the air.
The planter above shows “terrestrial” orchids, those that come up from soil or spring from crevices in rocks. In the United States you will find them in bogs, damp woods, and meadows. The species I love is the pink lady’s slipper (not shown), which is rare in the wild, although I have found it along the Appalachian Trail. Nurseries grow it from seed (not collecting), and you can buy it for your garden.
The orchids’ odd shape is no accident. They are carefully designed to make the pollinator pick up pollen before it gets to its reward. The main pollinators are male bees, which are collecting a special chemical that will be used to seduce a female. The bee does not care about nectar – he wants this fragrant pheromone that will disperse and attract a mate.
In the photo above, he must crawl over the little white pouch where the pollen is, at the top of the orchid, in order to get to his goal. Click the image below to see a wonderful video showing two bees competing to do this.
This video is also shown in the courtyard.
Every planter has a signboard that explains the types of orchids in it. This one, titled “Pollinator Relationships,” points out that a specialized habitat is needed to provide the particular pollinator needed by an orchid species. For example, many orchids are pollinated by only one species of bee. Others need a hummingbird, gnat, butterfly, or similar insect. If the habitat is lost or changed, the pollinator and the orchid may disappear.
The Smithsonian Gardens estimates that about half the orchid species in the U.S. and Canada may be endangered. The photo above shows one of our native bog orchids. (Look in the photo for the group of foot-high stalks with tiny blossoms on the stem at the lower left of the planter).
Habitat loss to development, as well as climate change and illegal collecting, threatens orchids like this and the many of the 28,000 orchid species worldwide.
You will see adults and school groups enjoying the exhibit. Photographers find great subjects. And you will get a new appreciation of orchids’ complexity. For a map and more information, visit gardens.si.edu.
To visit: Orchids: Amazing Adaptations is displayed in the Kogod Courtyard of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery through Sunday, April 28th. The museum is located at 8th and F Streets NW, on top of the Gallery Place Metro station. Its hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.