‘Orchids to festoon and orchids to bury’

The “Orchids of Latin America” room feels far away from the busy Washington streets, and the soaring rotunda with the giant elephant, old and well preserved. This National Museum of Natural History exhibit is set apart from them all by a bend in a first-floor hallway. It is cocooned in aliveness; walled off by smell and the promise of warm sun.

A Cymbidium "Moonwalk." (John Gibbons/Smithsonian)
A Cymbidium "Moonwalk." (John Gibbons/Smithsonian)

Thousands of orchid species flourish throughout Mexico, South America and the Caribbean, the exhibit text tells us. Indigenous people use them in their daily lives. They show up in folklore and cultural traditions; there is orchid biology, conservation, evolution and nationalism. There are orchids to festoon and orchids to bury.

A Paphiopedilum 'Cardinale.' (John Gibbons/Smithsonian Institution)
A Paphiopedilum 'Cardinale.' (John Gibbons/Smithsonian Institution)

The ceiling lights undulate, moving through the foliage like breezes through the vines. Pink and green flowers have names like Heart Joy, while orange and coral are a Half-Moon Wonderland, and Fiesta Girl is orange and red.

Laelia columbiana. (John Gibbons/Smithsonian Institution)
Laelia columbiana. (John Gibbons/Smithsonian Institution)

Visit a world, but sit on a bench, be there and here, watching as museum-goers snap photos and murmur over wafts of fragrance that also fill plazas and public squares thousands of miles away. All too soon, it is closing time and security guard voices urging visitors to exit echo off gray walls, but some still linger at the flowers; at all the leaf life, usually extinct in this place, and a last scent of spring before the outdoor winter chill.

The Smithsonian’s 18th annual orchid exhibit is at the National Museum of Natural History through April 21.

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Lavanya Ramanathan · February 7, 2013