Finding an oasis or two in the Natural History Museum
By Adrian Higgins,
Advances in propagation techniques turned the orchid from a rich man’s plant into an everyday indulgence, particularly the moth orchids cloned by the gazillion for the supermarket trade.
And yet this (mostly tropical) flower continues to enchant, especially in the depths of winter. Ironically, for all the rarity associated with orchids and their habitats, the orchid family, botanically, is one of the largest with more than 17,000 species.
The Americas are particularly rich in orchids, but seeing them in the wild can take some determination. I am thinking of a diminutive but tough botanist named Margaret Mee, who for 32 years ventured into the Amazon to find and paint wild orchids, enduring adventures both joyful and harrowing. She survived falling into piranha-infested rivers and malarial mosquitoes only to die in a car crash in her native England.
For those of us lacking Mee’s mettle, including myself, there is a chance to see orchids from Latin America in the newly opened exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History. The “Orchids of Latin America” show runs until April 21, but this month offers a chance to find a floral fix when gardeners most need it. By mid-April, my eyes will be busy in the garden, feasting on pink-cupped daffodils and lily-flowering tulips.
Tom Mirenda, the Smithsonian’s orchid collection specialist, says the flowers on display are not necessarily native to Latin America and include cultivated varieties not seen in the wild, but they represent the plants that are used and enjoyed in the Americas.
He leads me to a clump in an open, wooden cage, revealing it to be a tree dweller that would soon perish if planted in soil. The blooms are small and white, not particularly showy, but this plant is a favorite for the bedroom balcony, where its nocturnal fragrance perfumes the night air.
There are orchids blooming in early November that are used in Mexico to adorn the graves of loved ones on the Day of the Dead. Others flower in late December for Christmas.
Some orchids are used to make glue to affix ceremonial feathers to garb. Others are used as inspiration. The Chibcha people of what is now Costa Rica treasured golden ornaments with the stylized head of an eagle. They have been thought to have been modeled on the lovely yellow-flowered Trichocentrum cebolleta.
Because of the low light conditions of the show space, the orchids will be changed frequently so that although 300 might be on display at one time, a number 10 times that will be seen during the course of the exhibit. The plants represent the best winter-flowering orchids from the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Botanic Garden.
As much as orchids have enchanted humans, they have worked their real magic on insects and other pollinators. Mirenda is struck by a slipper orchid that lures bees into its bowl, where they can escape only by squeezing through a hatch while pollinating the plant. “They can’t even open their wings; they have to crawl,” he said.
Then there are the epidendrums, tall terrestrial orchids bearing clusters of orange or red blooms at the end of wiry stems. Squint and the blooms and the foliage remind you of a perennial closer to home: the milkweed. The milkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly — the adult sups the nectar, the caterpillar eats the leaf. But in the orchid version, “the flowers have no nectar,” Mirenda says. “It’s a type of deception.” As he says this, I’m thinking of a butterfly named the viceroy, which mimics the monarch. Such beauty, such subterfuge.
Mirenda points out a picture of an iridescent green euglossine bee with pollen on its back. The poor dear is visiting orchids to gather neither pollen nor nectar but perfume. “The males that have collected the most complex array of fragrances get the females,” he says. And we thought the orchids were scenting the air for us.
This engaging and mysterious interplay between flower and insect is played out on the floor above the show, where the museum’s butterfly pavilion provides a standing exhibit of live butterflies and moths supping at more common flowers.
If the winter chill is in your bones, it’s a good place to be. Warm and misty, the pavilion is about the size of a Metro car but alive with the prettiest of insects. The curators stock it with more than 40 species that are hatching at any one time, and currently include a large white- and black-veined beauty from Malaysia named the Paper Kite, as well as the iridescent and eye-marked stunner named the owl butterfly from Latin America. These creatures live no longer here than they would in the wild, two to three weeks, and it is sad to see some of the tattered ones on their way out. But they have food, warmth, light and freedom from predators, and even the old ones seem to be having fun, supping on a split melon or pineapple, and delighting young children they often mistake for flowers.