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Branching Out in the Art World

By John Kelly
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page C11

"This is my rose and topiary house," Dianne Cina says as she turns the knob on a greenhouse door. We step inside, and suddenly it's no longer a dreary, chilly late-March day in a Washington desperate for spring.

It's warm, and it's humid and we're in the jungle of Henri Rousseau or Paul Gauguin. My glasses fog up instantly, and I have to take them off to follow Dianne, the National Gallery of Art's chief of horticulture, through the steamy greenhouse.

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Who even knew that the National Gallery had a greenhouse?

It has 10 of them, hidden behind fences just outside the museum on the Mall, plus another in Frederick. Sixteen horticulturists and gardeners tend them. The greenhouses might be invisible to the public, but they're as essential to the National Gallery experience as the masterpieces that hang on the walls.

Visitors to the museum can see the fruits of this labor everywhere: in the fragrant flower arrangements at each entrance to the West Building, in the ficus trees that line the light-filled sculpture halls, in the ivy that spills over a balcony ledge in the East Building.

Paul Mellon, the philanthropist who gave us the National Gallery, wanted plants to be a part of the museum from the beginning. He had toured the galleries of Europe and found them dark and rather forbidding. That was good for the art, which fades in bright light, but not so good for the soul.

And so John Russell Pope and I.M. Pei designed the museum's buildings so that natural light would pour into them, nourishing the plants inside. A horticulturist was on the staff when the West Building opened in 1941.

The West Building's rotunda is the main showcase for the floral art. Last week, the statue of the god Mercury was ringed with blue and white hydrangeas; white gardenias; pink lilies; yellow, red and pink gerber daisies; and the fuzzball-covered branches of weeping pussy willows. A few weeks earlier, there were potted azaleas in a rainbow of colors. Every Christmas, there's an explosion of poinsettias.

The horticulturists buy cut flowers from area wholesalers, but the bulk of the plants they grow themselves: lantana, heliotrope, ixora, jasmine . . .

A few months before a show opens, they get together with the exhibit's designer to discuss which plants would complement the artwork. Tulips for a show of Dutch masters? Bonsai for an exhibit of Japanese prints? An English garden for a display of treasures from Britain's wealthiest houses?

We walk through the Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit in the East Building. Arranged near one entrance are tiny calamondin orange bushes, meant to evoke the rich tastes of 19th-century France.

Dianne grows bigger oranges, too, and lemon and lime trees. I have to ask if she ever squeezes the citrus to make fresh juice. No, she says. The plants are sprayed with chemicals every week to kill pests.

"We don't want spider mites or mealybugs to get onto the art," she explains. (Yes, that would be bad.)

Dianne and her staff rotate the flowering plants back and forth from museum to greenhouse, greenhouse to museum. Roses are cropped every six weeks or so, forcing new buds.

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