I don’t have much of a green thumb — cutting grass for neighbors as a teenager was as close as I got to taking care of living plants — but I can still be rendered speechless by the beauty of an orchid. The bright, fantastic colors, the intricately shaped petals — it’s no wonder that some people are prepared to pay large sums of money for the rarest specimens.
Through April 28, hundreds of varieties of orchids are on display in the Kogod Courtyard, between the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, as part of the 24th annual orchid exhibition, a collaboration between Smithsonian Gardens and the U.S. Botanic Garden. This is the first time the orchids have been shown in the Kogod, and it’s one of the more subtle exhibitions in recent years, especially compared with the one at the Hirshhorn in 2017, which displayed the plants as objets d’art, filling bookcase-like cubbies in the museum’s lobby, complete with sped-up films of blooms opening.
Instead, here, orchids fill the eight large marble planters, arranged in a “naturalistic setting” that includes fake trees and non-orchid plants from the Smithsonian Gardens’ vast collection. Each bed reflects a topic, such as how orchids have evolved to grow on trees or other plants, or how they “disguise” themselves to trick pollinators, under the rubric of “Amazing Adaptations.”
That overarching theme “allows us to display the largest portion of our collection,” explains Justin Kondrat, the lead horticulturist for the Smithsonian Gardens’ orchid collection. Because much of the collection is kept off public view in greenhouses in Suitland, Md., this is the Smithsonian’s chance to show off prized plants.
There are around 28,000 species, making orchids the second-largest family of flowering plants on Earth, and the juxtaposition of flowers from across the world is Kondrat’s favorite part of the exhibition: “Walking through, all of these orchids are next to each other, so you can compare and contrast the diversity of size, color and shape,” he says. “What’s so beautiful is that there’s so much diversity, but they’re still all classified as orchids."
The Kogod Courtyard comes with one particular benefit for the plants: the undulating glass roof overhead. “Never have we had so much natural light,” says Melanie Pyle, the lead horticulturist for the exhibition. Orchids are notoriously finicky flowers — Kondrat calls them “the divas of the plant world” — and in previous years, Smithsonian horticulturalists might have changed out 100 to 125 of the plants every week. So far this year, Pyle says they’re changing about 50, though there are plenty of highlights to come: “There’s a few that haven’t started to show themselves just yet,” Kondrat says. Visitors haven’t yet met Darwin’s Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale), named for the naturalist who hypothesized that it was pollinated by an then-unknown moth. (Decades after his death, he was proved correct.)
On the other hand, the exhibition can get lost and sometimes feel overwhelmed in the spacious courtyard, which is a popular place for local office workers to have lunch in the cafe, or just take a break. Tourists and school groups sit or lie down on the wide lips of the marble planters, chatting and scrolling through their phones. Pyle has heard comments from orchid lovers that this is less of an intimate setting than in previous years. It can be hard to see or photograph a flower up close without invading the personal space of someone who’s stretched out to read ― not to pay attention to what’s on display.
The trade-off is that, if you’re lucky, you can sit next to a blossom that catches your eye and enjoy it from inches away. “People ask, how can you leave them so close to the public?” Pyle says. “But that’s how you let the public appreciate them: by making them so close.” (And no, she says, in 24 years, no one has ever walked off with one.)
For the most enjoyment, Kondrat suggests visiting as soon as the museum opens, since some of the orchids give off scents to attract pollinators in the morning, or waiting until late afternoon or evening: “When the museum quiets down, some of the orchids will pop."
“Orchids: Amazing Adaptations” is open from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through April 28 in the Kogod Courtyard, inside the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Family day, which includes arts and crafts activities and live music, is April 6 from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.