For more than 20 years, the Smithsonian’s horticultural division and the United States Botanic Garden have pooled their impressive orchid collections to stage a show when we most need it: in the dead of winter.
The 2017 exhibit has just opened, but with a twist. Instead of holding it at the usual venues of the botanic garden’s Conservatory or the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the location has moved to the Mall’s most avant-garde art museum. “Orchids, A Moment” is staged at the Hirshhorn Museum. The raw geometry of the circular modernist museum may seem to make it an odd setting to showcase something as baroque as the exotic orchid, but the exhibition presents the orchid universe surprisingly well.
Unlike previous shows, the flowers are displayed in a wall of custom-made cubicles, curving in alignment with the Hirshhorn’s own geometry. The wall — think of an open backed bookcase some 15 feet high — provides 86 niches for approximately 100 specimen orchids.
Previous shows sought to display the orchids in approximations of their wild settings, but this year’s does something more powerful: With each plant framed, the orchids are seen as works of art, which surely they are.
The niche wall is white, the screen behind it is white and the cachepots for the orchids are white too. The whiteness allows the flowers to take center stage, said Stefan Gibson, the exhibition designer.
“We want people to see the beauty of each orchid,” said Barbara Faust, director of Smithsonian Gardens. “It’s all about how it affects you individually. That’s what we were trying to get over in the title, how it’s your moment with these orchids, whatever that may be.”
The exhibition is not for just a moment, however. It runs until May 14 and is the longest annual show so far. The orchids are replaced regularly to keep the display fresh, and the show’s span will give visitors a chance to see species that bloom in different months. (Both the Smithsonian and the botanic garden raise most of their orchids out of public view, in their respective off-site greenhouses.)
Apart from the obvious appeal of a taste of the tropical in winter, the show hopes to raise consciousness about the need for habitat conservation, Faust said.
It offers something else. In an age when breeding techniques have made the phalaenopsis or moth orchid the ubiquitous houseplant gift, the exhibition demonstrates that the world of orchids is far more diverse and beguiling than just this one orchid. The orchid family is one of the richest in the plant kingdom, with flower and plants in vastly different sizes, forms and colors. Each developed to grow in certain environmental conditions. Some have bulbs to survive periods of dormancy, some grow in swamps, others in the limbs of trees.
Consider the Bulbophyllum, whose swallowtail petals suggest a mysterious and sultry dancer, though she is more of a siren, drawing you close to a scent that is beyond foul.
The slipper orchids, or paphiopedilums, are observed in old, happy clumps, each full of gothic blooms that seem half-animal.
The cattleyas are in luscious velvet tones of crimson and blues.
The blooms are not labeled but linked to a digital map of the wall, which identifies each occupant of the niches.
I counted only eight phalaenopsis, and the ones on display are the type of rarer greenhouse grown specimens laden with multiple, long sprays.
The wall contains video screens showing timelapse pictures of orchids exploding into flower. But it’s the live specimens that steal the show.