The U.S. Botanic Garden might not be the first place you think of visiting in Washington, D.C., but maybe it should be! The garden’s annual orchid exhibit, on display through April 8, is part flower show, part scavenger hunt and part hands-on craft challenge.
Orchids (pronounced OR-kids) are found on every continent except Antarctica and are one of the two largest plant families, along with daisies.
The exhibit showcases thousands of colorful blooms, including some rarely seen orchids. As you poke around, follow a map and complete a seven-question quiz to earn an orchid stamp. And pick up a free “orchid-gami” kit at the front desk and make your own paper flower at home.
There are about 30,000 known orchid speciesand three times as many hybrids (what you get when you crossbreed different plants). New species and hybrids appear almost daily.
“Humans love to dabble and create,” said Devin Dotson, who oversees Botanic Garden exhibits.
Once a gift for royalty and the wealthy, orchids are now sold in grocery stores. Many growing in the wild, however, are listed as endangered or threatened. So if you see an orchid, whether on a nature trail or in someone’s garden, look but don’t touch.
Smelling is allowed, though. Go ahead, stick your nose in close. Some orchids smell sweet, others stink wickedly and some have no smell at all.
Did you know that vanilla is an orchid? “Who wouldn’t love a plant that produces vanilla?” said Lee Coykendall, the garden’s children’s education specialist.
Diversity is key to the orchid family’s appeal.
Many orchids grow in most weather conditions and different habitats. Some grow in the ground; others grow on trees. One species in Australia blooms underground and is pollinated by ants.
Insects and other pollinators move pollen grains from one plant to another to create new plants.
“Orchids spend a lot of effort on how to attract pollinators,” Coykendall said.
Many orchids rely on a single species of pollinator and may lure them with tricks. For example, the flowers might mimic the look of female bees or wasps to attract mates, or they might give off a nasty odor to lure flies.
The lady’s slipper orchid has a pouch that traps insects to make sure they pick up or leave some pollen before escaping.
Orchids come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Some even look like animals or people. If you divide the flower in two, top to bottom, the two sides are mirror images, like a human face. This is called bilateral symmetry. It results in orchids that look like monkeys, egrets, lions, owls and even a ballerina — which may be why we like orchids so much.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the photographer of the lady’s slipper orchid. She is Candice Turner. The story has been updated.
Edmond Albius was born a slave on an island in the Indian Ocean in 1829. Unschooled, he learned about plants on the plantation where he lived.
Vanilla orchids brought to the region from Mexico were not reproducing because they had no insect pollinators. Edmond invented a way to hand-pollinate the orchids quickly, using a stick and his thumb. His method soon spread to nearby islands. It’s still in use today.
When Edmond made his discovery, he was 12.
Learn more about orchids and make a cool plant-themed kite at the Botanic Garden on March 25 from 1 to 5 p.m. This free, drop-in event is good for all ages. Then fly your new kite on March 31 at the annual kite festival on the Washington Monument grounds, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The U.S. Botanic Garden is at 100 Maryland Avenue Southwest, near the U.S. Capitol.