Horticulturalist Virginia Thaxton stands among plants she cares for at the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse. Thaxton helped put together the orchid exhibit the Smithsonian puts on with the U.S. Botanic Garden. The exhibit is open until April 28 at the Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. (Seema Reza)

During the recent government shutdown, Smithsonian horticulturist Virginia Thaxton continued to work. She walked into the closed, dimly lit, empty museums once a week.

“It was eerie,” she said of walking alone among the artifacts in the usually bustling buildings.

Thaxton also kept up her work at the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse, preparing for the annual Smithsonian Gardens and United States Botanic Garden (USBG) orchid exhibition, where hundreds of orchids are on display. The shutdown delayed the exhibition by only two weeks, because the horticulturists, gardeners and technicians were still working hard to keep the orchids and other rare plants healthy.

Both the Smithsonian and USBG have huge greenhouses that mimic the light, temperature and humidity of the plants’ native environments. The greenhouses are long, rectangular glass buildings that open into bays (hallways) large enough to drive a truck into so plants can be moved without being exposed to the elements.

U.S. Botanic Garden volunteer Todd Brethauer talks with a visitor at the 2018 open house at the USBG Production Facility. This year’s open house is March 9. Kids can also see the facility if they join the junior botanist program. (Andre Dahlman/U.S. Botanic Garden)

Thaxton has been working with rare plants at the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse for years.

“There are at least two horticulturists working in the greenhouses 365 days a year,” she said.

In addition to 8,000 orchid plants, the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse in Suitland, Maryland, produces the plants inside and around all Smithsonian museums. There’s even a special greenhouse for the nectar-source plants that feed the butterflies in the butterfly pavilion at the National Museum of Natural History.

The USBG Production Facility has about 4,000 orchids in three greenhouses. It includes a section devoted to carnivorous (meat-eating) plants and plant species that are extinct in the wild.

The USBG sends plant waste to be composted and then brought back to the facility to be used.

The Smithsonian uses some fertilizer but not poop from the National Zoo. Why not? The zoo animals don’t digest everything completely, so manure is full of seeds, which sprout and cause confusion between what was planted and what’s leftover from the animals.

The Smithsonian facility isn’t open to the public. But USBG opens its 85,000-square-foot (nearly two acres under glass) production facility in Southwest Washington to the public for one day each year. This year’s open house is March 9. You have to reserve tickets, and they usually sell out in advance. For a private tour, you can become a junior botanist by following the steps on the USBG website, which includes activities to do at the conservatory and at home.

Thaxton said one of her favorite things about working with orchids in warm, humid greenhouses is that the setting reminds her of her native Colombia. That’s an extra selling point for touring USBG’s facility. It’s a tropical escape without leaving Washington.

Desert plants are on view at the 2018 open house at the U.S. Botanic Garden’s Production Facility. (Andre Dahlman/U.S. Botanic Garden)
Learn more

●Get behind the scenes at the U.S. Botanic Garden Production Facility’s open house March 9 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4700 Shepherd Parkway in Southwest Washington. Reservations required. $10 per person. A parent can find out more at learn.usbg.gov.

●See the U.S. Botanic Gardens and Smithsonian Gardens free orchid exhibition through April 28. It’s at the Kogod Courtyard between the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery Eighth and F streets in Northwest Washington. Find out more at gardens.si.edu/whats-happening/orchids-adaptations.

●The Junior Botanist Program is open to kids ages 9 and older. Get details at usbg.gov/become-junior-botanist.