When you live in a city you sometimes forget how beautiful nature can be. You’ll also forget nature is not just grass and a couple of trees. Luckily, during these cold months, the National Museum of Natural History has an indoor exhibit featuring Orchids from all over the world. This is the Museum’s 20th annual Orchid exhibit and this year’s theme is Interlocking Science and Beauty. Thousands of orchids will rotate through this exhibit, giving flower lovers plenty to see over the next few months.
The exhibit contains an excellent history of the orchid; details what kinds of orchids were popular and why during certain time periods and offers a brief history of greenhouses and basic growing techniques used by orchid collectors. The exhibit also displays some beautiful orchid hybrids.
Growing and transporting orchids has always been a challenge and that may be part of their mystique. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that orchids became transportable over anything resembling a long distance. They grow so selectively in environments that suit their particular needs that overseas travel was impossible due to the negative effects of an orchid’s exposure to oceanic air. However, in insert date here something called a Wardian Case was invented--a glass case that recycled moisture through condensation, retained the plant’s original soil, and let in light. Previously, orchids could only be studied as pressed plants or from field notes and illustrations. This invention led to the “orchid boom” that developed in Europe and America.
The scientific part of the exhibit was equally fascinating. Wild orchids are interdependent, relying on specific soil, temperature and animal pollinators found in their particular environment which is why they grow in such diverse places all over the world. Of particular importance to the orchid, as well as your word of the day, is Mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi help deliver nutrients to the root system of the orchid allowing it to survive in environments other flowers would not be able to. It also plays a key part in orchid conservation.
There are also some new technological advancements allowing for the further study and preservation of orchids. 3D scanners and printers are now being used to create models to study the structure of the plant without risk of damage to the delicate flowers. Scanning electronic microscopes (SEMs) allow the smallest details including those not visible to the naked eye to be seen and studied. Ultraviolet (UV) light is now used because it “reveals special petal patterns, hidden to our eyes but visible to insects, which guide pollinators to nectar rewards.” Genetic modifications have even been made to orchids to give them a specific desired trait, although purists consider these to be “frankenflowers.”
You will be able to smell the exhibit before you actually reach it. The smell is absolutely wonderful and I swear that one yellow orchid smelled exactly like a box of Fruit Loops. Practically every color is on display and the true beauty of the flower is revealed when you look at it up close. There is a family day on Saturday, February 21st and the exhibit will only be here until April 26th. If you cannot make it to the Museum, there is a lovely 3D tour of the Smithsonian’s Embreea orchid that will give you a closer look at every dimension of the flower.