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Orchid Traditions Bloom in Exhibit

The fragrance on the first floor of the National Museum of Natural History is hard to ignore.

Follow it, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by hues of yellow and white, pink and purple, green and orange.

The bright colors come from the museum’s new exhibit, “Orchids: A View From the East.” 

About 9,000 orchids, all grown specifically for the exhibit, will be displayed over the course of three months. To keep the blooms fresh and the exhibit fragrant, the flowers are switched out twice a week.

The annual exhibit got its start 16 years ago with a partnership between the Smithsonian Gardens and the Botanic Garden (the two alternate hosting the exhibit each year). The original goal was to bring orchid awareness to the public.

“It’s been bigger and better every year since,” Smithsonian Gardens horticulturist Melanie Pyle said.

The idea for this year’s theme, based on the way that Chinese culture values orchids as symbols of nobility, friendship and refinement, came when Smithsonian orchid specialist Tom Mirenda went to the Taiwan International Orchid Show two years ago. While China has become the biggest exporter of orchids in recent years, Mirenda noticed the reverence surrounding the plant. And that led him to propose that the Chinese tradition be the center of a future exhibit.

The end result is this year’s theme, which begins with a look at how the Chinese treated orchids several centuries ago. A moon gate, which is a traditional entrance to a classic Chinese garden, leads to a display of what a tea room and a scholar’s study would look like. Each prominently feature orchids, partly to show their importance to ancient culture and partly to show off the plants.

To re-create the rooms, the Smithsonian Gardens worked with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the National Arboretum. The prints hanging on the wall are copies of art hanging in the Sackler, while some of the furniture comes from the arboretum.

The wall hangings each feature some artistic take on an orchid, though they little resemble the flowers that one would buy at a grocery store today. Instead, these plants display long green leaves that produced strong fragrances. One piece, emphasizing those leaves, has Chinese characters written along its edges; the translations reads, “The scent remains.”

Around the bend, another arrangement gives a sense of what a Chinese scholar’s garden may have looked like. Since most scholars lived in cities, they often felt they had lost touch with nature. They would grow orchids and arrange them with bonsai to add a touch of nature to their urban life.

The Chinese also found other uses for orchids besides decoration. The plants, for instance, were used as medicine, particularly for sleep and anxiety. The ingredients on display were actually found in Chinatown in Washington, D.C., showing that this particular use has continued over the years.

The final part of the exhibit introduces the visitor to the modern orchid contests that originally inspired the exhibit’s theme. The large display is modeled after what would be found at the Taiwan International Orchid Show.

To add to the experience, the Smithsonian Gardens made its own judging station. Visitors can read about how different orchids are judged based on their characteristics and how horticulturists determine which are the best plants. The garden has even provided QR codes, or barcodes that can be read by smart phones, that link to videos of orchid specialist Mirenda explaining the judging process in more detail.

From there, three orchids are on display, and the guests vote for which they think is the best.

To Mirenda, there’s more to the allure of orchids than their beauty and their fragrance.

“All throughout history, they were used for fertility and as aphrodisiacs,” he said. “They have more personality than other flowers. There’s a human element that we recognize.”

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