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Smithsonian Perspectives

The Smithsonian's gardens and greenery are things of beauty and delight as well as utility

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Visitors to the Smithsonian Institution plan their trips in anticipation of viewing the treasures inside our many museums and at the National Zoo. Some of our most significant treasures, however, are in plain view outside the museums-our gardens and plantings. I was surprised by them when I first came to the Smithsonian, and I am forever amazed by their beauty and their importance for the Institution and its visitors.

Most of the 170 acres that surround our Washington, D.C. museums and support centers are accessible to visitors and are managed with the same mission as the rest of the Smithsonian-for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge." To that end, the Institution has worked hard to create several living outdoor exhibitions. The hustle and bustle of Washington, D.C. is all around, but not inside these garden "rooms."

Many of the Smithsonian's staunchest donors have chosen to give to the gardens of the Smithsonian, leaving a legacy of beauty for all. Mrs. S. Dillon Ripley, the late wife of the Smithsonian Institution's eighth Secretary, started the Women's Committee of the Smithsonian Associates in 1966. As an honor to its founder, the Women's Committee funded a garden in Mary Livingston Ripley's name. Located between the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn Museum, this charming walkway with its 19th-century cast-iron fountain is bordered with plants the year round.

Another generous benefactor, Enid A. Haupt, made possible the splendid garden that bears her name. Ornamenting the south side of the Castle, this miniature park forms a courtyard between five museums and actually rests on the roofs of two of them. It offers the visitor a beautiful stroll from one museum to another, or a chance to savor the surroundings from one of the original or reproduction Victorian benches. The importance of this garden can be seen each day as hundreds of visitors and staff use this serene space.

We increasingly stress collaboration between museum staffs, and some of our best efforts are found in our gardens. The new Smithsonian Butterfly Habitat Garden, which runs the length of 9th Street between Madison Drive and Constitution Avenue, borders the east side of the National Museum of Natural History. A treat for the eye, this garden also teaches visitors about insect-plant interactions that occur in four different habitats or plant communities. The garden was designed using plants that native butterflies need to complete their life cycle. These are grouped in mini-habitats in the hope of attracting a wide assortment of local butterfly species.

It took a special kind of teamwork to design this complex "exhibit." The Smithsonian Horticulture Services Division tapped expertise from the Entomology and Exhibits departments of the National Museum of Natural History to create a synergy that had not existed before. The scientific knowledge needed to establish butterfly and plant lists, the technical expertise of the graphic interpretation designers, and the horticultural proficiency needed to create a living garden were all brought together with superb results.

Another Smithsonian organization that makes extensive use of interdisciplinary cooperation in its horticulture program is the National Zoological Park. Using a diverse selection of plants, the Zoo stresses natural settings and habitat development rather than formal gardens. The horticulture staff grows its own plants to enhance the environment for animals and visitors, as well as to feed the animals. For example, the Zoo grows 70 species of bamboo to provide the giant panda and the elephants with food while also re-creating the exotic surroundings of the panda's natural habitat. Trees are skillfully positioned to double as rubbing posts for animals, and abundant vines give animals such as the golden lion tamarins a place to climb. The animals eat the produce from the Zoo's vegetable garden as well as discarded flowers and prunings. Moreover, plants buffer the animal areas, beautifying the space and giving the animals more privacy.

In addition to the plants grown by the Zoo's horticulture staff for the park's use, still others are raised by the Horticulture Services Division to satisfy the needs around the Mall. All of the flowering plants that are used throughout the museum grounds and interiors are grown in 11 greenhouses located on the grounds of the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington, D.C. The greenhouses enable us to recycle and rejuvenate plants for a second life. For example, bulbs used this year in the indoor "Spring Bulb Show" at the Arts and Industries Building will be planted around the grounds. If we find ourselves with excess plants, they are given to Washington, D.C. school horticulture programs.

The greenhouses are also the home of the Smithsonian's unique Orchid Collection. Started by Mary Ripley initially for display purposes, the collection has evolved into a conservation project as well. In recognition of the expertise of horticulturist Cheyenne Kim, many orchids have been donated to the Smithsonian for "safekeeping" and propagation. Some 10,000 different types of orchids are cared for, one-third of which are species orchids. Many of these non-hybrids are endangered and may represent the only specimens in captivity. These are displayed for public enjoyment in glass cases at the National Museum of Natural History.

These beautiful interior and outdoor spaces create a network of retreats where visitors and staff alike can cleanse the mind and refresh the spirit. They deserve your attention the next time you pay a visit to the Smithsonian.

About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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