Cultivating Delight

 A horticulture student tending to plants
Wikimedia Commons

The earliest Smithsonian would be!

Horticulture Services was established as a separate division of the Smithsonian only three decades ago. Besides attending to the design and management of the museums’ exterior landscapes, it furnishes plants and flowers that, in effect, finish the interiors. It’s on call as well for dinners, receptions and lectures, which on a typical day can require the delivery and removal of hundreds of plants. There’s a scholarly component too. The division’s Archives of American Gardens, a collection of approximately 80,000 photographic images—among them, 3,000 hand-colored lantern slides—and other materials, including architectural drawings, documents the design of American gardens from 1920 to the present and thereby safeguards the history of an important element of our cultural heritage.

Of course, the most visible—and formidable—accomplishment of Horticulture Services has been the transformation of the Smithsonian’s landscape. The Institution’s Washington museums are surrounded by approximately 180 acres of lawns, trees, formal gardens, planters and decorative displays. There are four acres of planters around the National Air and SpaceMuseum alone, and there will be 27,000 plants around the new NationalMuseum of the American Indian when it opens in 2004. The staff of the division face challenges you would expect, such as keeping the vast acreage properly watered, with the help of a computer that monitors the complex irrigation system, and others you might not, such as rat control. What they accomplish is all the more remarkable because the Smithsonian’s great diversity of plants and flowers originates in 11 greenhouses (several of them looking antique enough to be part of our museum collections) on a site leased by the Institution in northeast Washington.

Orchids are a particular glory of Horticulture Services. There are more than 25,000 naturally occurring species of orchids in the world and at least four times that number of hybrids. The astonishing variety in the flower is part of its fascination. The Smithsonian’s orchid collection began with 5 plants in 1974 and now numbers more than 10,000 specimens, including rare and endangered species and those with flowers so small—hardly larger than a kernel of corn—that you would never take them for orchids. The division’s handiwork will be on spectacular display once again this winter when the ninth annual orchid show, cosponsored with the U.S. Botanic Garden, opens on the Mall on January 18, 2003. For four months, the familiar interior of the Arts and IndustriesBuilding will become an exotic garden, with its own population of butterflies.

To say, as Shakespeare does, that "Adam was a gardener" is to give the occupation the lineage it deserves. Of course after paradise, the practice of making the earth bloom—out of necessity and delight—became hard work. Our staff continue that practice daily and so successfully that any resident of Eden might feel right at home here too.

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