A roomful of hundreds of blooming orchids is always a spectacular sight. But Smithsonian Gardens has gone even further with its 28th annual orchid exhibition, held in the Kogod Courtyard between the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For the first time, the Smithsonian commissioned art to complement the showy natural display, selecting the work of 41-year-old Baltimore-based artist Phaan Howng. Howng hopes her art helps orchids become “the gateway drug for conservation.”

The Smithsonian’s annual orchid show is conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Botanic Garden. It will be on display only through April 28. The plants can spend only a short time outside of their ideal growing conditions: 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit with 65 to 80 percent humidity. Those conditions are maintained year-round at the Smithsonian’s 16,000-square-foot greenhouse in Suitland, Maryland, where the institution currently has about 5,000 orchid plants.

Polycycnis silvana in a cachepot created by Phaan Howng
Polycycnis silvana in a cache pot created by Phaan Howng Hannele Lahti

Justin Kondrat, lead horticulturist for the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, says the 28,000-square-foot Kogod Courtyard—which has a frosted-glass canopy ceiling—is an acceptable environment for the short term. Smithsonian Gardens employees will regularly maintain humidity and nutrients during the exhibition.

The annual show educates visitors about orchids’ precarious situation in some areas of the world. Orchids have been depleted by poaching in some regions, and changes in climate and habitat threaten many species. Without orchids—and their complex relationships with fungi and pollinators—entire ecosystems could collapse.

Howng’s artwork pays homage to the magic of the flowers with fantastical neon-colored cache pots, silk fabric tree-wraps and eight three-dimensional sculptures of a select group of orchids. Like the flowers themselves—whose spots or pouch-like lips lure in pollinators—Howng’s bright works are attractants. To construct the sculptures, she used 3D prints of plants in the Smithsonian Gardens collection, then mounted them onto a steel armature and base. They were then modified and finished with resin, resin foam, foam air dry clay, EVA foam and acrylic paint.

Paphiopedilum spicerianum in a cachepot created by Phaan Howng
Paphiopedilum spicerianum in a cache pot created by Phaan Howng Hannele Lahti

Some visitors will come for the art, says Kondrat, and also end up dazzled by the incredible diversity of the flowers. The orchid family (Orchidaceae) has at least 29,000 known species, with more constantly being discovered. The flowers are found around the globe everywhere except in Antarctica, says Kondrat. The largest diversity is in the tropics, though they are under the most threat there due to disappearing habitat.

Among the 1,000 plants that will eventually be part of the show—as new ones are brought in to replace those with faded blooms—will be the national flower of Guatemala, Lycaste virginalis f. alba, also known as Monja Blanca, or the “white nun.” “That is an orchid that is considered pretty rare in the trade and also in the wild,” says Kondrat.

The Monja Blanca is white, but Howng started with a 3D scan of the flower and then created her own imaginary species: a vivid pink, periwinkle and orange version, which she named Lycaste phaanalis after herself.

Paphiopedilum venustum var. measuresianum orchid
Paphiopedilum venustum var. measuresianum orchid U.S. Botanic Garden

The exhibition will also include Smithsonian Gardens’ gargantuan orchid “Bucky,” (Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis), a hundred-pound plant with four-foot-long leaves. Bucky has not been out of the greenhouse since it was donated in 2016. A grant made it possible for Smithsonian Gardens to build a special stand so Bucky could be safely transported and put on display without endangering the plant.

Visitors may have to shield themselves if Bucky blooms, however. The smell is akin to “hot garbage in July,” says Kondrat, who gives Bucky a 25 percent chance of blooming during the exhibition.

Another unique plant that will be on display: an Epicattleya Veitchii orchid that turns 134 years old this year. It was registered by England’s Royal Horticultural Society in 1890, says Kondrat.

closeup of orchid
Some 1,000 plants will eventually be part of the show. Hannele Lahti

Some of the orchids will be displayed in cache pots that Howng created. The colorfully patterned vessels represent the various growing mediums for orchids, some of which she was surprised to learn about. “I had no idea that they grow in rocks, and I feel like that’s something that people should know,” says Howng.

Orchids’ complex roles in the ecosystem are highlighted in several different flower beds. The fungi in their roots (known as mycorrhizae) provide nutrition to the orchids, and, in turn, the orchids provide the fungi with carbohydrates formed through photosynthesis. Scientists are studying those fungi to help determine which can best sustain various orchids. That research will make it easier to reintroduce threatened plants into the wild. Orchids also have an important relationship with bees, flies, mosquitos and other insects that transport pollen from one plant to another.

orchids in the Kogod Courtyard
The Smithsonian's mission with its orchid collection is to conserve, cultivate and curate the plants, while acquiring specimens of merit and diversity.  Hannele Lahti

Kondrat hopes visitors come away with the understanding that orchids are considered important enough to be part of the Smithsonian’s vast collection. The collection’s mission includes conservation, cultivating and curating the orchids, while acquiring plants of merit and diversity. The Smithsonian is also committed to managing risks of viruses and other threats, and educating the public through virtual and in-person displays and workshops, social media, and internships, often in collaboration with other institutions. A small percentage of the collection includes plants that have been designated vulnerable and endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Horticulturalists periodically refine the collection. “Every single collection item has to have a value,” says Kondrat. It can’t just be “taking up space.” Smithsonian Gardens aims to use appropriate and ethical collection techniques and safeguard the orchids for future generations and for scientific research and use, he says.

Every orchid at the Suitland greenhouse “is a living collection item,” he says, adding that it is given “the same level of care and same attention to detail as any of the portraits hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.”

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