“Orchids: A View from the East” Opens This Weekend at Natural History

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For the last 17 years, the Smithsonian Gardens and the United States Botanic Garden have teamed up to host an annual orchid exhibition. And, each year, says Tom Mirenda, a museum specialist for the Smithsonian Orchid Collection, "We try to have a different aspect of orchidology that we feature."

To the non-expert, it might seem like the theme would have quickly exhausted itself. But one conversation with Mirenda and you realize that orchids are remarkably diverse.

The plant family is one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world (some say the daisy family is a contender), and some 300 or 400 new species are discovered each year. They are extremely adaptable and are therefore found in habitats across the globe. Not to mention, says Mirenda, "They engage in something that you would almost have to call behavior." When a pollinator lands on a hammer orchid, for example, the Australian flower uses its lip, a modified petal, as a cantilever to bonk the insect on its back and deposit pollen. A bucket orchid nearly drowns bees in its lip, full of liquid, before letting them out through an escape hatch in the back of the flower, where the pollen is conveniently located.

And, oddly enough, tiny orchids called lepanthes are structured in a way that resembles the female genitalia of fruit flies and fungus gnats, so poor, confused male insects attempt to mate with the flowers and spread pollen in the process. "There are lots of weird and wonderful things," says Mirenda. "I could go on and on."

This year's exhibition "Orchids: A View from the East," opening Saturday, January 29, at the National Museum of Natural History, explores how the plant has been revered and cultivated in China for centuries. The show, featuring more than 200 live orchids from the Smithsonian's collection, opens with a garden modeled after those that Chinese scholars grew 500 years ago. Displays inform visitors about how orchids were used in Chinese medicines and as status symbols in Chinese art. Then, the exhibition finishes with a bold, colorful display of orchids, like those popular today in Taiwan, where the flowers are genetically manipulated and produced in mass quantities.

"Orchids: A View from the East" is on view through April 24. An Orchid Exhibit Family Day, when visitors can talk with experts, take their picture with a life-sized orchid and pot their own plant to take home, is scheduled for Saturday, February 26. A companion show, "The Orchid in Chinese Painting," is currently open at the Sackler Gallery through July 17, 2011.

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