December 3, 2004

Smithsonian Exhibit Explores Orchid Lore

WASHINGTON (AP) -- An oversized model train speeds over the heads of visitors to guide them through 200 species of orchids.

Eight displays mounted among the lush blooms tell how the "king of fragrant plants" has evolved from one of the world's rarest flowers to a mass-consumption product.

"The kids love it," said Thomas Meranda, who is putting on "Orchid Express" for the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibition opens Saturday at the National Museum of Natural History.

The royal description goes back 2,500 years to the Chinese philosopher Confucius. He compared a roomful of its fragrance to having the acquaintance of good men. The Smithsonian has chosen to begin the story much later, in the early 1800s, when the orchid was brutally exploited.

"Collectors were dispatched to the far corners of the globe to collect orchids to be cultivated and sold in Europe," said a brief Smithsonian account of the flower in its announcement of the coming show.

"Fierce competition drove nurseries to such tactics as removing entire populations of orchids from their natural habitats, so that the valuable plants would be available from only one source."

The Smithsonian has published a book called "Ultimate Orchid" that provides a mass of detail on flowers, such as that Messrs. Loddiges set up London's first orchid nursery in 1812. It's among 45 different volumes on orchids on sale at a special gift shop.

The first of the eight Smithsonian displays shows how orchids were packed into barrels in South America for the long voyage to London.

Few Londoners who saw the strange plants, says the book, believed the note attached to one delicate-looking flower:

"It was hung up in the cabin without earth and continued to bloom during the greater part of the voyage home."

Another of the displays simulates an early greenhouse where botanists developed some of the 20,000 or more kinds of orchids that have been recorded.

The book tells how William Cattley got interested in a stiff, leathery plant from Brazil that the shipper found so sturdy that he used it to wrap other plants. Cattley coaxed it to bloom into a luxuriant flower with a tube-like center and an elaborately fringed lip.

Cattleyas were named in his honor. The Cattleya Alliance used to be favored in the United States as the expensive gift as a corsage that a schoolboy gave his date for the junior prom. The book points out that cattleyas also have been used as designs on china plates, candy boxes, even boxes for liquor bottles.

Merritt Huntington, who retired recently after 60 years in the Washington area flower industry, said cloning of orchids came to the united States from France in the 1960s.

Naming of new orchids after their discoverers still is customary.

In 2002 a Virginia collector bought an interesting plant from a roadside stand in Peru. Last month he was sentenced to a $1,000 fine and two years probation for bringing home an orchid protected by the Endangered Species Act.

U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, passing sentence in Tampa, Fla., said he didn't believe collector James Michael Kovach meant to break any law.

Kovach had taken his specimen to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Florida where it was formally published and named Phragmipedium kovachii. The scientific name refers to both Kovach and to the type of orchid popularly known as lady-slipper.

"The site where it was first found has been stripped of these orchids by unethical collectors, and it is now locally extinct," said a report from the Botanical Garden of the University of British Columbia. "Happily, a population been found elsewhere in a very remote location." The university did not name the place.

The government of Peru has been trying to get the name changed to identify the orchid's origin, but it may be destined to stick.

"There are international rules for this kind of naming, and to my knowledge there's no way to change a name once it's been scientifically given," said Robert Gabel, who heads the office dealing with international scientific matters at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Natural History Museum exhibit will be open until May 1. As elsewhere in the Smithsonian Institution, admission is free.


On the Net:

Smithsonian Institution Horticulture Service: