Remembering Hurricane Katrina by Studying Marshes of the Future

Posted by KristenM on August 28th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

The Need for Healthy Marshes

Ten years ago, on August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina nicked south Florida and entered the heat-charged waters of the Gulf of Mexico, transforming from a Category 1 hurricane into a super-charged Category 5. In the early morning hours of August 29, it ripped through Louisiana and Mississippi. Thousands died, and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Today, much of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, and its people, are still recovering from the devastation.

When Katrina hit, some coastal marshes east of the Mississippi River lost approximately 25 percent of their area. In the decade that followed, salt marshes and wetlands in Louisiana have continued to disappear in some places, but not others. The scientific community soon zeroed in on keeping marshes healthy, since, as one scientist remarked “A healthy marsh is pretty resilient, A stressed marsh – storms will physically break the marsh down.” Marshes and wetlands are ecologically and economically important ecosystems. During storms they act like buffers, reducing storm surge and flood damage, but only if they’re healthy. The question is, what factors make a marsh strong or weak?
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Bucket Buffets Divulge Deer Preferences

Posted by KristenM on August 21st, 2015
Lisa Koetke prepares a motion-activated camera for another trial. (Lisa Koetke)

Lisa Koetke prepares a motion-activated camera. (Courtesy of Lisa Koetke)

by Chris Patrick

Imagine a swimming creature. It holds an antlered head above the water as its skinny, hooved legs tread underneath. A black stripe runs from its head to its tail, outlining a waggling white rump, revealing it to be a sika deer.

In 1916, a man named Clemment Henry released between four and six sika (the number isn’t certain) for hunting on James Island, off Maryland’s Eastern Shore. But it turns out sika are great swimmers—by 1962 they migrated to the Delmarva Peninsula and they now occupy every county of the lower Eastern Shore. Click to continue »


Reading the Tea Leaves

Posted by KristenM on August 20th, 2015

The newest climate change research tool may be in your pantry

Lisa Schile in a marsh in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Lisa Schile.)

Lisa Schile in a marsh in San Francisco.
(Courtesy of Lisa Schile)

by Chris Patrick

Tea bags are no longer merely a means of brewing an aromatic beverage. They’ve now found purchase in environmental research, providing a more efficient way to measure how fast things decay—and how well wetlands store carbon.

Lisa Schile, a postdoc in the biogeochemistry lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), said she’s a “guinea pig” for tea bag research. Schile puts tea bags into wetlands not because she’s vying for the record of World’s Largest Cup of Tea, but because tea bags are essentially mini litter bags, buried mesh sacks of leaves and other plant parts that tell researchers how fast plants decompose in an area. Click to continue »


Extravaganza Eleganza: Orchids on the Fashion Runway

Posted by KristenM on August 18th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Last year, Pantone chose Radiant Orchid as their 2014 color of the year. Pantone is the authority on color. Their color choice affects a variety of industries from fashion and make-up to home interiors (e.g. paint, upholstery, etc.). Once again orchids have sashayed their way into our everyday lives and in very big ways. Journey with us as we explore just a few fabulously fierce fashion pop-cultural orchid moments.

Christian Dior’s to Die for Couture:Paris Haute Couture Autumn/Winter

Belgian designer Raf Simons joined fashion power house Christian Dior in 2012. Just two years later at the 2014 Paris Haute Couture fashion show, he wowed the audience with walls dripping with 150,000 live orchids and an equally jaw-dropping runway collection of embroidered blooms and floral-inspired silhouettes. The Fashion Channel said the show felt “divine and ethereal, with models resembling graceful nymphs walking elegantly in an antiseptic white circular Olympus with silver walls adorned with pristine white orchids.” C’est bon! We don’t think we could have said it any better!

Watch: 2014 Christian Dior Paris Haute Couture Show

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Bubblegum Pop to Punk and Heavy Metal: Orchids’ Mark on Music

Posted by KristenM on August 18th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Image: Jack White (Bill Ebbessen)

Jack White performing on Orange Stage in Denmark 
(Bill Ebbessen)

Research shows that music affects our brains and our bodies. It can make us laugh, cry, give us chills, empathize and remember events or single seemingly fleeting moments that we’ve long forgotten. When it hits the right cords, music can increase heart rate, dilate pupils, increase body temperature and release the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical which plays an important role in our brains, particularly the reward centers of the brain. The same has been said about orchids, the hunt for orchids and in Victorian era, the eroticism surrounding orchids.

Since the 1960s, there have been several musical groups, albums and songs with orchid-centric names or themes. Journey with us as we explore how orchids have conquered music pop-culture.

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What Would Orchid Do? 7 Life Lessons from the Plant Kingdom

Posted by KristenM on August 17th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

WhatWouldOrchidDo_Cypripediumreginae_DaveMcAdooThere’s a reason orchids are called the smartest plants on Earth. Several, in fact, and not all of them good. Some orchids can be crafty, devious pretenders, using their fragrance to trick insects into pollinating them but giving no nectar in return (we’re looking at you, Dragon’s Mouth and Fairy’s Slipper). But most lessons from the orchid world are more encouraging. Many remain beautiful in winter and thrive after fire. In the final days of the semifinals of the Smithsonian Showdown, we’ve adopted a new motto: What Would Orchid Do? After all, they have been around for 80 million years. Any species that survived from the age of the dinosaurs has to have done something well.

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Smashing Logs to Uncover a Body-Snatcher’s Secrets

Posted by KristenM on August 14th, 2015

Darin Rummel smashes a stick against the dock. (SERC)

by Chris Patrick

Darin Rummel, intern in the marine invasions lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), raises a piece of wood twice the length of his arm and slams it onto a dock in the Patuxent River at Greenwell State Park in Hollywood, Md.

The soggy stick crumbles and a white-fingered mud crab scurries from the wreckage. Rummel adds the crab to a modest collection in a Tupperware container and raises the stick above his head again. Connor Hinton, another marine invasions lab intern, wades into a cove of muddy water in search of more crab-concealing wood. Click to continue »


Sexy, Scandalous and Dangerous: Orchids in Pop-Culture Literature

Posted by KristenM on August 13th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Photo by Kristen Minogue

Photo by Kristen Minogue

“Orchids aren’t just pretty. And a lot of them aren’t even pretty at all. But they are sexy, and that’s really one of the things that makes them unusual among flowers. It was believed that orchids sprang up wherever animals had been mating. And in Victorian England, women weren’t allowed to have orchids because the form of them was thought to be too erotic and too sexual, and it would be too much for a woman to bear, having a flower that sexual in her possession.”
-Susan Orlean, transcripts from NOVA’s
“Orchid Hunter”

There’s no denying, orchids are pretty darn sexy plants. And it because of their sex appeal, they’ve sashayed their way into just about every aspect of pop-culture. They’ve glammed their way into movies, TV, music, fashion and literature, and we didn’t even realize the spell they cast until it was too late. Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, we didn’t even realize how inescapable they are in our world. Here we explore a few examples of how orchids deftly made their way into pop-culture literature.

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Orchids: Lullabies and Limericks

Posted by KristenM on August 10th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Orchids are cunning little creatures. They create elaborate ruses to puzzle insects, fungi and even (or especially) biologists. Here are a few poems we composed to honor the smartest plants on Earth.

Image: Dragon's Mouth Orchids, Arethusa bulbosa (Credit: Gary Van Velsir)

Dragon’s Mouth Orchids , Arethusa bulbosa (Gary Van Velsir)

Twinkle Orchid

Twinkle, twinkle, little orchid

Let’s get mycorrhiza sorted

Roots with fungus help supply

Sugar and nutrients to make you spry

Twinkle, twinkle, little orchid

Let’s get mycorrhiza sorted


A mycorrhiza is a kind of fungus that grows on orchid roots. In this relationship, the orchid receives water, sugar and nutrients from fungus, and the fungus receives nearly nothing in return. Check out this orchid life cycle poster for more details: Click to continue »


Medicine, Myth and the Lady’s Slipper Orchid

Posted by KristenM on August 7th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue


An old Ojibwe legend tells of a village visited by plague. It was the dead of winter and many died, including the village healer. To save the community, a young girl made a dangerous journey through the snow to find medicine for the sick. She succeeded, but on the way lost her moccasins, leaving a trail of bloody footprints in the snow. When spring arrived, the bloody footprints put forth moccasin flowers—better known today by their Western name, the lady’s slippers.

Origin stories of the lady’s slipper orchid exist among many Native American tribes, and the details change. (Were the flowers yellow or pink? Did she make the journey in place of her sick husband? Did the flowers come from her footprints, or the bandages on her feet?) But at the root lies a more basic question: What was so important about this orchid?

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