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Remembering Hurricane Katrina by Studying Marshes of the Future

Friday, 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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Extravaganza Eleganza: Orchids on the Fashion Runway

Tuesday, 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

Tuesday, 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

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

Thursday, 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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Medicine, Myth and the Lady’s Slipper Orchid

Friday, August 7th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

cypripedium-parviflorum-fl-garyvanvelsir_credit

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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Orchidelirium: The Flora That Make Us Crazy

Friday, August 7th, 2015
Ophrys_speculum_-_Bot._Reg._5_pl.370_(1819)

William Swainson probably painted this orchid sometime between 1789 and 1855.

by Chris Patrick

Legend says it all started with a single orchid bloom. This bloom, an accident, sparked a phenomenon so pervasive in Victorian England that its name, orchid delirium, was shortened to orchidelirium, a d excised to indicate the oneness of orchids and madness.

The story begins like this: In 1818, a man named William Swainson sent plants from Brazil to London, using what he believed to be parasitic plants as packing material. When the package arrived, one of the plants was in bloom. Its vivid hue and strange shape were unlike anything most European eyes had ever beheld in the way of flowers. Europe fell in love. And so began orchidelirium, the European obsession with orchids. Click to continue »

A Dark Gothic Secret: North American Orchids and Their Pollinators

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Have you ever been at a stop light and seen a butterfly sampling nectar from flowers in small container garden? Maybe you’ve seen bees darting flower to flower as you tend your garden. Or maybe, as you walk the city streets, you see other insects whizzing about the flowering weeds that struggle to survive in the cracks of our concrete jungle. Based on these experiences, you might think that flowers only get pollinated during the day. Here’s a secret, and it’s a dark, gothic secret: Pollination also occurs under the veil of night. Some plants, like orchids and their pollinators, live a life less ordinary.

The majority of North American orchids are pollinated during the daytime. But there are a few special orchids that are part of the pollination graveyard shift. In North America, the rare Ghost Orchid, Cranefly Orchid, Tall White Bog Orchid, Dingy Flowered Star Orchid and most of the orchids in the genus Platanthera are special orchids that are pollinated at night.

Orchids of the Goth World_credits

Created by Heather Soulen/SERC

Watch: First sighting of night-time pollination of the elusive Ghost Orchid

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Volunteer Spotlight: SERC Nest Box Monitors

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015
bluebox_MattStorms

A bluebird in a nest box.
(Matt Storms)

by Caroline Kanaskie

The Bluebird Project is one of my big focuses as the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) citizen science intern. While organizing and analyzing data collected by citizen scientists, I can’t help but imagine the countless hours spent walking the trail between nest boxes from March to September that created this robust data set.

I want to show my appreciation by highlighting three wonderful volunteers involved with the Bluebird Project: Annie Johnson, Judy Bissett, and Dave Gillum. Click to continue »

Tracking the Bay’s Cownose Rays

Friday, July 31st, 2015

by Chris Patrick

Rob Aguilar operates on a cownose ray. (SERC)

Rob Aguilar operates on a cownose ray. (SERC)

It’s 2 a.m. Rob Aguilar, biologist in the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab, meets a group of fishermen at a pound net in the Patuxent River. The net starts at the shore and juts far into the river. Fish traveling along the shore collide with the net and follow its length into a heart-shaped net at the end—the pound.

Today, the pound contains cownose rays. Not ideal for fishermen, but exactly what Aguilar wants. Last summer SERC researchers and collaborators surgically implanted acoustic tags in 31 rays to track their migration. This summer, they’re tagging 20 to 25 more rays from Maryland rivers.

Though native to the East and Gulf Coasts, much about cownose rays remains mysterious. Many fishermen and oyster growers consider rays a nuisance because they eat shellfish and travel in schools in the hundreds.

“The main conflict seems to be between guys who fish for oysters—especially aquaculture oysters because there’s a lot of money in that—and these rays they perceive as potentially eating up their profits,” says Matthew Ogburn, ecologist in the Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab. Click to continue »