Curator’s Corner

What’s In Bloom

There is always something interesting in bloom in the Smithsonian Orchid Collection and we love to display these plants for everyone to enjoy. We hope you’ll have a chance to see our exhibits in person, but for many that is impossibility. Therefore we are using this space to showcase our most beautiful and fascinating orchids to all who might be interested in them. This will also be a venue in which to show off plants that might not be suitable for exhibition (too miniature, too delicate or finicky, or extremely rare) but are still of interest to both the amateur and connoisseur. We hope you enjoy looking through our selection of ‘Greenhouse Stars’ as much as we enjoy sharing them with you.


Vanilla is more than an extract. It’s an orchid genus with over 100 species that was discovered by the Spanish in Mexico. The word ‘vanilla’ comes from the Spanish term vaina-meaning a pod or sheath. It was originally believed to have value only as a perfume. It wasn’t until Cortes arrived in 1519 that the Spaniards learned it was also a flavoring. By the end of the 16th century, the Spaniards had established factories to manufacture chocolate with vanilla flavoring; for many years the Spaniards had control of vanilla production.


The relatively large flowers of Vanilla planifolia form long “beans” (capsular fruits), but this occurs naturally only in the New World. Particular species of bees or hummingbirds are needed to cross- pollinate this orchid, so vanilla flowers in the Old World must be hand-pollinated. Until the late 19th century, Mexico had a monopoly on growing vanilla, but now Madagascar and Indonesia grow the majority of the world’s crop. This tall climbing monopodial herb is now widely distributed and cultivated throughout the tropics and subtropics of the world.

Vanilla is a labor intensive crop. When the bean capsules are still immature and green, they are harvested in the early morning, spread on woolen blankets in the sun, and then wrapped in the blankets during midday to ferment. They are stored overnight in metal-lined, air-tight boxes. This “sweating” process continues for weeks, until glucose in the bean is replaced with a hydrogen. Alternative methods include the use of scalding water and ovens. Vanilla is typically extracted in 35% ethanol; sugar or glycerin is added to preserve flavor and aroma. A kilogram of beans produces about 1.5 gallons of extract. About 170 chemicals have been isolated from vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla (vanillin) is manufactured either from clove oil (eugenol) or as a breakdown product of lignin from a conifer (e.g. spruce).

Section Divider


Curators Corner

Orchids have a reputation for being difficult to grow, but this is not always the case. Many orchids will thrive in a home greenhouse or on a windowsill. Cultural requirements vary from orchid to orchid. As a result, it is important to research your particular variety so that you can meet the needs. Some general guidelines to follow:

Root Media

The root media must allow for air and water to pass through. Do not use soil for orchids. Try: Peat Moss, Sphagnum Moss, Perlite, or Fir Bark Chips.


Not all orchids require high humidity though most orchids benefit from a more humid environment than a dry one. Check the variety to determine the optimal environment for it. Try placing orchid pots in a tray filled with gravel and water. The water will evaporate around the plants and create a more humid environment. Caution: do not group plants too closely together. Proper air circulation is a must.


Optimal temperature varies tremendously between different orchids. Generally, there are three categories: cool, intermediate, and warm.


Here too, there are three categories: high, medium, or low light orchids. The majority fall into the medium light range. This can be achieved inside, outside, or with natural or artificial light.


Always use water that's at room temperature (or slightly above) when watering your orchids. Never let the plants sit in a puddle of water for any length of time. Water evenly when the media is dry to the touch or the pot is light when picked up. Use fertilizer that is specifically formulated for orchids; make sure that it is applied in low concentrations or else it may burn the roots or leaves.

Pests & Diseases

Every disease or pest problem should be treated with materials specific to that condition. The most common pests are those that affect other houseplants including: aphids, mites, scale, and mealy bugs.

Section Divider

It is possible to have orchids blooming year round in your home. The following is a list of orchid genera that are labeled as “easy to grow.” Keep in mind, however, that not every species within a genera may fall into that category. Make sure to research your variety carefully so that you can achieve maximum success.