In honor of April, a.k.a. National Orchid Month, I wanted to share some insights about the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection and our innovations in the management of living collections. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

The Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection (SGOC) began in 1976 with a bequest from philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post, which expanded into a sizeable collection with support from Mary Livingston Ripley, the wife of the Smithsonian’s eighth Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley. Today, this collection includes more than 5,000 plants and occupies 16,000 square feet of greenhouse space with growing zones for seasonal cool-, intermediate-, and warm-growing orchids. The American Public Gardens Association (APGA) has designated SGOC a Nationally Accredited Plant Collection thanks to it being an essential scientific research and educational resource and a repository that helps preserve orchid biodiversity.

With thousands of specimens in the collection, keeping the orchids thriving while adhering to the highest standards of curatorial management associated with the Smithsonian is no simple task. Over the past few years, five guiding principles have been established for the collection: Conservation, Outreach, Display, Innovation, and Education (CODIE).


Caring for an ex-situ conservation collection (that is, a collection made up of components moved from their original location), Smithsonian Gardens’ (SG) strives to safeguard the biodiversity, biocultural connections, and historical significance of orchids by maintaining a collection baseline of 75% species and 25% hybrids. Our collecting priorities are geared towards species from tropical North America, U.S. Territories, South America, the Caribbean, and Central America. We acquire several new plants each year and enhance them with detailed scientific records, including information about their collecting location and source. To ensure that we protect species that have been designated with known conservation status, we refer to a list created by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as we try to add globally threatened species for biodiversity conservation, scientific research, display, and education purposes. SG currently fosters strategic partnerships with other botanical institutions to share our methodology and exchanges duplicate plant material with collaborators across the U.S. In addition, we hold materials confiscated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and actively seek to share them with other CITES holders. To ensure the safety of the collection and germplasm preservation, we have created very stringent handling protocols to protect each orchid from various pathogens such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi.


Over the last 50 years, horticulturists responsible for caring for SGOC have amassed tremendous orchid care knowledge and built up an extensive network with whom we can share best practices in collections management, facilities, collection holdings, and educational programs. Much of our outreach involves hosting meetings and trainings for professional colleagues on issues relating to living collection care. Recently, Smithsonian Gardens has started to lead a national effort to inventory the holdings of over 27 botanical/public garden orchid collections for the Plant Collections Network (PCN), an APGA initiative.


With over 28,000 naturally occurring orchid species known to science and numerous person-made hybrids, there truly is an orchid out there for everyone. The incredible diversity of the orchid family, Orchidaceae, is astonishing, and collections like SGOC help to reinforce the urgency to study and protect these botanical gems as orchids have closely interwoven connections within so many ecosystems as well as different aspects of science and culture.

While only portions of the Orchid Collection can be displayed at any given time due to varying blooming dates and other factors, we aim to provide regular opportunities for the public to see diverse plants from the collection.

For over a quarter century, Smithsonian Gardens and the United States Botanic Garden have joined forces to host a joint orchid exhibition or show to showcase our collection holdings. Each spring, visitors can engage in all things orchids with a handsome display tied to an overarching theme. Additionally, thematic pop-ups and orchid display cases at some Smithsonian museums enable visitors to enjoy orchids throughout the year. With such diversity in form and color, orchids represent some of the most captivating species in the plant world. By regularly displaying our collection, we hope to encourage visitors to learn more about orchids and the threats facing them and take action to safeguard them.


As stewards of a living collection, Smithsonian Gardens is always looking for ways to improve its horticultural and collections management practices through advancements in plant sciences, conservation, and engineering. By testing both established and new methods, we can ensure that SGOC always retains relevance and can be used to advance our understanding of orchid growing, display, and conservation. From reducing plastic waste by switching to compostable gloves to experimenting with bio-based fertilizers, we are called upon to be inventive for the good of our collection and the wider world.


The use of SGOC for educational purposes is one of the most effective ways of inspiring future generations and making sure that they can continue to enjoy orchids. How are you supposed to protect something you know nothing about?  SG has incorporated education into all aspects of the collection to ensure that no opportunity for engagement is overlooked. We use social media as a tool to share a wide range of content to engage a global audience. From video clips to online lectures and demonstrations, the ability to reach visitors happens with a simple click. Apart from delighting audiences with collection items in-person, SG has put extraordinary effort into digitizing each plant in the Orchid Collection by photographing and describing them. This allows anyone to view and enjoy all that our collection offers through SG’s online plant catalog. To foster the next generation of collection stewards, SG has offered a robust internship program for decades that enables one or two students each year to gain hands-on experience caring for and managing an orchid collection.

Gosh, that was a lot, and believe me, there is so much more! In a nutshell, our beloved Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection offers more than just flamboyant blooms. This collection provides hope, joy, and inspiration for anyone who ventures into the world of orchids.

Exhibition team with Secretary Lonnie Bunch after a tour of Orchids: Hidden Stories of Groundbreaking Women and the debut of Smithsonian namesake orchid: × Rhyncattleanthe Smithsonian Sunburst 175th.

Banner image: Stelis-papaquerensis

Photographer: Hannele Lahti