The future of orchids is lush, bold, inspiring, and something that we can realize together. This year’s orchid exhibit, The Future of Orchids: Conservation and Collaboration, takes visitors on a deep dive into the weird and wild world of orchids, highlighting large-scale artworks that invite visitors to imagine the future of orchids, and sharing how we can all work together for orchid conservation.  

     With an estimated 30,000 species, the Orchidaceae family is one of the largest and most diverse families in the plant kingdom.  Orchids’ clever adaptations include bright colors, showy patterns, and unexpected forms that entice pollinators, foster genetic diversity, and improve the plants’ ability to survive.  As each species has adapted to its unique habitat and pollinators, the orchid family has grown to include wildly varying species: everything from Angraecum magdalanae which emits a spicy fragrance at night to attract nocturnal hawk moths, to Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis with its gargantuan seven-foot-long leaves and stinky flowers that smell like rotting meat to attract flies for pollination.

Cache pots for orchids in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Hannele Lahti, photographer.
Cache pots for orchids in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Hannele Lahti, photographer.

     The Future of Orchids celebrates the diversity of orchids within Smithsonian Gardens’ own Orchid Collection.  This collection includes more than 4,000 species and hybrids and is one of the largest species-diverse orchid collections in the world.  To extend its reach as a tool for conservation and scientific research, the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection is fully digitized, with high-quality images readily available online.  The collection supports biodiversity conservation, scientific research, educational programming, and storytelling efforts.  

3-D imaging of Smithsonian Gardens Orchid. Hannele Lahti, photographer.
3-D imaging of a Smithsonian Gardens orchid. Hannele Lahti, photographer.

   One of the exhibit’s most unique features had SG staff collaborating with the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office (DPO) to capture fleeting details of these one-of-a-kind living collection items.  The DPO team worked with SG’s Living Collections team to create 3D scans of ten orchids from SG’s Orchid Collection.  These 3D scans now serve as a permanent record of an ephemeral moment in time, a way to observe orchids’ morphological structures long after their blooms have wilted and to track the condition of these plants and their evolution over time. 

     To help spark visitors’ imaginations, SG commissioned Phaan Howng, a Baltimore-based artist known for her lush, bold, large-scale paintings and immersive installations that explore complex relationships between humans and nature.  With this exhibit, Howng’s paintings and sculptures will help audiences visualize the future of orchids and be inspired to take action towards a sustainable future.  To draw inspiration for her work, Howng spent time at the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Facility and met with the SG orchid horticulturists and Living Collections team.  She also conferred with other scientists and educators from across the Smithsonian Institution engaged in orchid conservation.  The artwork that resulted from these explorations presents a spirited, technicolored future-scape with trees, craggy rocks, and mountain faces showcased alongside hundreds of vibrant orchids from the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. 

Cache pots for orchids in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Hannele Lahti, photographer.
Decorative cache pots for orchids in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Hannele Lahti, photographer.

     Of particular note, Howng adapted some of the 3D scans of the SG Orchid Collection to create a series of eight larger-than-life sculptures that capture incredible details and morphology of select orchids.  She painted these sculptures with richly layered colors and patterns, transforming the 3D scans into unexpected artwork with a conservation message. 

          Come see this unique commissioned artwork alongside many of the plants that inspired it in The Future of Orchids: Conservation and Collaboration, open from Jan. 27 through April 28, 2024, in the Kogod Courtyard of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. 

     Let’s discover how together we can conserve orchids for future generations.