I’ve been aching for some aliveness, something bright, and fragrant, and growing, so this Washington Post love letter to Orchids of Latin America, an exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, cemented my weekend plans. A stroll through a tropical rainforest abloom–a fleeting visit to “the jungles of Costa Rica, the vanilla farms of Mexico, the conservation forests of Colombia, and beyond”–how could I resist?
I was not smitten. The exhibit rooms were more chaotic than I’d expected, abuzz with devoted orchid fans and sprawling families. Belonging to neither of these clubs, I soon felt dazed. Still, the colors, the intricate shapes, some extravagant and luxurious, others spiky and rough, were captivating. And then there was that fragrance. Gentle, seductive, arresting waves of fragrance that lured you in and urged you forward. Which one of these bright, sinuous blooms did they belong to? Impossible to tell, yet you had, had to look.
The cast of performers changes regularly as flowers fade and diminish, drawing on the formidable collections of the Smithsonian and the US Botanic Garden (the exhibit runs through 21 April 2013). Morsels of information about orchids are scattered around the exhibit: These plants inspired sacred objects and symbols of empires, were [possibly] used as hallucinogens and medicine, and glued many a feathered headdress.
The lavish blooms are not just for show: They evolved ingeniously to fool the available pollinators and cling to the unforgiving environments around them. This is demonstrated in striking color by Christian Ziegler‘s photography exhibit right outside the orchid hall, Deceptive Beauties, a kaleidoscope of survival techniques by orchids in their natural habitats on five continents–so impressive and eye-opening (orchids as gritty survivors?!) that I might even get Ziegler’s book.
Speaking of pollinators, the live butterfly pavilion on the museum’s second floor was a welcome postscript. There is a charge to enter ($6 for adults, $5 for children), but Tuesdays are free, albeit timed in 15-minute intervals. The troupe of butterflies fluttering about you changes depending on their life cycle, but the diversity at any given moment is impressive. I was stunned by the unexpected, scintillating azure of the common morpho (the underside of their wings is black, yellow, and brown, impressive in their own right), and this was the first time I saw Luna moths close up, so very large and chiseled (we got a great view of them, perched still in a protective enclosure, sleeping the day away). With all the movement and moisture in the pavilion, it was difficult to take pictures. You will just have to imagine all of this living, glinting color, or visit.