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HomeHomes & GardensHabitat: An Inaugural Smithsonian Gardens Exhibition

Habitat: An Inaugural Smithsonian Gardens Exhibition

For the first time in Smithsonian Gardens history, a campus-wide exhibition that covers 14 sites both indoors and out, has opened to the public. The exhibition will be on display until December, 2020. To walk and enjoy the incredible displays – which cover a lot of the Smithsonian mall space — takes a full two hours or more. There are many fun, visual surprises that keep you wondering what could be next.

The exhibits explore the central theme of protecting habitats and, by doing so, protecting life. Each of the 14 stops highlights a different habitat from birds and bees (pollinators) to coral and forests, and even Julia Childs has a role.

The exhibition incorporates the special talents of the Smithsonian horticultural staff, Smithsonian Folk Life artists, education staff, and scientists working on long-term projects to save our planet. The show is uplifting and contains some amazing sculptures that will inspire you to do more to help protect different habitats.

Marisa Scalera, Landscape Architect for the Smithsonian Gardens, led the design effort for the project. A landscape veteran, with 14 years with the Capitol Hill-based landscape architecture firm, Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, Ms. Scalera is excited to have families come this summer to explore the gardens. “This is a chance for all of us to think about simple things we can do to help preserve the different habitats and ecosystems. We have tried to make the exhibit upbeat and help all us better understand how habitats are interconnected.”

A wood grasshopper pops up in the Pollinator Garden on the side of the National Museum of Natural History and as the summer progresses there will be real grasshoppers frolicking in the native plants in this garden.

Highlights of the Exhibition
There is a lot of ground to cover to take in the whole show. Here are a few of the amazing gardens you won’t want to miss.

The “Life Underground” exhibit features a giant mushroom at the corner of Constitution and 14th Streets, NW. There you will learn that beneath your feet, there is a network of living organisms communicating with one another. And who knew that mushrooms can grow in virtually every habitat. The giant mushroom sculpture, made from 2,000 pieces of wood from trees that once grew on the Smithsonian grounds, was designed by Foon Sham, a professor at the University of Maryland College Park. His work has recently been shown at the National Building Museum and the Katzen Art Center at American University.

On the other side of the National Museum of American History is the exhibition titled “Dead Wood Is Life.” Six wooden arches made from dead wood guide you into the Woodland Garden and the Victory Garden. Modeled after some of the structures found in the Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, the arches transform trees into a beautiful dramatic gateway.

The birds’ nests that are hidden right in plain sight along the sidewalk on the Constitution side of the National Museum of Natural History are a must-see. The oversized nests built in different styles, include an eagle’s nest which was created from sticks gathered on the mall. If you look closely, you see there are plastic and fast food wrappers interwoven, just as urban birds have begun to do in nature. The Museum has 5,000 bird nests in its collection.

Along the side of the National Museum of Natural History and the 12th Street highway tunnel, is the Pollinator Garden where bees and butterflies are often seen. James Gagliardi has tended this garden for the past eight years. He says that the long garden is made from 85% native plants, and it no longer has any invasive species in it. For the exhibition, the garden has added a number of special wood sculptures made by Folk Life artists.

In 2018, visits to Smithsonian museums and institutions amounted to approximately 20.9 million. The new ‘Habitat” exhibition is expected to bring even more global visitors to the mall.

On the Independence side of the Mall, walk through the Moongate in the Enid A. Haupt Garden adjacent to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Art and you are in the “Sign of the Dragonfly” exhibit. The turquoise large-scale metal sculptures are nestled in the water. Dragonflies are one of the oldest indicator species that have been studied by conservationists to learn more about wetlands, clean water, and the insect’s relationship to these ecosystems.

Smithsonian Gardens: A Huge Enterprise
The Smithsonian Gardens 67 full-time staff, aided by volunteers and interns, maintain more than 180 acres of gardens, landscapes and grounds year-round. The Garden unit also operates a 64,000 square foot greenhouse facility off the mall, where thousands of annual and perennial plants are grown and then transferred to the downtown mall. In addition to the physical plants, the Smithsonian publishes a Guide to the Smithsonian Gardens, and hosts a national digital tribute to Community Gardens, capturing stories of gardens and the gardeners that make them grow.

Every Thursday, May through June and September through October at 12:15, there will be lunchtime talks and demonstrations on garden basics. The series is called “Let’s Talk Gardens.” It is held in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. There will be a number of special talks and family friendly activities throughout the exhibition, information can be accessed on line at http://gardens.si.edu/whats-happening/habitat/

Smithsonian gardeners built five nests along the Constitution Avenue sidewalk outside the National Museum of Natural History to emphasize the diversity of spaces where birds live.

Local vegetable growers will want to be sure to visit the Victory Gardens at the side of the National History Museum, near Constitution Avenue. As many gardeners know, native flowers and vegetable gardens attract the insects which are needed to pollinate and help produce the food we eat. The garden has pleasing beds, trellises for vining green beans, and lots of herbs. There is an adjacent patio where you can stop for a snack or enjoy your packed lunch.

Pollinator-Friendly Gardens
In addition to the gardens in the Smithsonian wide exhibition, the Golden Triangle Business Improvement District (BID) is also jumping into the fun and will be installing urban gardens featuring pollinator-friendly plants in more than 260 tree boxes across the central business district. The gardens will help brighten the downtown area in addition to attracting more pollinators to improve the environment.

The Smithsonian gardeners have spent two years putting this remarkable exhibition together. There is something for everyone to enjoy, and many fun facts to learn along the way.


Rindy O’Brien is a longtime conservationist and she loved the intersection of gardens and art presented in this awe-inspiring exhibition. Rindy can be reached at rindyobrien@gmail.com


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