Orchids: A View from the East

January 29 – April 24, 2011

1st floor, National Museum of Natural History
Exhibit hours: 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Orchids have been a part of Chinese culture for many centuries, permeating Chinese history, legends, literature, and art. Since ancient times, orchids have been celebrated in China for their beauty and fragrance, and appreciated as symbols of nobility, friendship, and refinement.

The orchid displays in this exhibit are interpretations of these themes. Enter and explore reflections of this enchanting plant through Chinese culture, from ancient times to the present day.

Coinciding with the National Museum of Natural History's annual orchid show, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will present twenty works related to orchids in Chinese painting, ranging in date from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. Twelve of the fifteen paintings on view in The Orchid in Chinese Painting belong to the ink orchid tradition. Two scholar's rocks and three ceramic bowls used to hold the blossoming bulbs will also be displayed.

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Orchids in Chinese Art and Culture

This reverence for orchids expresses itself in many ways, from the contemplation of a single plant to an enthusiasm for color, new forms, and mass display. Age-old traditions have evolved into the extravagances of the contemporary Asian orchid world.

The Chinese philosopher Confucius compared the virtuous man to an orchid. Echoing this thought, Chinese artists sometimes placed orchids in their work to evoke the Confucian qualities of humility, integrity, refinement—in fact, all the virtues of a perfectly cultured gentleman and scholar.

Orchids in Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine, the body is a small universe containing an array of opposing forces—yin/yang, cold/warm, passive/active, and more. Medicines, often including plants and herbs, balance those oppositional forces. Orchids are essential ingredients in many Chinese medicines that are still used today.

The oldest Chinese pharmaceutical text, Shen Nong’s Materia Medica [Shen Nong bencao jing], lists 364 plant, animal, and mineral substances and their medicinal properties. It includes orchids such as various Bletilla and Dendrobium species.

Orchid Extravaganza

Today, the world of orchids is one of color and excitement. Orchid cultivation has become an international industry in which China and many other parts of Asia compete. Orchids that originated in all parts of the world are now grown in mass quantities in Asia.

Leading the way is Taiwan, which is unrivaled in Phalaenopsis orchid cultivation and marketing. By making these blooms at once more extravagant and more available, Taiwan’s orchid breeders have changed the way people around the world see orchids. The annual Taiwan International Orchid Show is an eye-dazzling spectacle of horticultural showmanship. You Be the Judge

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About the Exhibition

For the last 17 years, the Smithsonian Gardens and the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) have cooperated to present the annual orchid exhibition. The two institutions share plants and resources, and alternate planning and hosting the exhibit.

The Smithsonian Gardens curates a diverse collection of close to 9,000 live orchid plants, many of which will be displayed in Orchids: A View from the East.

This exhibition is presented by the Smithsonian Gardens, United States Botanic Garden, Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central and Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations, and National Museum of Natural History. Special thanks to the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the National Postal Museum and the U.S. National Arboretum for their assistance and generosity.

Orchid Exhibition Discovery Carts

Scheduled Daily

Exhibition interpreters will facilitate, interactive hands-on educational activities offering visitors special insights into the Smithsonian Garden orchid collection and the orchid exhibit.

Orchid Family Day

February 26, 2011 from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

at the National Museum of Natural History

Museum goers of all ages are invited to explore the world of orchids at the Orchid Exhibit Family Day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, February 26. Smithsonian Gardens, the National Museum of Natural History, and the United States Botanic Garden offer a fun-filled day of free activities in conjunction with the exhibition, Orchids: A View from the East. The event includes stamp art, calligraphy and a human-sized orchid! Visitors can even pot their own orchid to take home. Orchid experts from the Smithsonian and United States Botanic Garden will be available all day to answer questions and tell visitors about unique plants from their collections that will be on display for this one day only.

Orchids: A View from the East Exhibition Tour

Tours available on March 23, March 29 and March 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.

at the National Museum of Natural History

Tom Mirenda, Smithsonian Orchid Collection specialist, takes us on a private tour of the exhibit Orchids: A View from the East (open January 29 through April 24) at the Natural History Museum before the museum opens to the public in the morning. This exhibit takes the viewer from the ancient world to modern Taiwan and explains why orchids are held in such high esteem. Mirenda will talk about his work with orchids at the Smithsonian, his experiences and observations at a recent International Orchid Show, and the dichotomy between the reverential treatment of indigenous Taiwanese orchids and their mass-produced, cloned counterparts.

To make reservations, visit the Smithsonian Associates website.

Mingle at the Museum

February 2, 2011 from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

at the National Museum of Natural History

Explore the exhibition Orchids-A View from the East, which is filled with the lovely plants long appreciated in China as symbols of nobility, friendship, and refinement. Mingle with exhibit curators, vote in the Taiwanese-style juried show, sample Chinese-style hors d’oeuvres, and create traditional Chinese New Year red paper cut-outs.


To make reservations, visit the Smithsonian Associates website.