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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Aerangis distincta. Photo by James Osen, Smithsonian Institution


Aerangis distincta
Photo by James Osen, Smithsonian Institution

This lovely and delicate species from tropical Africa grows streamside in the deep shade of large trees to escape the extreme burning heat of its central African environment.

Selection of orchid photographs from Orchids through Darwin's Eyes. Photos by James Osen, Smithsonian Institution

Selection of orchids from Orchids through Darwin's Eyes.
Photos by James Osen, Smithsonian Institution

Charles Darwin used orchids to help prove his theories of natural selection and evolution. Scientists today follow in Darwin’s footsteps and use orchids to learn more about how plants have evolved and adapted to live in almost every type of environment around the world.

In Orchids through Darwin’s Eyes, we explore the alluring world of orchids from the perspective of Darwin and the naturalists, horticulturists, and scientists he influenced. Along with thousands of colorful, fragrant, live orchids, a highlight of this exhibition is the earliest orchid fossil, embedded in amber with an extinct bee species.

Charles Darwin. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London.
Drawing of Charles Darwin
Courtesy Wellcome Library, London

Darwin and Orchids

 

Charles Darwin’s careful observations of animals, plants, and geological formations inspired his speculations about how species adapt to their environments.  When he published On the Origin of Species in 1859, some critics said he did not support his theory of natural selection with enough evidence. 

“In my examination of Orchids, hardly any fact has so much struck me as the endless diversity of structure...for gaining the very same end, namely, the fertilisation of one flower by the pollen of another.”

 

—Charles Darwin, On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, 1862


Darwin agreed that further research was needed, and chose to study the elaborate adaptations found in orchid flowers.  In his 1862 book, On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, Darwin carefully described his observations of orchid pollination and how orchid flowers had evolved to attract certain pollinating insects.  He concluded that different orchid species had evolved strategies to ensure cross-pollination, which greatly benefits the species by producing greater numbers of viable seeds and stronger seedlings.  

Modern Research

Catasetum sp. Illustration by Kim Moeller
Catasetum sp.
Illustration by Kim Moeller


Darwin’s theories and research have become the foundation of modern biological science.  And research on orchid evolution continues still. Orchids through Darwin’s Eyes introduces visitors to some of the current research on orchid evolution from around the world.

“It makes no common sense for male Catasetum flowers to mistreat their pollinators, but it makes perfect evolutionary sense….it is advantageous for the male flower to somehow deter other male flowers from being visited by the same bee.”

 

—Dr. Daniel Fulop, Harvard University

 

Fossilized orchid pollen and bee embedded in amber. Courtesy of Santiago Ramirez
Fossilized orchid pollen
and bee embedded in amber.
Courtesy of Santiago Ramírez

“…the orchid family was fairly young at the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago and began to flourish shortly thereafter.”


—Dr. Santiago Ramírez, University of California, Berkeley

 

 

 

Creating the Orchids Exhibition

Smithsonian Horticulture and Exhibits Central staff installing Orchids through Darwin's Eyes. Photos by Angela Roberts, Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Horticulture and Office of Exhibits Central staff installing Orchids through Darwin's Eyes. Photos by Angela Roberts, Smithsonian Institution


For the last 15 years, the Smithsonian 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’s Horticulture Services Division cares for a diverse collection of close to 11,000 live orchid plants, many of which are displayed in Orchids through Darwin’s Eyes.

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