Orchids in Kogod Courtyard
Photo by Hannele Lahti; Courtesy Smithsonian Gardens

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Orchids: Hidden Stories of Groundbreaking Women

We are emerging from the nadir of the cold season—bitter and frigid, gray skies, slippery streets, and wan daylight. It’s enough to make one droop or wither. If you are a delicate hothouse flower, there is at least one vernal escape. It is time again for the annual Orchids exhibition in the glass-enclosed Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, centrally located in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Flashes of fuchsia, varying shades of pink, violet, yellow, coral, and bright white. Spotted, dotted, and striped. Delicately thin but sturdy green stakes. Whether one startling symmetrical flower spike, or a cluster of beautiful designs, this most fascinating of flowers blooms and seduces with its bursts of vibrant color, uncanny blossoms morphing into familiar (bees, lizards, faces, and humanoid forms) and alien shapes, and deliciously fragrant aromas. In addition to the exotic orchids, this year’s accompanying exhibit is dedicated to the Hidden Stories of Groundbreaking Women. Described as “barrier-breaking botanists, cutting-edge conservationists, and inspired illustrators,” the didactic panels between the blooms celebrate figures such as modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe; the 17th-century Chinese courtesan turned poet and painter Gu Mei; and the “Julia Child of orchids,” Rebecca Tyson Northen, whose Home Orchid Growing, published in 1950, remains the perennial how-to on domestic orchid care. Several Smithsonian botanists, including Melissa McCormick and Sarah Hedean, join their ranks. Stop by the Courtyard Café, sit among the orchids, read a favorite book (maybe Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief ), and find a tropical respite during these last few weeks of winter. Orchids: Hidden Stories of Groundbreaking Women runs through April 24 at Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, 8th and G Streets NW. gardens.si.edu. Free.