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Orchids, butterflies dazzle visitors to Mall

Colorful D.C. exhibition runs until May 26

WASHINGTON — Washington is an orchid sort of town. There are many fanciers here, including some who got wind of a show being built at the Arts and Industries Building on the Mall.

The East Hall was closed while the elaborate exhibit was being constructed this month, but that didn't stop some from showing up for a glimpse of a favored variety. In Hollywood, people wait behind barriers for glimpses of Matt Damon or Julia Roberts. In Washington, a fleeting view of a dendrobium or cattleya can bring out the fans.

When the barriers came down recently, the crowds flooded forth to see the whole show. Don't worry: The exhibition runs until May 26.

"There's just something special about orchids," said Nancy Bechtol, director of horticulture services at the Smithsonian. "We have tried bulb shows, other really interesting horticultural exhibits. Nothing pulls like an orchid."

Bechtol has another ace up her sleeve this winter: A third of the exhibition hall has been turned into a butterfly house. The aim is for as many as 400 butterflies to flit within a planted jungle, with waterfalls thrown in for good measure. Smelling salts, anyone?

The butterflies have arrived as pupae from such places as Costa Rica, Thailand, Malaysia and other butterfly farms in tropical areas around the world.

Visitors to Florida will recognize the green and black malachite, with its jewellike iridescence. Other butterflies are less familiar but no less stunning, including the mechanitis, with its intricate marbling of its lower wing, or the checkered butterfly named idea.

Mark Hardin, the scientist in charge of the insects, says visitors will find as many as 30 species, most of which are kept as hanging chrysalids in a heated cabinet, to be released on hatching to the orchids and supplemental food of rotting fruit and sugar water dispensed from hummingbird feeders. They also like Gatorade.

Some of the pupae are almost as beautiful as the adults that they turn into. One is remarkable for its size alone, the size of a sleeping bat. From it, says Hardin, will emerge the giant atlas moth. The moth lends scientific heft — orchids are pollinated more by moths than butterflies, along with such other wonderful creatures as hummingbirds, wasps, bees and even small mammals. Bechtol said the underlying message of the show is the reliance of plants on animals and vice versa, and the need to protect rainforests and biodiversity.

Outside the butterfly house, the rest of the hall has been turned into another mock jungle of orchid excess, with meandering stone walls encasing various orchid types grouped between palms, tropical ground covers, driftwood and moss.

In the first week of the show, visitors found blowsy laeliocattleyas, lavender-pink corsages emerging from the jungle floor; raspberry-hued miltonias; and tropical slipper orchids of jaw-dropping form, size and coloring.

Some are truly terrestrial; others inhabit the jungle canopy in the wild. Bechtol has allowed some license, positioning the tree dwellers on the raised floor of the exhibit. Better to be seen, she says.

The plants sit in hidden pots, ready to be replaced once their blooms begin to fade. The show draws on the major collections of the Smithsonian, around 10,000 orchids, and the U.S. Botanic Garden, 15,000. These resources permit the show to run for so long.

Part of the exhibit contains art, including the orchid-butterfly drawings of the Smithsonian's Vichai Malikul, and the wood carvings of Cheyenne Kim, co-curator of the Smithsonian's orchid collection. He has carved four sculptures of different species being pollinated by, variously, ants, bees, hummingbirds and a moth.

Bechtol believes the orchids will draw lots of two-legged admirers too in the coming weeks.


If you go. . .

The Arts and Industries Building is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. 202-357-2700 or www.smithsonian.org.