Flowers a work of art for Easter in DC’s National Gallery

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 17, 2014 

— The most fragile and memorable beauty at Washington’s National Gallery of Art is on display only from November to Easter. That’s when the dark-pillared rotunda is decorated with live flowers, trees and ferns, most from its own greenhouses.

“Right after Easter, this all goes away, and it will stay empty until next November,” said Cynthia Kaufmann, the chief of horticulture services. They prepare all summer for the winter months, when nothing is in bloom outside.

The job of making sure the plants are in bloom those months falls to the gallery’s department of horticulture. It provides flowers for special events as well as the museum’s offices, landscaping and sculpture garden.

“We’re part of the mission statement of the gallery to enhance our visitors’ experience through horticulture, through education,” said Juli Goodman, the deputy chief of horticulture services. “We don’t just do the displays, we’re responsible from 3rd Street to 9th Street, everything inside and out.”

This includes tulip displays around the fountains in the front, the newly planted magnolias next to the building and the North Carolina cherry trees planted beside the East Building.

The National Gallery isn’t part of the Smithsonian Institution. Opened in 1941, it features art of all kinds, including paintings, drawings, photographs, furniture and decorative arts. When it opened there was one horticulturist on staff; now there are 16 in the department, of whom seven have degrees in horticulture.

“From day one, horticulture’s been here doing something,” said Goodman. “Our scope has changed a lot over the years.”

Kaufmann said it was probably the only institution downtown that had greenhouses on site.

“They’re behind the moat walls. They’re hidden so you can’t see them,” said Kaufmann. The tall “moat walls” run along the gallery’s sides, providing a unified look to the National Mall and Constitution Avenue sides. “That’s by design: We don’t exist.”

The staff buys plants for special occasions, such as the Easter lilies currently on display or poinsettias for Christmas.

“We may see something that’s small, and so we might buy it and keep it two years before we use it for something special,” said Goodman, “and then use it year after year. . . . We’re all about the looks.”

The 10 greenhouses are of various ages. The oldest two, from 1954, are due to be replaced when funds become available. Built by Lord and Burnham, they’re in disrepair but “very functional,” said Goodman. “They’ve had a lot of use.” The ones built in the 1970s have been upgraded only once.

Within the greenhouses, space is at a premium. Often cuttings, such as a 3-foot-tall spiky rosemary, are nurtured for years until they’re ready. Other trees, such as a large flowering hibiscus and weeping pussy willow, are moved in and out for exhibits or as screens for events.

Thermostatic control is important in the greenhouses. The glass or plastic roofs are currently splattered with whitewash to provide shade, since it’s spring. By summer the whitewash will be a smooth coating to ward off the hot Washington sun.

“All of them have thermostats that operates the controls,” said Goodman. “You have a lot more manual control over (the older greenhouses), which I prefer.”

One greenhouse has a section of sunken floor so that taller foliage wouldn’t be seen over the moat wall.

There also are two off-site greenhouses, one of which has the donated Ames-Haskell collection of azaleas, “because it's only displayed one time of the year,” in early spring, said Kaufmann.

Often the museum designers call on the horticulture department well in advance of an exhibit. Kaufmann said, “If there's going to be plant material in any space related to (the exhibit), we'll know months in advance, and that gives us time to either buy or get what we can of plants that were from that era. So we work very hard on this.”

A classic example was a Pompeii and Roman villa exhibit in 2008. “Pompeii was a very big one. We were pulling plants out of the frescoes to re-create that look of what their garden would really look like. That was a big undertaking ,” said Kaufmann. There were two gardens in that show. The Italian cypress trees were shipped from California.

Kaufmann said, “We also do a buying trip to Florida every year. We’ll go and buy a tractor-trailer full of foliage plants, and that’s definitely handpicking through all the nurseries that we buy from.” A couple of years ago she went down to North Carolina and tagged the cherry trees that are now blossoming next to the East Wing.

They also have refused plants. “We say, don’t send us something . . . mediocre, because you know we’re not going to take it,” said Kaufmann. “So that helps, that we’ve worked with people for years. They know we’re going to be pretty picky on what we use.”

There are still plants from Pompeii in the greenhouses, including tall calamondin trees with hanging golden-but-bitter fruit.

Goodman warns that the gallery has a “really intense spray program . . . because it’s going in the building.” For one exhibit on French Provincial, the displayed trees were heavy with fruit one night that was gone the next morning. Whoever the suspects were, Goodman hopes they didn’t eat any of it, but she’s sure they did.

This year they decided to add pussy willows to the rotunda Easter display instead of cherry blossoms, since the latter were already peaking. The earlier colorful display of shrimp bushes, hydrangeas and snapdragons was replaced by white Easter lilies, white hydrangeas set off by green fluffy ferns, the pussy willows and several palm trees. The earlier flowers were added to the garden courts or the Garden Cafe’s garden, or were sent to storage.

Kaufmann and Goodman worked their way up to their positions by starting with the inside plants, fountain gardens, greenhouses and in Kaufmann’s case, the sculpture garden.

“We feel really fortunate to be able to do what we love, ’cause it just spreads the love, you know,” said Kaufmann. “You come inside on a dreary day, and you can see dozens of people taking pictures at the same time at the displays. It’s very happy.”

Email: twells@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @TishWells1.

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