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As a plant scientist, Ari Novy says that orchids occupy a very special place in his heart. Pixabay

A new exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington features a vibrant collection of orchids from all over the world. This elegant flower is not solely ornamental, its uses also extend to medicine and cooking.

Sensory celebration

To walk into the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington is to encounter a feast for the senses. Johann Strauss’s classic Blue Danube waltz fills the air as does the sweet aroma of hundreds of fragrant orchids. This sensory orchestra is part of a new exhibit fittingly called “Orchid Symphony,” an annual collaboration with Smithsonian Gardens.

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The garden chose Orchid Symphony as a theme so it could display a wide variety of orchids, while the symphony “suggested a feeling of elegance and grandeur that we thought was fitting with orchids and also the architecture of our conservatory,” said Nick Nelson, the landscape architect at the U.S. Botanic Garden. “We have fountains that we have a computer programmed and synchronized with classical music [and] a lovely elegant orchid chandelier in the center of the garden.”

This sensory orchestra is part of a new exhibit fittingly called “Orchid Symphony,” an annual collaboration with Smithsonian Gardens. Pixabay

In keeping with the musical theme, there are also topiaries in the shape of a violin, a cello, and other musical instruments “to add a bit of whimsy to the garden,” he said. Nelson added that while the garden has a permanent orchid room within the conservatory, this time of year they have thousands of orchids coming into bloom, which provides a great opportunity to get the message of orchids across to the public.

Orchid varieties

Orchids are found in almost every ecosystem in the world. Jungle orchids thrive in various tropical climates and there are desert orchids blooming in arid environments, according to the garden’s deputy executive director Ari Novy.

“The orchids that you’re likely to find growing either in a greenhouse such as this, or that you can buy at a garden center, are probably what we call epiphytic or tropical orchids, meaning they are orchids that in nature are found growing on other plants, especially forest trees,” he said. “But there are many other kinds of orchids as well.”

He pointed to a flower that he identified as a Mexipedium orchid. “It’s an orchid found in Mexico, that loves growing on rocks,” he said. “It’s therefore called a lithophyte, meaning a plant that grows on rocks.” Just like a cactus or any other desert-adapted plant, this orchid can store moisture so that it can handle the long periods of drought in the arid environment.

Medicinal and dessert orchids

Novy also pointed to a batch of lovely purple flowers with elongated green leaves called Bletilla Striata, or the Chinese Ground Orchid. “Not only is it sold because it’s so beautiful,” he said, “but it’s also used in traditional Chinese medicine where it’s ground up into a powder and used to stop excessive bleeding.”

Vanilla is a vine-form orchid that’s native to Central and South America, although vanilla production today is most famous in Madagascar. Pixabay

In addition to using orchids for medicinal purposes, many cultures eat them in food products, often unknowingly. The most famous edible orchid is the vanilla, said Novy. “Vanilla is a vine-form orchid that’s native to Central and South America, although vanilla production today is most famous in Madagascar.” Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla beans, but since the island lacks the plant’s pollinating bee species, the flowers must be hand-pollinated.

ALSO READ: An Artist’s Ode To Floral Beauty

First Lady orchids

Orchids, as with roses, are often created to honor someone famous. A large painting of a Cattleya ‘Michelle Obama’ orchid, by orchid artist Patricia Laspino, is on display in the entry foyer of the Garden. It is the latest in a line of First Lady orchids that began in 1929 with the pink bloom named for Lou Henry Hoover, wife of Herbert Hoover.

As a plant scientist, Ari Novy says that orchids occupy a very special place in his heart. “Orchids are absolutely gorgeous. They capture our imaginations. They showcase all of the colors of the rainbow in a way that’s just wonderful for us to see.” “And so at the end of the day,” he said, “what we’re trying to do here at the United States Botanic Garden is we’re trying to educate. But we know that we can educate best if we first put a smile on your face.” (VOA/JC)

(Orchids benefits, Orchids uses, Orchids medicinal benefits, Orchids varieties, Types of Orchids)



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Milky Way galaxy as seen from Chitkul Valley

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has for the first time spotted signs of a planet transiting a star outside of the Milky Way galaxy, opening up a new avenue to search for exoplanets at greater distances than ever before.

The possible exoplanet -- or planets outside of our Solar System -- candidate is located in the spiral galaxy Messier 51 (M51), also called the Whirlpool Galaxy because of its distinctive profile, NASA said in a statement.

Astronomers have, so far, found all other known exoplanets and exoplanet candidates in the Milky Way galaxy, almost all of them less than about 3,000 light-years from Earth.

An exoplanet in M51 would be about 28 million light-years away, meaning it would be thousands of times farther away than those in the Milky Way, NASA said.

"We are trying to open up a whole new arena for finding other worlds by searching for planet candidates at X-ray wavelengths, a strategy that makes it possible to discover them in other galaxies," said Rosanne Di Stefano of the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the study.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The exoplanet candidate was spotted in a binary system called M51-ULS-1, located in M51. This binary system contains a black hole or neutron star orbiting a companion star with a mass about 20 times that of the Sun. The X-ray transit they found using Chandra data lasted about three hours, during which the X-ray emission decreased to zero.

Based on this and other information, the team estimates the exoplanet candidate in M51-ULS-1 would be roughly the size of Saturn and orbit the neutron star or black hole at about twice the distance of Saturn from the Sun.

The team looked for X-ray transits in three galaxies beyond the Milky Way galaxy, using both Chandra and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton. Their search covered 55 systems in M51, 64 systems in Messier 101 (the "Pinwheel" galaxy), and 119 systems in Messier 104 (the "Sombrero" galaxy).

However, more data would be needed to verify the interpretation as an extragalactic exoplanet. One challenge is that the planet candidate's large orbit means it would not cross in front of its binary partner again for about 70 years, thwarting any attempts for a confirming observation for decades, NASA said.

Named in honor of the late Indian-American Nobel laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Chandra X-ray Observatory is the world's most powerful X-ray telescope. It has eight times greater resolution and is able to detect sources more than 20-times fainter than any previous X-ray telescope.

Known to the world as Chandra (which means "moon" or "luminous" in Sanskrit), Chandrasekhar was widely regarded as one of the foremost astrophysicists of the twentieth century. (IANS/JB)

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