Bringing new light to history--on the outside


It was in the year 1882 when Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, developed the idea for electric Christmas tree lights. Now, the fashion of the illuminated outdoor tree is a widely practiced tradition for many around the holidays. It’s a great way to express ourselves, get creative, and add color and light to these cold and barren winter days.

In the effort to go green and reduce our carbon footprint, the Smithsonian’s Horticulture Division is phasing out conventional incandescent lights and illuminating our trees with LEDs. What are LEDs you ask? Light-Emitting Diodes—and they are great! Although the initial cost is more, these lights will last longer, glow brighter, and can save up to 80% on your energy bill. They do not produce any heat and stay cool to the touch. This is great for safety reasons indoors and out.

Holiday lights at the National Museum of American History The Horticulture team started using LED lights on the National Mall side of the National Museum of American History last season to highlight the branching structure of the 16 ‘Prairie Fire’ Crabapple trees. 10 to 12 strands per 12-foot tree were used to wrap the trunks and main branches to the tips. We chose amber-colored lights because of the soft glow they emit. The effect is stunning. The intention was to draw the public’s eye from across the Mall and give them a warm, “in the holiday spirit” feeling. We are receiving only positive feedback, so it seems to be working!

What we have on display now is just the beginning. For future holiday seasons, we have plans for a grand light show for the entire outside of the museum which includes LED light nets for the hedges, and lights for new pocket-garden trees that will be installed next spring. By designing with complementary LED colors, shapes, and sizes, we will “bring to light” the beauty of the existing landscape even on these long, chilly winter nights.

Joe Brunetti is a horticulturalist with the Smithsonian.