Washington's secret garden Arboretum: The outdoor plant lab is one of the more colorful but obscure attractions in the capital. Researchers at the arboretum have created nearly 700 kinds of plants and trees.

Sun Journal

March 30, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sprawling across the grounds of the National Arboretum are a swamp cedar that thrives in snowy winter, a wort that turns into soap, an arbor with edible buds, an herb thought to treat venereal disease and a ginkgo species as old as dinosaurs.

Spring flowers? Those are for amateurs. The real action is in the greenery.

The arboretum, a 444-acre plant compound in Northeast Washington, reveals the landscape that usually is ignored when the blossoms pop. For decades -- this month marked its 70th anniversary -- the arboretum has given star status to trees and glamour to the undergrowth.

The verdant compound is a study in diversity. Conifers, bonsai, herbs and magnolias thrive on the rolling grounds. Azaleas, hollies, cherries and dogwoods add splashes of color.

The National Arboretum is not the nation's largest, or its most exotic. But its long-term research projects are considered the most in-depth of any arboretum. It is the only federally funded arboretum in the country. And it is, of course, a spot for lovers of the outdoors.

"A tree is the most beautiful thing in the world," says Robert Amorosi, who sneaked out of the musty halls of the Library of Congress on Thursday for his almost-daily lunch break at the arboretum. For a decade, it has been Amorosi's ritual to stroll the grounds every season.

"I'll come here, and I'm alone and uninterrupted," he says, as he heads toward "my tree," a sweeping cherry that stands alone in a vast field. "Then I go back to work. Reluctantly."

Science and tourism

The arboretum's missions as both outdoor plant lab and visitor attraction make for an unusual mix. The place wins patents for its plant crossbreeds, even while selling gardening trinkets in a gift shop and promoting a soon-to-come tourist tram to cruise its research grounds.

For people driving to Washington, the arboretum is easy to miss, obscured behind an aging industrial corridor near U.S. 50. Anyone driving along New York Avenue might miss the quick left onto Bladensburg Road that leads to the arboretum grounds. Indeed, for many Washingtonians, it is a kind of secret garden.

The free attraction drew a record 400,000 tourists last year. But that's nothing compared with the Washington Monument, which draws nearly 1 million people annually, and other better-known landmarks in the capital.

For plant lovers, however, this is heaven. A hillside full of thousands of azaleas draws 40,000 people each spring -- a trove of 10,000 flowering bushes in 1,200 varieties that will be in full bloom in about a month. The earliest azaleas are just starting to flower.

Nearby, a vast collection of magnolias is one of the largest and most varied in the United States. More than 350 kinds of daffodils grew in a fern valley until 1995, when a tornado hit and took out scores of them.

Repository of oddities

Yet the arboretum is more than a preserve of traditional flowering plants. It is also a repository of oddities. Familiar trees are crossbred, with unfamiliar results. Exotic greens are imported from around the globe. The climate, hospitable for many plants, is the southernmost limit for northern plants and the northernmost limit for southern plants.

The grounds display the Japanese apricot tree, which flowers only in frigid January and the native palm tree, which thickens with fronds despite harsh winters.

Other plantings are out of whack in size and dimension -- strange varieties that the arboretum has sought out. On a hillside is a jack-in-the-pulpit from Asia that is 10 times its normal thumb size. In another grove is a 30-foot-tall bald cypress; around the corner, in the bonsai pavilion, is the same tree, grown to maturity at about 3 feet high, with a trunk no thicker than a twig.

The plantings have their quirks. The typical American beech has edible buds. And the soap wort and Mexican prickly poppy can be converted into soap.

On that note, the arboretum's plants can smell like perfume -- or like something far less pleasant. The fresh-scented costmary was the kind used as an antidote to Colonial body odor in the 18th century. But the female ginkgo -- there is only one -- sits cloistered on a hillside because its fruits stink when crushed.

Nearby, in a garden full of ancient Greek plant remedies, everything from toothache to snake bites has a purported herbal cure. The scarlet pimpernel, thought to remedy brain disorders and inflammations, sits near the poison hemlock, used for herpes and skin diseases.

The arboretum opened in 1927 as a research institution, mandated by Congress and placed on what was then farmland and woods. But the place changed character in the late 1940s, quite by accident. An experiment with 70,000 azaleas on nearly 7 acres covered the south slope of the arboretum's Mount Hamilton. Word got out about the blooms, and by the mid-1950s, the arboretum's gates were opened year-round.

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