National garden treasure

Appreciation for nature flowers at D.C.'s arboretum

May 06, 2007|By Glen Elsasser | Glen Elsasser,Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Visitors and residents alike have flocked to the capital for the annual rite of spring -- the Cherry Blossom Festival, which floods the Tidal Basin with the pink and white blossoms of the Japanese cherry tree. But in a far corner of the city, there's even more luscious flora -- now and throughout the year -- in the exotic landscape of trees, flowers, birds and scenic vistas of the U.S. National Arboretum.

"There are beautiful plants to see in each season," spokeswoman Nancy Luria said of the free garden.

In the spring, late-blooming miniature azaleas with full-size blossoms, which the Japanese have grown for centuries as bonsai -- or penjing in Chinese -- star in an annual exhibit.

"The cherry blossoms were beautiful around the Tidal Basin, but it was too crowded," said Weil Lei, who had come to Washington from Asbury, N.J., with her family and her brother-in-law's family. "Here, it is so wide open. You can enjoy [the blossoms] more -- there's more breathing room."

Lei was one of about 400,000 visitors who stroll the ribbon-like walkways and roads through the arboretum each year.

Many take to the Japanese Stroll Garden, which, according to the brochure, "prepares the mind and body for the quiet contemplation of bonsai."

And there are many bonsai to contemplate. The Japanese Pavilion and museum, for example, showcases bonsai donated in honor of the U.S. Bicentennial. Specimens of these plants have been in cultivation -- "or training" -- for centuries.

Bonsai grown in ceramic containers reflecting their age fill another pavilion.

From September to mid-June, nighttime hikes after dinner are a popular way to tour the arboretum.

In the National Grove of State Trees, visitors can see specimens representing every state and the District of Columbia.

The arboretum offers a year-round schedule of blooming dates to tempt tourists. In February, there are witch hazel, holly with berries, conifer foliage and cones, and the first sighting of woodland wildflowers.

When the winter thaw arrives in March, it's time for flower bulbs, pussy willows, daffodils and more woodland wildflowers. By April, spring transforms the scenery with lush magnolias, forsythia, early crab apples, rhododendrons, dogwoods and thousands of azaleas. In mid-June, after-dinner full-moon hikes have become a popular way to tour the arboretum's collections.

During its 79-year history, scientists at the arboretum, an agency of the Department of Agriculture, have developed more than 670 colorful plants of interest that brighten gardens, regardless of season.

The arboretum, Luria said, "makes plants available through the nursery and floral industry by breeding new plants and testing them for superior qualities such as larger flowers, more ornamental bark, increased cold and heat tolerance, and disease resistance."

The land originally was acquired by Scotsman Ninian Beall in 1687.

In 1899, Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson had recommended the tract be purchased to study "all the trees that grow in Washington" and serve as "a perennial feast of botanical education." The acquisition, however, did not occur until 1927.

A brickyard was started about 1910, fed by the clay deposits from the nearby Anacostia River. After the brick-making ceased in 1972, it was sold to the federal government and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Among the amazing sights: 22 of the 24 Corinthian columns from the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, which had served as the background for most presidential inaugurations from Andrew Jackson's in 1829 until they were dismantled in 1958.

The columns remained in storage until 1984, when the Friends of the National Arboretum raised private funds for their move to a setting surrounded by a fountain, water stair and reflecting pool.

And if you're an avid gardener, hungry to learn about a new plant or track down something specific, a kiosk in the administration building -- a so-called "library of plants" -- helps you get there. Or just ask. "The staff," Luria said, "readily answers questions about the plantings we grow."

Glen Elsasser writes for the Chicago Tribune.


U.S. National Arboretum

Grounds are open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Christmas, while the Bonsai Gardens close at 3:30 p.m. The Japanese and North American Pavilions are closed in the winter. Night hikes with an arboretum staff member are scheduled throughout the year. Admission is free. Call 202-245-2726 or go to

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