on August 23, 2009
Despite years of residence in the DC area, it was not until this past March that Himself and Yours Truly finally made our way to the United States Botanic Garden. We had often discussed including the Botanic Garden on various sightseeing trips, but in the end it was a visit from my mother, a dedicated amateur gardener, that provided the motivation to move from good intentions to action. We were disappointed only by the fact that it took us so long to get there!The Botanic Garden is truly a national treasure. Located near the U.S. Capitol Building toward the east end of the National Mall, the garden was first established on the Capitol grounds in 1820 and moved to its current home in 1933. Its mission, as defined by its charter in 1816, is to "collect, grow, and distribute plants of this and other countries that might contribute to the welfare of the American people." That mission is still highly visible in the conservatory's public collection, which focuses on global plant diversity and includes major topical collections of orchids, desert plants, and plants of economic and medicinal value. The outdoor gardens adjacent to the conservatory feature the First Ladies Water Garden and are landscaped with specimens representing the mid-Atlantic region.The heart of the public face of the U.S. Botanic Garden is the conservatory. After entering through the Vestibule, where staff is available to provide information on special events and what's currently in bloom, visitors pass into the Garden Court, where seasonal displays provide a pleasant assault on the senses. In addition to the seasonal plantings, the Garden Court includes a number of mature plants linked to the garden's mandate to focus on plants of economic value--for example, cocoa plants and banana trees. Benches and a few tables are placed in convenient locations, and it is common to find employees from Capitol Hill spending their lunch hour relaxing happily in the Garden Court with a book or newspaper in hand. Note that food and drink are not encouraged in the conservatory, and there are no onsite dining facilities.Leaving the Garden Court, visitors may choose to visit either of the two galleries, comfortably fitted with chairs and air-conditioning and designed to house special events and exhibits, or begin exploring the main conservatory, which is designed to provide four distinct exhibit areas. At its center is a multilevel chamber known simply as "the Jungle," which aptly lives up to its name. The lower level of the Jungle consists of pathways through an impressive collection of mature tropical plants, including palms and ferns, as well as numerous smaller plantings, many of which are in bloom. The Jungle includes a simulated stream complete with a bridge designed to resemble a hollowed log. Visitors may access a catwalk above the Jungle floor either by stairs or elevator. The catwalk extends around the entire perimeter of the Jungle, inviting a bird's eye view of the canopy--and if one is attentive, it is also possible to catch a glimpse of the Capitol Dome through the glass roof and walls of the conservatory.On either side of the Jungle, visitors are presented with two interior courtyards: the Children's Garden, which is themed for children and features annuals that thrive in temperate climates, and the Meditation Garden (also called the Southern Exposure Garden), which features plants from the southeastern and southwestern United States.The remaining exhibit area consists of a series of eight rooms linked around the perimeter of the conservatory: Plant Adaptation, Garden Primeval, Hawaii, World Deserts, Medicinal Plants, the Orchid House, Plant Exploration, and Rare and Endangered Plants. Each room features a unique grouping of plants related to the institution's core mission and values. Each area has its own special appeal--from the small, carefully constructed alcove representing the harsh yet fragile beauty of the Hawaiian ecosystem to the surprising diversity of plant life in the world’s deserts. My personal favorite among these smaller rooms is the Orchid House. It is simply beautiful and wonderfully designed. With its graceful footbridge and artificial tree limbs filled with flowering orchids, one might think oneself lost in hidden tropical garden. And lest you think that perhaps botanists at the national botanic garden of the United States lack a sense of humor, all you have to do is encounter the small group of dinosaur babies emerging from their eggs in the Garden Primeval or the bear topiaries that seem to be eternally flailing at bees in Plant Exploration.The U.S. Botanic Garden is an extraordinary resource in the heart of a busy city, and it is one of the oldest institutions of its type in the United States. It may be neither the largest nor the most diverse botanic garden you will even visit, but it is sure to delight both the eye and the spirit. Admission is free, and the conservatory is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. If you visit the Washington area, especially in winter, a sidetrip to the Botanic Garden is definitely worthwhile. Check the official Web site Web site for special events and exhibits, some of which extend beyond normal operating hours.
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