A Spring Visit to the U.S. National Arboretum

By Joanne R. Alloway

Just two miles from the U.S. Capitol in northeast Washington, D.C., the National Arboretum awaits you. The arboretum is a 446-acre park with 9.5 miles of cultivated, winding roadways to drive, bike or stroll through colorful grounds maintained by the Department of Agriculture. The park is open year-round from Friday through Monday. Parking and admission are free. Dogs are allowed, if leashed and controlled. On the day we visited, a tram service was operating, but it is seasonal. Check with www.usna.usda.gov or call 202.245. 2726.
Entering the arboretum on R Street, we parked and went to the Administration Building to buy ($3 Senior) tickets for the tram’s 35-minute, prerecorded overview of the park’s highlights. This allowed us to decide which areas we would return to on our own. There are several picnic areas, but food isn’t unavailable onsite. There are two museums, along with the gardens and horticultural collections too numerous to list. The tram driver gave us a layout map and we chose to return to the Capitol Columns, herb gardens, Asian and azalea collections.

A recently added feature, the Capitol Columns were originally made for the U.S. Capitol in 1828, but were constructed of Virginia sandstone which was deemed inadequate to support the dome, completed in 1864. The columns sat until they finally found their current home in the 1980s. Today they grace a 20-acre open meadow, set on stones from the east side of the Capitol building. The columns were hand-carved in intricate detail. There’s a small reflecting pool, with steps leading down to it.
Our next stop was the National Herb Garden. When people think of herbs, they gravitate toward cooking or tea, but here we learned differently. Herbs are also essential oils for making perfumes, medicinal plants, such as the aloe plant, and dyes for cloth. This herb garden is the largest in the country, divided into 10 themed gardens on 2.5 acres with more than 800 herbs from around the world. Sections show how they are a part of our daily lives. It’s good place to take kids for science project ideas.
The Asian collection contains five dramatic sculpture gardens. Some slope gently, others steeply, containing flowering and border plants from China, Japan, Korea and other East Asian countries. Wear sturdy shoes for the slopes and you’ll be able to travel all the way to an overlook of the Anacostia River. The mixture of trees, manicured shrubs and flowering plants is worth the walk.
The azalea collection contains thousands of hybrid azaleas in Spring’s vibrant colors. This blaze of color fills valleys, slopes, hillsides and manicured boxwood terraces. The spectacular color show begins in early May and lasts through June. The breeding of many of these hybrids was accomplished at the arboretum. There are in excess of 150 varieties of azaleas in the collection.
Besides a nature visit and a picnic on a beautiful day, there are other things to do. Classes are offered on many topics, including the arboretum as a research and education facility, as well as a living museum. Register online for classes or workshops on photography, bonsai, Japanese flower arranging, lawn care series, gardening classics and others offered throughout the year. Most require a fee, but some are free. For families, the youth garden offers an acre of organic gardening where kids learn to plant and tend heirloom vegetables and herbs. There’s also a butterfly garden and a play area, which is very popular beginning in May. Check for specifics at www.usna.usda.gov/Education/events
Throughout May and June, about 500,000 visitors will be greeted by hosts of brilliant colorful bulb flowers including rhododendrons, huge flowering trees of all types, wildflowers, peonies, mountain laurels and many different species of lilies and roses, hydrangeas and every annual plant imaginable. The arboretum is a great place for learning, planning and deciding what to plant in your own garden. .

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