Just a few steps from where the State of the Union took place this week, you will find rainforest blooms, desert cacti, Midatlantic natives and Jurassic Era cycads growing together in fragrant, productive harmony. (Productive harmony in DC. Imagine!) We recently visited the U.S. Botanic Garden and were wowed by the diverse ecosystems just a gavel’s throw from the Capitol Building, and by the defiant pleasure of wandering around a warm, fecund greenhouse in the dead of winter.
(We also just like saying fecund.)
Beyond the interesting beds of evergreens like ilex and boxwoods, the grounds were mostly dormant — but there was plenty to see inside. At times we even felt like we were back in Kauai! In fact, we left with shedloads of ideas for our own spring and summer gardening.
You might remember the long lines at the USBG back in 2013, all the people clamoring to see the garden’s titan arum, aka corpse flower, and get a whiff of its rancid aromatics. There are approximately 65,000 plants growing in this “living plant museum” in total, from the outrageous reds of a beefsteak heliconia to a ruthlessly thorned acacia tree to the Theobroma cacao, whose cocoa fruits grow directly out of the bark, the stuff of Wonka fantasy. We found and fawned over these species in the sections of the conservatory we visited that day: Garden Primeval, Jungle, Rare & Endangered, Orchids, Hawaii, World Deserts and Medicinal Plants.
The long furry blooms of Acalypha hispida (common names: chenille plant, firetails) light up the Garden Court in grand, chandelier-like hanging baskets.
We first entered through the Garden Court, whose doors are flanked by voluptuous loquat trees. (We can’t wait for ours to start fruiting soon.) Overhead there’s a light fixture supporting a showstopping waterfall of vinca vines, and a few steps further in, we recreated a scene from Alien with a manila hemp banana plant. Exploring the tropicals alone took a solid hour: So many holey walls of monstera. So many jackfruits with spongy textures! There were even some carnivorous nepenthes pitchers bouncing around. The winding paths, stairs and mezzanines let you experience the horticulture from various heights, most notably in the “Canopy Walk.”
Inside the desert climate, highlights included a stout, spiked, silken-leafed Madagascar palm. In the orchid area, the USBG — originally envisioned by George Washington and first established in 1820 — has created a space to celebrate these beautiful oddballs in their multitudes of shapes, sizes, colors and habits. Our favorite was the Epicattleya Rene Marques ‘Tyler’ orchid, whose spindly silhouette and stark flowers suggest a mobile of neon stars.
The garden is open every day of the year, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free. If a plant has you stumped, there’s even a plant hotline: call (202) 226-4785 or email email@example.com.
Continue with us on our botanical adventure, below!
The United States Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20001; 202-225-8333.
A grand entrance.
Two large loquat trees (Eriobotrya japonica) stand like pillars at the entrance to the Conservatory. It must be a delight for visitors to snack on the these fruit in the late winter months.
The loquats here are beginning to ripen. When fully ripe the fruit will be yellow with brown freckles. (We have a tree of our own in our yard.)
The Garden Court contains a miniature replica of the National Mall and its landmark buildings. Here the U.S. Supreme Court is framed by poinsettias.
Replicas are made of organic materials like pine cone scales and willows.
Chains of glory (Clerodendrum schmidtii).
Aechmea ‘Beye’s Giant’ exhibited striking scarlet flowers.
The thorny branches of the Acacia cornigera bring in some drama. This plant is commonly known as bullhorn acacia.
The blooms of the Clerodendrum quadriloculare (Philippine glorybower) reminded us of July Fourth fireworks over the Mall.
A Theobroma cacao, or cocoa tree.
Like the jackfruit (below), cacao trees are cauliflorous, meaning their flowers and fruits grow directly from trunks and branches, rather than from twigs.
An Artocarpus heterophyllus ‘Black Gold’ or jack tree produces some of the world’s largest tree-borne fruit. Jackfruits can reach up to 150 pounds.
Musa textilis, or Manila hemp.
Another view of that Manila hemp, a variety of banana plant.
Okay, one more close-up before we enter the Jungle!
Exit the concrete jungle of the National Mall…and enter: the real jungle.
Staghorn ferns (Platycerium superbum). Our longtime readers will know how much we love incorporating these marvels into our home design.
The scarlet flowers of the Pachystachys coccinea (cardinal’s guard) screech against the shredded bluish-green leaves of the Monstera deliciosa (aka fruit salad or Swiss cheese plant).
Pachystachys coccinea, cardinal’s guard.
Ctenanthe burle-marxii (prayer plant) from Brazil. We admired its striped-cat pattern.
Ryan takes a break for a self-portrait.
On the left, a tall snakewood (Cecropia peltata) draws our attention to the canopy walk aloft.
Phlegmariurus nummularifolius, also known as tassel fern, club moss and fir moss.
Nepenthes x mixta ‘Superba’ (left) and Nepenthes x ventrata. We grow several Nepenthes x ventrata vines at home in our outdoor shower area.
Nepenthes x mixta ‘Superba.’
Pavonia multiflora, or Brazilian candles.
Plotting our next hanging-planter acquisition with this Columnea microcalyx.
Holy moly, would you get a look at this beefsteak heliconia (Heliconia mariae)!
Chambeyronia macrocarpa, or red leaf palm, from New Caledonia.
The papaya tree (Carica papaya) has been used in folk medicine to treat stomach and skin ailments, and as an anti-inflammatory.
Our cure-all: Coffee arabica or Arabian coffee.
Cinchona officianlis, or Peruvian bark. The bark contains quinine, a traditional antimalarial and key ingredient of one of History’s Most Important Drinks.
When you enter the orchid section, on your left and along the lower beds you’ll find gaggles of Paphiopedilums, or slipper orchids.
From left: Paphiopedilum hybrid (unlabeled), Paphiopedilum Cockade ‘Chilton,’ and Paphiopedilum Gege Hughes ‘Harvest Moon’ x Paphiopedilum Lipeewunder ‘Moonlight.’
Epicattleya Rene Marques ‘Tyler’ orchid.
Dendrobium Jaquelyn Thomas ‘Uniwoi Mist.’
Ten steps outside of the Jungle, you’re surround by succulents in the World Deserts.
A Zelenkoa onusta orchid grows from a tree cactus.
This desert orchid can withstand extremely dry climates and direct sunlight. (We’re thinking of getting one for our own yard, maybe planting it on our Euphorbia ingens.)
Stapelia gigantea, or carrion flower. The blooms of this succulent smell like rotting flesh, attractive to pollinators like flies and beetles. (Not to be confused with the infamous stench of the garden’s titum arum (corpse flower), whose stench commands a rock-star following.)
The Eastern Cape Blue Cycad (Encephalartos horridus).
Euphorbia obesa, or baseball plant. The young one in our yard is squat and round; as they grow larger, it turns more oblong and football-like.
One of many prickly vignettes inside the World Deserts Garden department.
Cleistocactus winteri, or golden rat tail cactus.
Pachypodium lamerei, or Madagascar palm.
The euphorbia collection.
Euphorbia cotinifolia (red spurge, Caribbean copper plant) tickles the tops of the Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow.’
A portal to 150 million years ago…
Various species of cycads line the path of the Primeval garden.
A bird’s nest fern underlines a lesson on gymnosperms.
A magnificent Cycas taiwaniana occupies the southeast corner of the Garden Primeval section.
Cycas taiwaniana is an endangered species.
The elegance of the leaves of Niphidium crassifolium is reflected in its common name, the graceful fern. The plant is an epiphyte, growing in tree canopies and on rocks.
Entering the Hawai’i section…
Cabbage-on-a-stick (Brighamia insignis) is native only to Kauai and is critically endangered. ‘Alula’ (Hawaiian name) can now only be found growing naturally on one last sea cliff in Kauai.
Sadleria cyatheoides, or amaumau fern.
We were swept away by the texture and celadon pop of this whisk fern (Psilotum nudum). It’s a member of the psilophytes, the only living vascular plants without leaves and roots.
Artemisia mauiensis, or Maui wormwood. Its Hawaiian name is ‘hinahina.’
Back to the Jungle: Along the Canopy Walk
Visitors take a breather under a tillandsia (air plant) wall.
Philodendron lacerum (top), Anthurium wendlingeri (long leaves). We’re seeking out the latter for our garden; we think the sword-shaped foliage will add some heat to our vertical clay-pot installation.
A creepy, cool Anthurium wendlingeri flower.
Episcia ‘Chocolate Soldier.’
Here is a better look at that tall snakewood tree (Cecropia pellata) with a couple of bromeliads mounted to its upper trunk.
Medinilla cummingii (chandelier tree).
Bromeliads with a balcony view.
Rhipsalis paradoxa, or chain cactus.
Rhipsalis baccifera ssp. horrida, or mistletoe cactus.
Approaching the eastern stairway on our way down from the Canopy Walk, the stairwell is lined with an impressive collection of hoyas and tillandsias.
With their marzipan-sculpted flowers, hardiness and love of bright shade, hoyas make great houseplants.
Hoya retusa, or wax plant.
The spider-like leaves of the Hoya retusa stopped us in our tracks.
Wax plant flower.
This corner sings our heartsong: The clean metal lines against the wild, rough tillandsia textures.
This hoya slides down the greenhouse frame along the eastern stairwell.
Don’t adjust your screens: the U.S. Capitol Building in the background isn’t blurry, it’s covered in scaffolding. Making it kind of resemble a greenhouse, don’t you think?
A view from the dormant National Garden section of the property. We’re excited to see how it transforms come spring and summertime!