Branches of Government: Tour the Leafy, Prickly Oasis of the U.S. Botanic Garden

Photos by Ryan Benoit

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.)

US Botanic Garden

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.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

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 usbg@aoc.gov.

Continue with us on our botanical adventure, below!

—TH

The United States Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20001; 202-225-8333.

Garden Court

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

A grand entrance.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

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.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

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.)

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

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.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

Replicas are made of organic materials like pine cone scales and willows.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

Chains of glory (Clerodendrum schmidtii).

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

Begonia exotica.

US Botanic Garden

Aechmea ‘Beye’s Giant’ exhibited striking scarlet flowers.

US Botanic Garden - Plant Adaptions

The thorny branches of the Acacia cornigera bring in some drama. This plant is commonly known as bullhorn acacia.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

The blooms of the Clerodendrum quadriloculare (Philippine glorybower) reminded us of July Fourth fireworks over the Mall.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

A Theobroma cacao, or cocoa tree.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

Like the jackfruit (below), cacao trees are cauliflorous, meaning their flowers and fruits grow directly from trunks and branches, rather than from twigs.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

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.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

Musa textilis, or Manila hemp.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

Another view of that Manila hemp, a variety of banana plant.

US Botanic Garden - Garden Court

Okay, one more close-up before we enter the Jungle!

Jungle

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

Exit the concrete jungle of the National Mall…and enter: the real jungle.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

Staghorn ferns (Platycerium superbum). Our longtime readers will know how much we love incorporating these marvels into our home design.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

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).

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

Pachystachys coccinea, cardinal’s guard.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

Ctenanthe burle-marxii (prayer plant) from Brazil. We admired its striped-cat pattern.

US Botanic Garde - Ryan Benoit - The Horticult

Ryan takes a break for a self-portrait.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

On the left, a tall snakewood (Cecropia peltata) draws our attention to the canopy walk aloft.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

Phlegmariurus nummularifolius, also known as tassel fern, club moss and fir moss.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

Nepenthes x mixta ‘Superba’ (left) and Nepenthes x ventrata. We grow several Nepenthes x ventrata vines at home in our outdoor shower area.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

Nepenthes x mixta ‘Superba.’

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

Pavonia multiflora, or Brazilian candles.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle

Plotting our next hanging-planter acquisition with this Columnea microcalyx.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Holy moly, would you get a look at this beefsteak heliconia (Heliconia mariae)!

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Chambeyronia macrocarpa, or red leaf palm, from New Caledonia.

Medicinal Garden

US Botanic Garden

The papaya tree (Carica papaya) has been used in folk medicine to treat stomach and skin ailments, and as an anti-inflammatory.

US Botanic Garden

Our cure-all: Coffee arabica or Arabian coffee.

US Botanic Garden

Cinchona officianlis, or Peruvian bark. The bark contains quinine, a traditional antimalarial and key ingredient of one of History’s Most Important Drinks.

Orchid Garden

US Botanic Garden - Orchid Garden

Orchid heaven.

US Botanic Garden - Orchid Garden

When you enter the orchid section, on your left and along the lower beds you’ll find gaggles of Paphiopedilums, or slipper orchids.

Orchid Garden

From left: Paphiopedilum hybrid (unlabeled), Paphiopedilum Cockade ‘Chilton,’ and Paphiopedilum Gege Hughes ‘Harvest Moon’ x Paphiopedilum Lipeewunder ‘Moonlight.’

US Botanic Garden - Orchid Garden

Epicattleya Rene Marques ‘Tyler’ orchid.

US Botanic Garden - Orchid Garden

US Botanic Garden - Orchid Garden

US Botanic Garden - Orchid Garden

Dendrobium Jaquelyn Thomas ‘Uniwoi Mist.’

US Botanic Garden - Orchid Garden

Oncidium Twinkle.

US Botanic Garden - Orchid Garden

World Deserts

US Botanic Garden - World Deserts

Ten steps outside of the Jungle, you’re surround by succulents in the World Deserts.

US Botanic Garden - 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.)

US Botanic Garden - Euphorbias - World Deserts Garden

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.)

US Botanic Garden - Euphorbias - World Deserts Garden

US Botanic Garden - Euphorbias - World Deserts Garden

The Eastern Cape Blue Cycad (Encephalartos horridus).

US Botanic Garden - Euphorbias - World Deserts Garden

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.

US Botanic Garden - World Deserts

One of many prickly vignettes inside the World Deserts Garden department.

US Botanic Garden - World Deserts

Cleistocactus winteri, or golden rat tail cactus.

US Botanic Garden - World Deserts

Pachypodium lamerei, or Madagascar palm.

US Botanic Garden - World Deserts

Deuterocohnia brevifolia.

US Botanic Garden - World Deserts

US Botanic Garden - Euphorbias

The euphorbia collection.

US Botanic Garden - Euphorbias

Euphorbia cotinifolia (red spurge, Caribbean copper plant) tickles the tops of the Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow.’

Garden Primeval

Garden Primeval

A portal to 150 million years ago…

Garden Primeval

Various species of cycads line the path of the Primeval garden.

Garden Primeval

A bird’s nest fern underlines a lesson on gymnosperms.

Garden Primeval

A magnificent Cycas taiwaniana occupies the southeast corner of the Garden Primeval section.

Garden Primeval

Cycas taiwaniana is an endangered species.

Garden Primeval

Garden Primeval

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.

Hawai’i Garden

US Botanic Garden - Hawaii Garden

Entering the Hawai’i section…

US Botanic Garden - Hawaii Garden

US Botanic Garden - Hawaii Garden

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.

US Botanic Garden - Hawaii Garden

Sadleria cyatheoides, or amaumau fern.

US Botanic Garden - Hawaii Garden

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. Hawaiian name is "hinahina"

Artemisia mauiensis, or Maui wormwood. Its Hawaiian name is ‘hinahina.’

Back to the Jungle: Along the Canopy Walk

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Visitors take a breather under a tillandsia (air plant) wall.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

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.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

A creepy, cool Anthurium wendlingeri flower.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Episcia ‘Chocolate Soldier.’

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Here is a better look at that tall snakewood tree (Cecropia pellata) with a couple of bromeliads mounted to its upper trunk.

US Botanic Garden - Canopy Walk

Medinilla cummingii (chandelier tree).

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Bromeliads with a balcony view.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Rhipsalis paradoxa, or chain cactus.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Rhipsalis baccifera ssp. horrida, or mistletoe cactus.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

A closer look at the mistletoe cactus. The white berries are very similar to that of European mistletoe (Viscum album).

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Approaching the eastern stairway on our way down from the Canopy Walk, the stairwell is lined with an impressive collection of hoyas and tillandsias.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

With their marzipan-sculpted flowers, hardiness and love of bright shade, hoyas make great houseplants.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Hoya retusa, or wax plant.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

The spider-like leaves of the Hoya retusa stopped us in our tracks.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Wax plant flower.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

This corner sings our heartsong: The clean metal lines against the wild, rough tillandsia textures.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Tillandsia balbisiana.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

Tillandsia kolbii.

US Botanic Garden - Jungle - Canopy Walk

This hoya slides down the greenhouse frame along the eastern stairwell.

US Botanic Garden

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?

US Botanic Garden January 2015

A view from the dormant National Garden section of the property. We’re excited to see how it transforms come spring and summertime!

  • Tommy Ogren

    Oh, there’s nothing quite like a trip to the US Botanic Garden in DC! I gave a talk there a few years ago, and got to go to a garden writer dinner party there once, too! And just about got the boot from the place too…but that’s another story.
    Nice work on this article…..awesome photos!

    • HA! We’d love to hear that story, Tommy 😉 Maybe off the record when we’re in your neck of the woods…