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