While most of the tourists in Washington D.C. go to places like the Air & Space or Holocaust Museums, we spent much of our spare time last weekend at the National Arboretum and Botanic Garden. As the weather was hot and thick with humidity, the opportunity to spend some reflective time walking among tropical trees, Asian gardens and rare plants was a welcome diversion.
We first visited the National Arboretum whose plantings were more temperate in nature. In walking through the grounds I realized how many of the plants we have in our garden that are not native to the Americas but rather to Asia. Hostas, rhododendrons, azaleas, rhubarb, Japanese maples, white birch and others are far more common in my yard than my native plantings such as witch hazel, American holly, mountain laurel and day lilies.
As an Arboretum it seemed less developed than others I had been to. Perhaps that is due to the research charter of the facility. There were a variety of different planting areas and exhibits such as bonsai and the Grove of State Trees. But much of it seemed left to nature’s whim as if the intense planning and control of a Federal Government had no place here. Ironically a plaza with the columns of the old Capitol building was surrounding by fields of clover and high grass appearing as would a skinny Stonehenge without apparent purpose or focus.
This like other museums we visited had an energy conservation theme as it showed how different plants could be used to generate power. The castor bean has great promise though the Arboretum didn’t at all inform the reader of its deadly properties, In fact many of the Arboretum’s plants identified by Amy Stewart’s excellent book, “Wicked Plants,” as potentially lethal are not looked in that light in the least.
The Botanic (rather than the botanical) garden was much more organized in keeping with its adjacent location to the U.S. Capitol Building. But like the U.S. Government, a labyrinth of paths and rooms led to a wide variety of unrelated ecosystems and vegetation and confusion. Unlike government entities, however, getting lost and disoriented was half the fun as we traversed from a tropical jungle to a dry desert to a temperate children’s garden.
As we entered the garden we were greeted by a fruiting cacao tree, which had been pollinated by garden workers rather than by the more natural method of tiny flies native to the Andes and Central America. My wife Juana (pictured above with my brother Craig) looked at the pods of pre-chocolate in a greedy way wishing she could grab one and release its gooey innards. She was similarly tempted when she saw a flowering banana tree as well as papaya. All of her tropical buttons were triggered reminding me of stories of her youth when she and her sisters would take the flower of a banana tree and use it for play. I had no such youthful memories on Long Island, where the most exotic plant to me was a skunk cabbage.
The garden also had a variety of carnivorous plants very much like the ones I propagate. They are all considered endangered because of the loss of wetlands areas and I wish I had a bog where I could begin to repopulate these hungry and (to some) malevolent plants. The garden had a particularly magnificent specimen of a Nepenthes ventricosa pitcher plant that I wanted to take home. Alas I kept my hands in my pockets and slinked on by.
One of the problems I always have in these types of gardens is the struggle to follow the rules: don’t touch, don’t take. Like a greedy slug or groundhog I want to devour and take samples so I can grow copies of these wonderful plants in my garden. My wife often needs to slap my hand or tug at me when the temptation is too strong.
One exhibit where this was not a problem was the Plants in Culture exhibit where we were all encouraged to smell the spices and flowers. In fact, many of the flowers being exhibited were rendered in stainless steel and aluminum rather than composed of chlorophyll and leafy or woody material. Poppies, sunflowers, bird’s of paradise and other flowers were built to last through many seasons and the potential abuse of visitors.
Upon walking out to the Mall from the Botanic Garden, it occurred to me how sterile our Nation’s main plaza is. Trees and grass. The American standard. It is a pity that the Mall could not better reflect the diversity that we saw last weekend. Perhaps when the Mall is finally restored such a vision will be realized. I doubt it.