Think flowers, think Washington and you’re likely to think of the gentility and romance of the cherry blossoms softly blowing in the early spring breezes alongside the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial. As great an early April sight and memory that might be, here’s a memory in the making that many Washington, DC, residents are not even aware of — a vast collection of blooming flowers that can be seen year-round for free.
That memory takes shape with a visit to the U.S. National Arboretum, a short drive from the D.C. monuments that tourists usually think of when they plan on visiting Washington, D.C.
The Agricultural Research Service, an arm of the Department of Agriculture, opened the facility along New York Avenue NE (Rte. 50) more than eight decades ago for floral and landscape research and to solve agricultural problems to benefit the nation’s food supply. Plant research and educational projects still take place at the Arboretum, but Washington., D.C. tourists most likely will want to bask in the quiet of the gently rolling lands at the Arboretum and commune with nature as they glimpse at the astounding array of seasonal colors and blooms. There are also plenty of meadow-like grassy areas for kids to run off some energy. By all means take a picnic basket if you like.
Yes, there are cherry blossoms here, too, in early spring, but visit three, four weeks later, in late April-early May, and you can ooh and aah at the astonishing sight of 15,000 azaleas cascading on the hillsides of Mount Hamilton. Brilliant shades of pinks and reds and lavenders mix with the white azaleas. Hundreds of white-flowered dogwood trees provide the canopy for the azaleas, but don’t miss the nearby crabapple, peony and rose blooms as well.
Spring may be the Arboretum at its showiest, but the other seasons provide a palette of colors as well. Visit in the summer and capture the warm-weather magic of day lilies and water-lily flowers in the ponds adjoining the arboretum’s headquarters building as well as a Washington specialty, the pink and magenta hues of crapemrytle trees.
Capture the magic of the vibrant yellows of tulip poplar trees in the fall along with the bright red leaves on black gum trees and the purplish reds of the sweet gums and dogwoods. Washington winters are not generally harsh, although a snowstorm or two is a capital staple. You can catch shining red berries on holly trees at the Arboretum and the waxy green leaves of the Southern magnolias provide a holiday accent, and a stark contrast to the occasional snow. By February and early March visitors can spot the first signs of spring: blooms from camellias, winter jasmine, Japanese apricots and other harbingers of warmer days ahead.
Aside from the seasonal showcase that the Arboretum provides, don’t miss the permanent collection of tiny trees at the facility’s National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. Some of these specimens of horticultural art at its finest date back four centuries, 150 years or so before the nation’s birth. The miniature potted plants have a prehistoric look, shaped and sculpted in a manner that fosters quiet contemplation only minutes from the bustle of the monumental core of a D.C. visit.
And one final note for your Arboretum visit, for kids of all ages. Get a spare quarter out of your pocket and buy a handful of goldfish food to feed the hungry hundreds in the ponds. The yellow and orange fish, some small, some much larger, swarm to the edge of the ponds when tourists toss a few pellets into the water. And don’t worry about over-feeding them because when the small vending machine with the pellets is emptied for the day, the fish have to wait for more until the next day.
Want to tour the Arboretum? Nine miles of roadways connect the gardens and collections for those touring in a car, bus, or bicycle. Small parking lots are situated at each of the stops. If you can, take your bike instead of driving to avoid the crowded parking lots. Those wishing to go by foot can visit the Aquatic Garden and Koi Pond surrounding the Administration Building, the Friendship Garden, the National Herb Garden, and the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, four easily accessible areas. Serious hikers are welcome to venture out into other trails of the Arboretum. Lastly, a tram is available for touring the grounds. Check the website for more information at www.usna.usda.gov/Information/tram.html.
There are not many eating options at the Arboretum (the food cart with lunch options is only out some weekends and holidays; otherwise, there are only snacks at the gift shop), so a picnic is usually the way to go. Picnics are allowed on the east terrace or at the picnic area at the National Grove of State Trees, but nowhere else.
For more information on the United States National Arboretum, visit www.usna.usda.gov/index.html.
Hours: The Arboretum grounds are open every day of the year except December 25 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The Visitor Center is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.daily except for federal holidays November through February.
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.daily except for federal holidays November through February, so plan to visit this collection first if you visit late in the day.
The Arbor House Gift Shop is open daily Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m and Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. See their web site for more information.
Admission: Admission to the Arboretum grounds is free. Tram tours cost $4 for adults, $3 for FONA and NBF members and seniors, $2 for children aged 4 to 16, and free for children under 4.
Parking: Large lots are located near the Grove of State Trees, near the R Street entrance, and near the New York Avenue entrance. Smaller lots are scattered throughout the grounds. All parking is free.
Metrorail: Blue and Orange Lines stop for Stadium Armory is the closest, but a subsequent bus ride is necessary to get to the Arboretum. Transfer to Metrobus B-2; disembark the bus on Bladensburg Road and walk 2 blocks to R Street. Make a right on R Street and continue 2 blocks to the Arboretum gates.