Way at the edge of the city, off of New York Ave. NE, near the Goodwill and the Days Inn, sits a hardy, lasting jewel: The U.S. National Arboretum.
This 446-acre refuge is a long way from any Metro station and four blocks from the closest bus stop, making it accessible mostly to visitors with cars, although the 9½ miles of roads within the park are perfect for bicyclists — in fact, most parking areas also have bike racks.
While D.C. tourists flock to sexier attractions like the Air & Space Museum (8 million visitors a year), the arboretum, in its quiet splendor, attracts half a million. Those who make the trek, however, are rewarded by the heady aromas and colorful blooms of thousands of seasonal plants, all thriving just a few miles away from the hustle and bustle of the National Mall.
A recent June weekend featured a free program: Under the Arbor: Lavender, Chiles, and Roses. Members of the Potomac Unit of the Herb Society of America staffed tables demonstrating how to make crafts out of lavender stems and jewelry from rose petals, among other crafty pursuits.
Upcoming programs and events are listed on the arboretum site, but July and August are light months — the long walks through open spaces in D.C.’s hot, humid summers prove too much for many outdoorsy types. If you’re brave enough venture out, check out the What’s Blooming page ahead of time to make sure you don’t miss anything on your visit.
Target Preferred Areas
The arboretum is divided into many sections with plenty of parking at each, so there’s no need to turn your trip into an endurance exercise by walking to each. Simply visit the section you’re interested in, jump back into your air-conditioned car and make your way to the next one.
Major sections marked on the map include the visitor center, Asian collections, azalea collections, dogwood collections, fern valley, friendship garden, Gotelli conifer collection, holly and magnolia collections, the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, the national boxwood collection, the National Capitol columns, the national grove of state trees, the national herb garden, the perennial collection and the youth garden.
It would be a hardy individual indeed who could see all of these in one visit, but thankfully it rarely makes sense to do so, as many of the gardens take turns being in bloom.
National Capitol Columns
The Capitol columns are always in season, however, so you don’t want to miss these. The 22 sandstone Corinthian columns stand atop a rise at the edge of the meadow on Ellipse Road. This squadron of stately strength was originally put into service in the East Portico of the Capitol in 1828. The columns were removed in 1958 when the building was renovated, and they were re-homed at the arboretum in the 1980s.
A reflecting pool at the base of the grouping lends a distinctly D.C. air to the attraction, although on a recent day, the small puddle of muddy water sitting in the center functioned as more of mosquito breeding ground than a picturesque addition.
Regardless, the installation is striking. The imposing columns seem to radiate strength and endurance, yet at the same time suggest impotence, as each stands independent from the other with no unifying structure to support. If nothing else, they stand as a testament to life’s second chances, for those that survive to claim them.
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum also offers year-round pleasure, with its amazing trained miniatures, some of which are hundreds of years old. The arboretum’s collection, one of the largest in North America, was born in 1976 when the Nippon Bonsai Association donated 53 trees and six stones in honor of the U.S. bicentennial. The collection is now 150 pieces strong.
Admission to the arboretum, like so much of the cultural offerings here in our nation’s capital, is free. The grounds are open every day except Christmas from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except for national holidays November through February. The bonsai museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
This summer, take a day to forego some of D.C.’s famous man-made wonders for a sample of some natural beauty.