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U.S. Botanic Garden: A living plant museum in our nation’s capital

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by Jeanne Duffey

Artifacts are nice and the Smithsonian Institutions in our nation’s capital are wonderful repositories of stuff and founts of education on space, rockets, rocks, minerals, natural history and numerous other subjects.

But, as an avid gardener, I was blown away by my first look at the United States Botanic Garden. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., with my husband’s relatives, I made a beeline for the two courtyard gardens and 10 garden rooms under glass, 28,944 square feet of growing space where the living artifacts are displayed.


Leading the way through the conservatory’s indoor gardens and galleries, my enthusiastic and talented nieces, Michaela Duffey, 20, and Miranda Alldaffer, 17, shot the photos accompanying this column. This living plant museum contains more than 12,000 accessions which equates to about 65,000 plants. And, equally impressive, every plant is artfully and pleasingly displayed, expertly documented and clearly labeled.

Established by the U.S. Congress in 1820, the Botanic Garden is one of the oldest in North America; it includes historic specimens, several dating from the original 1842 founding collection. The garden, according to its website, promotes the "importance and often irreplaceable value of plants to the well-being of humans and to earth’s fragile ecosystems" and "the living treasures of the plant world." Its commitment for the 21st century is to a "sustainably interconnected web of life that is the environment by nurturing the plants that support life on our planet." I have no problem with that.

The Lord and Burnham greenhouse, constructed in 1933, is a beauty in itself. The vintage building was re-opened in 2001 after a four-year renovation to replace its antiquated systems with state-of-the-art completely automated environmental controls that monitor outside weather, misting, shade cloth, fans, air-handling equipment, heat and window vents. Even better, the modernization left the historic exterior essentially unchanged, except for an addition at the rear of the building.

The garden rooms within the conservatory are grouped according to themes and purpose. For education and enlightenment, take a stroll through the garden court where plants used in clothing (see Old Man Cactus at right), food, cosmetics and other products are displayed. For breathtaking, awe-inspiring beauty, check out the orchid room with its 5,000-some specimens with hundreds on display at any given time.

And don’t miss the jungle. The 93-foot dome houses a tropical rainforest. From the mezzanine, you can view the entire jungle canopy. Walk on and you will find yourself in Hawaii amid the splendor of native species that have adapted to the special conditions of volcanic islands.

I am fond of succulents, so I was fascinated by the desert gardens, cacti interspersed by grasses, shrubs and other flowering plants that thrive in hot, dry climates. Just when I thought the horticulturists and others who designed the U.S. Botanical Gardens couldn’t do more, they did: the garden primeval, a reconstructed Jurassic landscape full of ferns and other ancient plants that have survived 150 million years.

On my visit, I was only able to scan the surface of what you can learn and see at the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Jeanne Duffey is contributing editor of GREENE Magazine. She is a Master Gardener and board member of Friends of the Garden.

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