Even the most dedicated of gardeners wants a change of scenery now and then. America's National Park System can supply that change of scenery in myriad settings. These sites are more than beautiful picnic spots. Our National Parks protect unique natural features and archeological sites. They preserve historic and cultural buildings. They provide educational opportunities for schoolchildren and study sites for scientists. And they serve as places of respite for the weary body and mind of gardeners; what could be more welcome than natural beauty with no weeding attached?
A stately sycamore grows alongside a historic stone bridge in Antietem National Battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland
Every state has at least one National Park Service property. Parks range in size from the whopping, world class "National Parks" to historic sites consisting of a single home. The largest park is located, naturally, in the largest state. But even tiny Rhode Island can boast of four sites under the supervision of the National Park Service.
A day at the park is traditionally a low-cost excursion. Two-thirds of National Park Service facilties require no fees. 58 of the 59 "National Parks" do have user fees. But fees are reduced or waived every year on a smattering of special admission days, including an entire week in April. In 2013, the week of April 22 - 28 is National Park Week.
Why a National Park article on a gardening website? National Park facilities offer all sorts of intriguing experiences for those who love trees, nature, wildflowers, or gardens. The following examples give a hint of the varied and unique offerings found in park facilties:
Witness Tree, Antietem National Battlefield, Maryland - You'll find American Sycamores in many national parks. A huge tree with distinctive patchy bark, Sycamore may be the single most recognizeable tree species in America. British colonists and white settlers followed waterways for economic and agrarian reasons. Sycamore trees favor the riverside environment, so they were found near many settlements and witness to numerous historical events. One such tree is the Witness Tree at the Antietem National Battlefield. This spectacular tree was much smaller at the time of the battle in 1862. Today we can stand in the shade of the mature Witness Tree, and gaze into the peaceful cool waters of Antietem Creek. The horrors of "the bloodiest day in American history" are distant and almost unimaginable, but not forgotten as one tours the historic fields, hills, and woods of Antietem.
Joshua Tree National Park, California - When is a tree not a tree? When it is the strikingly contorted Joshua tree. Closely related to grasses, Joshua Trees belong to the Yucca family. Joshua Tree National Park is located in the desert to the east of Los Angeles, California. Surprisingly, fifty different species of moss have been identified growing in this desert park.
Merritt Park in the Manzanar National Historic Site, California - There's an often-overlooked piece of American history behind Merritt Park gardens. During World War II, thousands of Japanese Americans were forced to live in internment in Manzanar. Under the direction of internee Kuichiro Nishi, a beautiful garden, including water features, was developed in the camp. The gardens provided welcome brightness to camp life. When the camp was emptied in 1945, Merritt Gardens was left unmaintained. Archeologists and volunteers, including descendents of Kuichiro Nishi, are now working to restore Merritt Park's plantings and water features.However disruptive the internment experience was, the camp and Merritt Gardens were the site of happy events like weddings and births.
North Cascades National Park, Washington - A chilly landscape which contains over 300 glaciers within its boundaries, this park also boasts an impressive number of plant species. Scientists have documented over 1600 species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses, without even beginning to count ferns in the park. Wildflowers come into bloom by March and can still be viewed through August. Microclimates vary widely here. The Cascade Ridge provides thousands of feet of variation in elevation, as well as having a wet side and a dry side due to prevailing weather. Archeological studies open a window on how humans lived in, traveled through, and used resources within this rugged zone for over 8,000 years.
Naval Live Oaks Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida - Live oak wood, dense and durable, was the material of choice for the construction of American wooden ships in the 1700s and 1800s. Even special framing pieces of oak were custom made by following the natural curve where a massive limb met the trunk of the oak. The USS Constitution was nicknamed Old Ironsides, because of the iron-like strength of the live oak timbers. John Quincy Adams authorized the creation of a federal live oak reserve here in 1828, to ensure a supply of this precious building material. In the digital age, it is awe-inspiring to see how craftsmen once made impressive sailing ships while working in harmony with nature.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina - I'm sorry to disappoint you but National Park Week isn't much of a bargain in the Smokies - because this park is always free. The Smoky Mountains include parts of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Rainfall, elevation, location, and limited disturbance make this region incredibly rich in plant and animal life. These days, the Smokies are rich in human life, too, of the "tourist" kind. This park has the highest attendance rate in the system, but 800 miles of trails ensures room for all to relax. This park is named as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, in honor of the park's incredibly rich biology.
From the redwood forests (Redwood National Park, California) to the gulf stream waters (Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida), America's National Park Service and National Park Week were made for you and me. Find one near you by using the Find a Park page linked here.