Washington, DC, attracts millions of tourists. The Capital area downtown is heavy with history, and some visitors may tire of the crowds. For those, I suggest a respite at the United States National Arboretum, located a few miles to the northeast. Here, the tourist can wander a peaceful, natural woodland trail, climb a hill for a scenic view of the Capital, or rest on a bench in one of the many formal plant collections. The USNA* offers something to every kind of visitor it might host. And, at 85 years young, it is still growing.

85 years young

The USNA was created by an act of Congress in 1927. It's not the oldest, or biggest, arboretum in the United States. Relative to the lifespan of some trees, it's a mere teenager. But it has grown steadily in its 85 years. The initial acquisition was of 446 acres of scraggley eastern woodland and riverfront, containing a brick factory. The decades since have seen creation of areas of formal landscape, and display gardens of various themes. One of the oldest plantings is the Azalea Collection, dating from the 1940s. The Arboretum sees heavy traffic in spring to view the wooded slope awash in glorious spring bloom. The Dogwood Collection, planted in the 1950s, is another spring delight. Not long after those installations, the Arboretum acquired a large collection of dwarf (is that an oxymoron?) and "slow growing" conifers from private collector William Gotelli. The research work of the USNA has similarly grown. It officially began early in the history of the Arboretum, with the Florist and Nursery Crops Laboratory. The research branch now encompasses programs cooperating with a number of universities and foreign countries.

Gardens for all Americans

Visitors might begin their tour at the Friendship House, near the R Street entrance. This hospitality area is housed in a renovated and typical suburban home, nestled in atypical (to suburbs) gorgeous landscaping. (The main Visitor Center and Administration building is under renovation as I write this. Work is to be complete in 2012.) From this starting point, one is tempted by nearby formal plantings and more natural areas. There are no admission or parking fees, so there is no pressure to see it all in one day. Start at the adjacent National Herb Garden. It encompasses much more than you might think from the humble name "herb garden.' This is the site of the Rose Collection and all kinds of ornamentals. Those are in addition to themed herb plantings illustrating every sense of the word "herb" that one can imagine. Brick paths make this area largely accessible and easy to walk. The striking National Capitol Columns are in view across the Meadow. Mount Hamilton (admittedly a very large hill) is nearby, cloaked in native trees and aflutter with songbirds. Walk Mount Hamilton's paved path to the top for some quiet time and a view of the Capital area to the east.

An "eastern" influenceImage

The collections of this Arboretum show an international influence, just as our population does. The star of the Asian show here could be the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. This impressive collection started with a gift of over 50 bonsai specimens in 1976. This Bicentennial commemoration was followed by an addition of penjing (the Chinese version of this this art form) ten years later. American masters are now represented in the bonsai collection as well. These awe inspiring, living treasures now number over 150, making this one of the largest collections in the world.

Prunus mume 'Okitsu-akabana' greeted us on February 25, 2012 in the Asian Valley

Specimens of Asian origin contribute extensively to this landscape. Many species from Asia do well in our somewhat similar eastern United States climate. Asian Collection plantings began in the late 1940s. Several phases of additon and renovation have resulted in what is now a wonderfully landscaped wooded hillside, sloping to the river. Plants from China, Japan and Korea are featured in a setting which somehow looks beautifully natural while being immaculately groomed.

Still growing

446 acres can hold a lot of trees, and the Arboretum is still growing. The National Grove of State Trees illustrates the Arboretum's committment to future growth. These plantings are young and some of the specimens have decades to go before reaching maturity. The main visitor center and administration building are under renovation. But contributions from many supporting organizations help ensure that this special place can move forward with its mission: "To serve the public need for scientific research, education, and gardens that conserve and showcase plants to enhance the environment. "

I could go on and on...

...but I don't really need to. If webpages were leaves, the USNA website would be a forest in its own right. Virtual tourists can visit almost any part of the Arboretum. Many collections are shown in virtual tours of slide shows with captions. The site also contains acres of educational material, and spotlights the many accomplishments of Arboretum scientists. I've started you off with several links below. Explore further for directions, upcoming program schedules, and more. Enjoy!

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The USNA displays are open every day of the year. Special plant collections range from the small scale perfection of bonsai to the big as life splendor of mature trees. Flowers, herbs and native plant groupings abound as well. Best of all, this botanical wonder is available free of admission or parking fees.

* Note: the acronym "USNA" is also used to refer to the United States Naval Academy. It's a half hour drive from DC and potentially part of a visit to lovely Annapolis, Maryland.

Selected links to the United States National Arboretum website (there is much more to explore):

Virtual tour of the National Herb Garden

Gardens and Horticulture Gardening Page

Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit

United States National Arboretum Home Page