02 Dec 2010

Things We Take for Granted: The United States National Arboretum

Photo by María Helena Carey, who loves taking pictures at the Arboretum.

Maybe I should start off this post by titling it, “Things we mostly take for granted, except for the azaleas.”  After all, the azaleas are a very big draw to the facility in spring and people have nearly given themselves coronaries because the Arboretum is basically doing some drastic site maintenance.

Anyway, at just a little over two miles away from the Capitol, the Arboretum sprawls on 446 acres, overlooking our neighborhood. The Department of Agriculture established it back in 1927 for the preservation, classification and cataloguing of plant species.  Since then, it’s been an invaluable resource and plant catalog for domestic and foreign species; some of its collections, such as the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, are among the largest in North America.

Some may complain that the Arboretum is not part of Capitol Hill, and therefore why write about it on a hill-centric blog; others may whine about its relative inaccessibility compared to other park-type attractions– after all, the closest Metro is Stadium-Armory and you would have to take a bus and then walk from Bladensburg Road down R Street.  Others may complain that there is not enough parking; or perhaps too much parking, which takes space away from the flower and tree collections.

To all nay-sayers, whiners and complainers I say, go.

Go by yourself and sit by the Koi pond and frown deeply.  Try to hold that frown as you see the swarms of crazy fat fish swim lustily all over each other to try to get fed.  Try keeping that angry moue as you see little kids and old ladies and everyone in between squeal and smile and Fwaw! and point at the little baby Koi which are just as vicious as their full-grown compatriots, if only not nearly as hefty.  Thank goodness they don’t have teeth.

Still not feeling the spirit?  Then take yourself and your furrowed brow on a walk around the Herb garden during a warm day.  Don’t inhale the spicy scents that are going to try to swirl all around you.  Close your eyes when you see butterflies and dragonflies and all manner of other -flies dancing around you.  Shake your fist instead.  Or take a stroll around the Bonsai Garden and refuse to be amazed by tiny and graceful little trees, some of which are older than your grandma.

If you’re really, really annoyed, then hike up to the Capitol Columns.  Glare pointedly at the expanse before you– the grassy scent of freshly mowed lawn in spring; the brown and melancholy field that invites you to walk off the path in autumn and winter.  Don’t enjoy the pond or the fountains, and for goodness’ sake, do NOT stare lovingly at the Yoshino Cherry tree on your way to the top of the columns– the one that has a bench under it, where you can see people taking pictures for posterity year-round, or perhaps an avid reader curled up under a blanket on a nice winter day.  Finally, just hold your breath, because I don’t think your city-scarred lungs can handle the clean and fresh-scented air that wafts over you whenever you’re there.

First-time visitors should be prepared to have their jaw drop, really.  It’s pretty awe-inspiring to take a short drive or bus ride and be in a place that feels like time stood still; like you’re no longer in the middle of a city, but are instead in a calm and zen retreat, where you can be as little or as much of one with nature as your comfort level allows.  A place where you, your children and/or your dogs are all welcome to go run a little wild and feast your eyes on the work that dedicated people, breeders, volunteers and scientists have been quietly doing for decades.

Want to go, then?  The United States National Arboretum is located at 3501 New York Avenue, NE.  More information as well as maps can be found at their website.

Psst: if you care about the azaleas so much, may I suggest becoming a Friend of the National Arboretum?  Really?  Yay!  I’m a friend, too!


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  • It is a pretty amazing place to explore!

  • Maria Helena Carey

    I completely agree!

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