It’s just around the corner—arguably Washington’s most beautiful season—spring! And there’s no better place to take in the wonders of the Mid-Atlantic’s bounty of color than the National Arboretum.
The U.S. National Arboretum is a living, breathing museum consisting of 446 acres of land bordering the Anacostia River in Washington DC. A staff of scientists and educators, along with 140 volunteers, maintain the Arboretum’s landscaped gardens and expansive green spaces. Yet, this is more than just a place to enjoy nature’s beauty; the National Arboretum’s more than one half-million annual visitors may be unaware of its underlying mission – to invent new and improved plants and trees.
What is the National Arboretum?
An arboretum differs from a botanical garden in that it focuses on the cultivation of woody versus herbaceous plants. The first botanic garden on record was founded in Padua, Italy in 1533. The Missouri Botanical Garden was the first large public garden planted on U.S soil and was privately funded by Henry Shaw in 1859 after visiting the legendary Kew Gardens in England.
These gardens have multiple purposes: to create protected green spaces in metropolitan areas and to cultivate breeds of trees and shrubs that are impervious to ever-changing environmental challenges. The National Arboretum was established by an act of congress in 1927. A broad base of individuals and organizations joined forces to advocate for its launch. Business leaders, academicians, nurserymen, the American Botanical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science were key players in drawing the blueprint for the Arboretum’s operation and design.
The National Arboretum has one of North America’s largest collections of bonsai trees. These mini masterpieces are on display at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in America’s national garden, where scientists conduct research on plants, trees and flowers.
Walking and Hiking at the National Arboretum
As the weather grows warmer, the trees begin to bud, and the gardens are pruned to make way for new shoots; this is an ideal time for a scenic hike. One of the most memorable evening activities in the District is joining the Arboretum staff on a Full Moon Hike, a five-mile walk through moonlit gardens, meadows and woods. Check here for dates and to sign up. The hikes fill up quickly.
Check out the Visitor Center where you can watch some very fat koi fish swim among planters of cat tails, lotus and rush plants. The staff adds partially-submerged trees, such as a spindly bald cypress, for something unexpected. Visitors linger and gape as the comical koi appear to dance around the pots. A female duck perches on her eggs in a grassy container, while the male ducks float around her protectively. Bullfrogs croak their greetings. Kids absolutely love the Arboretum because there’s so much room to run and explore. But bring food and drinks because there is no food vendor on the grounds.
What Can I Expect to See at the Arboretum this Spring?
Very soon, the early bulb flowers like crocus, winter-hazel, wintersweet, sweet-box, cornelian-cherries will begin to flower. After that, the Japanese-andromeda, winter jasmine, pussy willows will bloom. By the end of March and maybe earlier, expect to see daffodils, woodland wildflowers and flowering cherries.
Another very special experience during the springtime is catching the mating season of the Arboretum’s resident bald eagle couple. Named The President and The First Lady, you can see their nest adjacent to the Azalea Collection. Staring in April, visitors might consider the inexpensive Tram ride around the property at 12 non, 1, 2 and 3 pm. During the 35-minute non-stop ride, you will hear an informative, taped narrative about the Arboretum, its history, mission, and research, and the display gardens and collections. Be prepared, they only take credit cards.
How do I get to the National Arboretum?
Northeast Washington, DC, with entrances on New York Avenue and R Street. The closest Metrorail subway stop is Stadium Armory Station on the Blue and Orange lines. Transfer to Metrobus B-2; disembark the bus on Bladensburg Road and walk 2 blocks to R Street. Make a right on R Street and continue 2 blocks to the Arboretum gates. The Arboretum grounds are open every day of the year except December 25 from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free.
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