traveling and meeting other cultures: ideas, destinations, reviews and tips
The United States Botanic Garden, Part 1: Review and Tips
Independence Avenue with
the Capitol in the
background and the glass
roof of USBC
Conservatory is visible
next to the Capitol
building on the right.
When you are on the National Mall (the one that is in Washington DC) and looking at the US Capitol Building, you cannot but notice on the right side the glass dome of The United States Botanic Garden (USBG). Perhaps it's not accidental that it's located so close to the Capitol - after all, the Garden has been under the jurisdiction of the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress since 1856 and has been administered through the Office of the Architect of the Capitol since 1934.
The United States Botanic Garden is not as big as some other botanic gardens with hundreds of acres of trees and plants. Nevertheless, it is a real jewel - its Conservatory with various indoor gardens and very interesting and educational permanent and temporary exhibits makes this place a very popular attraction for adults and children. Moreover, its location and concept offer great flexibility in visiting USBG - it can be your destination for the whole day; on the other hand, if you are in the area and on a harried schedule, just spend an hour enjoying wonderful flowers and other plants. All this is possible regardless on the season - whether it's a cold winder day or summer haze, you will find inside the Conservatory various temperature and humidity controlled habitats suitable for both, their residents and visitors. During off-pick hours the Conservatory ambiance may remind you the one you usually find in a library - with serene mood and people talking in subdued voices and stopping children when they become too loud or too impish.
Not a surprise, The United States Botanic Garden attracts crowds of people - on average, more than 2,000 visitors every day. For a relatively small place this is a lot. Because of this, unless you decide to visit the garden at the spur of the moment, plan you visit carefully. First, keep in mind that although the Conservatory is the main USBG facility, there are two outdoor locations belonging to the complex you may want to visit: Bartholdi Park (located across the Independence Avenue) and National Park (opened in October 2006 next to Conservatory). However, during winter time, outdoor locations are not pretty, and there is not much to see. Also, although I do not have any relevant statistics, it seems that in general the number of USBG visitors is much smaller during such months as December, January and February.
When planning your visit, consider checking the USBG calendar of events - one of our favorite events is the annual orchid exhibit (in addition to the Garden's permanent Orchids section) cosponsored by the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Smithsonian Institution. Events usually include temporary and traveling exhibits; many events are held for children (like Children's Fun Day festival). Some of them have been created even for preschoolers of age between three and five. Lectures, tours and workshops are offered as well. Topics vary from gardening and cooking to landscape design and art. Need an example? How about "Photographing Orchids" class (five sessions, cost $150 for nonmembers) or "Landscape Design for Homeowners" (six sessions, $180 for nonmembers). Finally, I should mention that some of these classes offer credits to meet educational requirements for the Corcoran College of Art + Design certificate in botanic art.
Admission to the garden is free: a good news not only because you will not pay but also because you will not have to wait in line to buy tickets. However, on busy days you may still wait (a reasonably shot time) for your bags to be searched by security. When enter the conservatory floors, you will find yourself in what is called "Garden Court." The court is usually featuring economic plants - the ones used in commercial products including food, beverages, cosmetics and commodities. This is also the place for some important temporary exhibits such as annual orchid exhibit. The Garden Court is one of the most interesting and colorful places in the garden. It's even more interesting when its floor is used for temporary exhibits like An Alphabet Garden of Orchids
From the Garden Court you can continue your exploration in the Jungle built around the topic of a tropical rainforest overtaking an abandoned plantation. As everything in the United States Botanic Garden, the Jungle area is not that big; nonetheless it is very impressive and interesting. It is located under the dome that rises to 93 feet and includes the Canopy Walk at 24 feet above the floor and accessible by both, stairs and elevator.
The idea behind the Jungle is very smart, and its implementation is very realistic. Obviously, to reproduce a real jungle environment in such limited space would be extremely difficult. But the theme selected fits nicely a civilized indoor ambiance. It shows the vigor and power of nature that will inevitably return back whatever human beings have dared to take from it unless we undertake continuous efforts to defend our conquests. A large variety of plants growing in the Jungle not only helps illustrate the point, but also has an educational and scientific value. As in other sections of the Garden, those who created the Jungle took a special care in conveying the atmosphere of the place. You will find extremely realistic sound effects (including exotic birds), water misters and even artificial fog usually found in the entertainment industry. In the Jungle, it really adds to the mood.
At the time of writing this article there were 15 thematic sections in the Garden. In addition to what I already mention, they include Medical Plants, World Deserts, Hawaii, Children's Garden (an area where kids can play and learn about plants), Plant Adaptations (showing examples of amazing evolutions in the plant world), Garden Primeval (a reconstructed landscape of ancient plants that survived for 150 million years), East Gallery (A Guide To Be Green - a permanent display of life from plant's point of view), Medicinal Plants, Orchids, Plant Exploration (dedicated to plant discoveries), Southern Exposure (North American plants native to the Southeast, Southwest and Mexico), Rare and Endangered Species, West Gallery (Plants and Culture - a permanent exhibit showing the role of plants in human life) and West Orangerie (I could never understand what this is for).
It's up to you to decide what you want to see while in the Garden. My favorites include the Orchid room, the Garden Primeval and West Gallery. The orchid displays have about 200 species of this flower (according to USBG its orchid collection numbers about 5,000 specimens) - not that much since by some estimates the number of orchid species approaches 25,000 with 800 species added every year. However, it's a wonderful place for those who love flowers or for photographers who love taking pictures of flowers.
The Garden Primeval is a bit surreal and spooky - when I am entering it, a strange feeling captivates me. I am looking around and see plants - at first glance, nothing unusual - just same green color. Yet I know: something is different here even if I am not a botanist. Somehow I know that this is not my world. Perhaps not a surprise if you are in the middle of plants that survived 150 -300 millions of years of evolution. Indeed, you look closer and, without being a scientist, notice many unusual details about various ferns, horsetails, and club mosses - all of them flowerless plants that appeared during the moist, Paleozoic era. A lot of things are indeed different - the structure of branches that often looks like whorls, branches that remind small leaves, the way the leaves clasps stems, strange formations on stems and leaves.
What is good about the United States Botanic Garden is that it goes beyond simple exhibiting of various plant specimens. There is also a strong focus on many roles plants play in human life. That's why I like West Gallery with its Plants and Culture permanent displays demonstrating how plants provide livelihood, tools and therapy to our everyday life, and how they contribute and enrich human society throughout its history with meaning, symbols, ornamentation and inspiration. All these themes are covered by collections of items illustrating respective topics.
In our everyday routine with all the fruits of technological development, we often forget about our roots, about the foundation of our existence and about the beauty of nature. Visiting this garden is a chance to learn more about plants. It is also a refreshing experience that connects you with life on Earth and helps apprehend the perfection of its forms and manifestations.
Part 1: Review and Tips
Part 2: Virtual Gallery - Orchids