An herb garden packed with peppermint, basil, sage and other tasty herbs, announced by signs that read “Touch me,” is just one of inviting and numerous year-round attractions at the renowned, historical 446-acre U.S. National Arboretum (and botanical gardens). You’ll also delight in the National Bonsai collection, which is famous at the Arboretum, and the Penjing Museum, which is composed of outdoor patios and greenhouse-inspired pavilions.
The mission of the federal facility, nicknamed USNA and located only a few minutes from downtown Washington, is to conduct research, provide education and conserve and display trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants to enhance the environment. And boy do they enhance the environment! USNA is divided roughly into seven regions containing about 40 separate plant collections and gardens. The conifer collection lies along the northernmost border. Dogwoods are found at Dogwood Circle in the northeast corner. With views of the Anacostia River, Hickey Hill Overlook on the eastern perimeter is surrounded by hollies, magnolias and the Chinese, Japanese and Korean collections. Underneath Hickey Hill next to the crabapple trees is the Kingman Lake Overlook. Visitors can also revel in Beech Spring Pond and the Gazebo to the west; or Fern Valley and the Native Plant Collections, which lye along the southern border. The marvelous Mount Hamilton Overlook, with its vista of the capitol, and the amazing Azalea gardens both lie to the southwest.
Any time of year is a good time for a visit to USNA, whether you’re coming to see trees or flowers. In autumn, visitors can see blazing foliage; and in winter, they enjoy holly plants and pine cones aplenty! In spring, revel in the tulips, daffodils and tall trees swaying in the breeze, while summer brings more blooming plants, and more floral displays. Summer attractions include sunny days in the shade of thousands of trees plus garden highlights like Day lilies, herbs, wildflowers and Water lilies on the Administration Building pond. With acres of exotic and familiar flowers, plants and bushes and nine miles of paved roads, the Arboretum is one of the country’s largest of its kind!
Whether you’re going to see the arboretum or plan to spend part of the day frolicking in the gardens, you can rest assured you’ll need the following Top Ten Fan Favorites at USNA List to take as an appendage to any maps or brochures you receive on-site!
1. National Herb Garden
The National Herb Garden began as a gift to the people of the US from the Herb Society of America. It is the largest designed herb garden in the nation that includes annual, perennial, and woody herbal plants. The Entrance Garden highlights seasonally changing beds with plants as exotic as passion flowers or as commonplace as pansies. In this part of the garden, the plantings change from year to year. A circular plaza just inside the entrance is set off by a small pool and fountain; here the National Capitol Columns summon you to traverse the meadow to get a closer look. Nestled between two arbors is the Knot Garden where dwarf Japanese holly, juniper, and arborvitae are woven into a graceful geometric design. Beyond the grapevine-covered arbors, the Antique and Heritage Rose Garden is home to more than 100 varieties and species of roses that are important in the long history of rose cultivation and hybridization. The heart of the National Herb Garden is the ten theme gardens where a wide variety of plants are brought together to illustrate the ways that herbs help us and their importance in different cultures. These include the Dye Garden, Medicinal Garden, Culinary Garden, Fragrance Garden, Industrial Garden, and Beverage Garden. They all show how herbs are important in our lives. The Native American Garden, Colonial Garden, Asian Garden, & Dioscorides Garden depict herbs that are key to different cultures and historical periods.
2. National Capitol Columns
Every place has its landmarks… One of Washington’s most notable and unusual landmarks is the National Capitol Columns. The stately durability of the Corinthian columns and their careful setting on a natural knoll in the Ellipse Meadow makes it seem as if they’ve been there for a very long time. In fact, the National Capitol Columns are one of the most recent features added to the Arboretum, little more than a decade ago. Definitely a must-see attraction, the columns are as imperial-looking as the monuments along the famous mall!
3. Fern Valley
From ephemeral spring woodland wildflowers to dazzling, drought-resistant prairie plants, the flora found in a broad slice of the eastern United States is represented in the Fern Valley Native Plant Collection. Many of the plants in the collection are native to the Washington, DC area. In addition, prairie plants that you’s see on the western edge of eastern forests, plants of the sandy, flat Coastal Plain in the southeastern US, and trees, shrubs, and woodland flowers of New England are also part of the Native Plant Collection.
4. Dogwood Collections
Dogwoods are known for having it all: flowers, fruit and foliage! Gorgeous in the autumn, the trees’ four-bracted flower clusters are also synonymous with spring! The abundant collection straddles a long, open ridge between the Gotelli Collection of Dwarf and Conifers and the steep slopes leading down to the Anacostia River. The meandering river passes by in a wide bend but can be seen from two overlooks in the collection. Today, the long grassy fairway that leads to the fountain at the far end is lined with mature dogwoods that bloom throughout spring and summer months. Starting in March with the yellow flowers of the cornelian cherry, flowering dogwoods grace the collection in mid-spring, & the Chinese Dogwoods bloom heavily as late as early June. Red fruits follow in summer, and leaves turn to coral, burgundy, and red in September and October. Winter frosts highlight the red fruits and the artistry of flower buds ready to unfold in the first warm days of spring. Essentially, anytime is a good time to visit this resplendent collection, however USNA recommends visiting at the height of bloom, from April to June.
5. National Bonsai & Penjing Museum
The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum began when Japanese bonsai enthusiasts donated 53 bonsai and six viewing stones to the United States to commemorate the Bicentennial in 1976. The collection has grown with the addition of pieces from American bonsai masters and penjing from China. Today, three pavilions house about 150 plants. Throughout the year, The Museum also features modern work of local bonsai enthusiasts! The gardens in the Museum are more than a backdrop for the bonsai and penjing pieces: the Ellen Gordon Allen Entrance Garden primes you for the experience of visiting the museum with its sculpted pines; the Cryptomeria Walk calms your soul as you pass through the shade of the evergreen branches; the upper courtyard, with its water feature and bonsai display welcomes you to the center of the museum. This is a true “must-see to believe!”
6. The Holly & Magnolia Collection
Both hollies and magnolias have broad-leaved evergreen species that make this collection an oasis of green through the dull days of winter. In high summer, the broad creamy white saucers of the evergreen magnolias take center stage. The shrubby deciduous hollies fruit heavily every year bringing joy to the winter landscape, and the furry buds of deciduous magnolias burst into bloom in the first balmy days of early spring.
7. National Boxwood Collection
The USNA’s Boxwood Collection is one of the most complete collections of boxwood in the world. There are nearly 150 different species and cultivars planted in this verdant corner of the Arboretum. Some have blue-green leaves, others have leaves variegated with splashes of cream or yellow. Some are dwarf and mature at a height of less than two feet. One variety, ‘Graham Blandy,’ grows upward in a narrow column like an exclamation point in the garden! The Boxwood Collection is enchanting during any season, but winter is a special time when bold green foliage rebels against the dullest of days. And in spring, small flowers appear to odorize the air with the sweetest fragrance. This diverse collection serves as the framework for the Perennial Collection, and every spring and summer it faithfully provides a green backdrop for the colorful blooms of the daffodils, peonies, and daylilies.
8. National Grove of State Trees
It’s only fitting that state trees have a permanent home in the Nation’s Capital, right? “The Grove” is a display of trees representing the 50 states and D.C. A group of trees is cultivated to represent each state, and each tree on display was actually acquired from the state it represents! The Grove covers a 30 acres with trees spaced widely enough to accommodate their mature dimensions. The state trees are interspersed among various other trees that grew on the site before development of the area.
9. Washington Youth Garden
The Washington Youth Garden lets kids sow the seeds of interest in gardening, horticulture, and environmental issues with cautiously designed lessons and activities, which are then taught in classrooms of several area schools. Third through fifth graders start by planting their own special garden plot in the Youth Garden. As summer progresses, they experience the drama of nature often missing in urban life; they enjoy the wonder of watching seeds shooting up, of nurturing growth, and of proudly sewing the fruits of their labor. They also experience the challenge of weeds, the attack of pests, and the cycle of death, decay, and rebirth as they manage their plots.
10. Asian Collection
The Asian Collections are some of the Arboretum’s most dramatic. The terrain slopes steeply from the heights of Hickey Hill to the placid Anacostia River, and a dazzling array of plants adorns the slopes; in this collection, something is blooming in every month of the year. A great sight to see at USNA, the Asian collection includes the Camellia Collection, the Japanese Woodland, China Valley and Asian Valley.
So take the above Top Ten List with you, and indulge yourself at United States National Arboretum! Enjoy year-round festivities, attractions and exhibits at the USNA, located at 3501 New York Ave. NE. For more information on private tours and bookings for events, call 202-245-2726.
U.S. National Arboretum
Washington D.C., DC 20002
3501 New York Ave