The National Herb Garden
It displays the many ways these diverse plants enhance our everyday lives.
U.S. National Arboretum employee Chrissy Moore (green
jacket) and volunteer Nancy Johnson spruce up the entrance to the National
The National Herb Garden, a popular feature on the grounds of the U.S. National
Arboretum (USNA) in Washington, D.C., began as a special gift to the people
of the United States from the Herb Society of America. Headquartered in Kirtland,
Ohio, the society spent 15 years working with the U.S. government and raising
matching funds to ensure its completion.
The garden was dedicated in May 1980. Recently, the arboretum embarked on a
6-month celebration of the 25th anniversary of its opening. Says horticulturist
Jim Adams, the National Herb Gardens curator, Were very excited.
Weve scheduled many special lectures and demonstrations to help our visitors
understand the central role that herbs have played in societies for many centuries.
Planned by landscape architect Tom Wirthwho was then with Sasaki Associates
of Watertown, Massachusettsthis is the largest designed herb garden in
North America and includes annual, perennial, and woody herbal plants. Its 2.5
acres are divided into three main sections, one of which is subdivided into
10 specialty gardens. Plants are labeled, and interpretive signs help visitors
understand the collection in the context of the herbs history and use.
A major USNA renovation a few years ago now gives full accessibility to the
herb garden via broad paths and gentle inclines.
The Knot Garden, named for the pattern of the evergreen
shrubs, is located within the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National
An integral part of the arboretumwhich pays for 95 percent of the gardens
maintenance and operation coststhe National
Herb Garden is tended by USNAs Gardens Unit. Staff cultivate an extensive
collection of rosemary, lavender, scented geraniums, and salvias that, along
with many tropical and subtropical potted herbal plants, enliven the gardens,
terraces, and walkways. Each year, Gardens Unit staff grow about 400 varieties
of annuals for the herb gardenincluding 60 to 90 varieties of peppersand
maintain nearly 75 containers of tender trees and shrubs in a greenhouse during
Jim Adams, curator of the National Herb Garden, working
with Salvia elegans.
Gardens Within the Garden
Visitors to the National Herb Garden enter along an herb-lined path to a reception
plaza. Its cooling pool and fountain overlook the sunken Knot Garden, named
for the intricate pattern into which chains of dwarf evergreen Japanese holly,
juniper, and arborvitae have been woven. In the distance rise the Corinthian-style
National Capitol columns that graced the east portico of the U.S. Capitol for
more than a century.
Next, beyond vine-covered arbors, visitors enter the second section, the Historic
and Species Rose Garden. Here bloom many types of old roses that
existed before 1867. The collection includes more than 100 specimens in categories
such as Albas, Bourbons, Centifolias, Chinas, Damasks, Gallicas, Mosses, Noisettes,
Teas, and Hybrid Perpetuals. Such roses have long been grown for medicinal and
culinary purposes as well as for their beauty and scent.
In the gardens third section, visitors can familiarize themselves with
hundreds of the herbs that have not only enhanced the quality of human life,
but also sometimes brought fortunes to growers and traders. They are arranged
in discrete, wedge-shaped groupings arrayed around a central circle. In order,
- Dioscorides Garden medicinal herbs from a pharmacopoeia
compiled by the Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides. At around A.D. 60.,
he collected hundreds of plant, animal, and mineral specimens from along the
Mediterranean seacoast and described them in a reference that was respected
in the profession for the next 1,600 years. Todays aspirin is a synthetic
copy of the compound from a white willow tree studied by Dioscorides, who
noted that juices from its bark and leaves eased colds aches and fevers.
- Dye Garden herbs mainly used to color fabric and textiles,
though many plants serve multiple dye functions. For thousands of years, plants
have been used to color everything from hair, skin, and clothing to baskets,
medicine, and food. Plant dyes have also embellished living and sacred spaces.
- Colonial Garden practical herbs that were largely brought
from the Old World by early settlers to flavor their food, improve their nutrition,
cure their ills, repel pests, and enhance fabrics for clothing and households.
- Native American Garden herbs traditionally valued by
native North Americans as food, beverages, medicines, dyes, and charmsas
well as for smoking. Early European colonists soon adopted many of these plants
- Medicinal Garden herbs used for healing from the time
of ancient medicinal herbalism to development of synthetic drugs that mimic
herbs active constituents. Even today, about 40 percent of prescription
drugs contain herbs, and pharmaceutical companies scour the world for potential
new plant sources.
- Culinary Garden herbs widely used as both food and
flavoring. In small quantities, these can add color, character, and interest
to nearly any dish, and they can be combined in about as many ways as there
are cooks. They add healthful nutrients, too.
- Industrial Garden plants that might become renewable
sources of raw materials for industrial products. Increasingly, plants are
being scrutinized or modified for usable constituents, such as waxes or resins.
Converting plants into fuels, insecticides, lubricants, rubber, fibers, or
other industrial materials could give farmers higher value alternative crops
and lessen dependence on petroleum-based products.
- Fragrance Garden herbs typically usedsome for
at least 4,000 yearsas perfume or to provide fragrance in homes and
places of worship.
- Oriental Garden herbs mainly from Japan, China, and
Korea that have been used for thousands of years in cosmetics, dyes, flavorings,
medicines, and industry.
- Beverage Garden herbs used for teas, liqueurs, and
other drinks. In addition to coffee and tea, many consumers also enjoy teas
brewed from chamomile, lemon balm, peppermint, and other flavorful herbs.
U.S. National Arboretum director Thomas S. Elias says that the herb garden
is an excellent reminder of the many plantsherbs and flowers, as well
as shrubs and treesthat have long been valued in Americas gardens,
farms, public spaces, and wild places.By Alfredo
Flores, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This project is part of Plant, Microbial, and Insect Genetic Resources,
Genomics, and Genetic Improvements, an ARS National Program (#301) described
on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
James R. Adams is curator of the
National Herb Garden, U.S. National Arboretum,
3501 New York Ave., N.E., Washington, DC 20002-1958; phone (202) 245-5967, fax
"The National Herb Garden" was published in the May
2005 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.