Arboretum: Still Beautiful at 75
A picturesque view of
the Asian Valley, one
of many beautiful gardens
at the Agricultural Research
Service's U.S. National
On a typical fall day in the
nation's capital city, a refreshingly cool breeze whips through the herb garden
at the U.S. National Arboretum, shaking aromas from their floral sources and
wafting them through the air for all to smell.
The eyes are the windows to the soul; but for one to best appreciate the
site's spirit, the nose must also have its due.
Beneath the invisible layer of perfume and kneeling among the plants are
several arboretum volunteers, clipping, pruning, weeding, and pushing dirt
around the plant beds that house more than 100 types of herbs. That close to
the ground, it can be hard for them to see the value of their work.
Jim Adams, curator of the National Herb Garden, throws some grass to the
side of his brown boots, wipes the sweat from his brow with his forearm,
careful not to damage his sunglasses, and surveys his garden with pride.
View of the National Herb
Garden. A rose arbor in
the background is part
of the U.S. National
Arboretum's Antique and
Historic Rose Garden.
"What would you like to
know?" he asks, ready with an encyclopedic description and history for
every herb under his care.
Indeed, there is much to know about the U.S. National Arboretum; after all,
the plants there can't take care of themselves.
The Historical Place
Like many institutions in Washington, D.C., the arboretum is one that the
founding fathers didn't necessarily have in mind. In fact, this peaceful nature
sanctuary wasn't even a glimmer in George Washington's eye.
This 35-year-old specimen,
known as Pauper's Tea, or
Sageretia theezans, is
part of the U.S. National
Arboretum's penjing collection.
It took an Act of Congress to
establish the U.S. National Arboretumon March 4, 1927nearly 150
years after the birth of the nation. This year the woodsy retreat celebrates
its diamond anniversary. It is administered by the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's Agricultural Research
Officials point to the fact that the arboretum is a facility for both
research and public education. Each year more than 500,000 visitors from all
parts of the world visit the 9,000 different kinds of plants growing at the
arboretum. Another half million visit through the World Wide Web to learn about
gardening and current ARS research.
Over the course of its history, the arboretum and ARS have introduced over
665 new plant releases and secured 13 patents and 2 Environmental Protection
Agency biopesticide registrations.
Acrocona cultivar of
Becoming More Inviting
Perhaps more than any other ARS research center or laboratory, the arboretum
has an aesthetic appeal to visitors. Amidst the hustle and bustle of modern
lifeparticularly the congested lanes of rush-hour traffic along New York
Avenuethe 446-acre arboretum is an adult's version of "The Secret
Garden," a hidden paradise of trees and flowers waiting to be explored.
Despite the fact that it's hidden, visitors come from all around the world,
says Tom Elias, director of the arboretum. But the more the merrier.
"We'd like to see even more visitors," Elias says. Administrators
feel that many people don't know it exists, particularly in the metropolitan
area. The problem may stem from the fact that there is no subway station near
the grounds, a convenience that many other D.C. landmarks enjoy. Officials and
the Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) helped alleviate that problem by
arranging for a weekend Metrobus to shuttle visitors to the grounds.
Geranium sanguineum, in the
herb garden at the U.S.
Besides beauty, the
arboretum offers its guests special exhibits that often attract a lot of
attention. For example, the large attendance at special events like the highly
successful Big Bugs sculpture exhibit in 2000 and the Asian Arts Festival in
2001 thrilled Nancy Luria, who leads the arboretum's Education and Visitor
"Parents and children came back last summer (2001) and asked where the
Big Bugs were," Luria recalls. "We didn't know just how successful
that exhibit would prove to be."
But suggestions left behind by visitors opened her eyes to the thoughts and
needs of guests. Requests for more parking and more public restrooms led the
list. Visitors also wanted a snack bar.
One of 14 giant insect
models in the Big Bugs
exhibit of 2000 at the
U.S. National Arboretum.
The body is carved from
black walnut, and the wings
span 5 feet and are covered
with plant fungi.
Artist: Dave Rogers.
In response to these needs,
upcoming master plan renovations call for improved parking and more restrooms.
And, over the fall, officials worked to get an agreement with a concessionaire
to sell lunches and snacks to visitors.
Rooted in Research
Last year, ARS staff at the Henry A. Wallace Beltsville (Maryland)
Agricultural Research Center, found a new appreciation for the arboretum's
Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit (FNPRU).
A tornado tore through nearby Prince George's County in Maryland, touching
down at the University of Maryland-College Park, parts of Greenbelt, and along
U.S. Route 1, where ARS research laboratories and the National Agricultural
Library stood helpless. Many federal cars were destroyed, and parts of several
buildingsincluding the library and most of the greenhouseswere
heavily damaged. Many trees were uprooted or twisted and shattered so badly
that they had to be removed.
At the U.S. National Arboretum,
Glenn Dale azaleas flourish
amid 446 acres of formally
arranged trees, shrubs, and
Arboretum scientists and curators
helped the Beltsville ARS facility with a gift of plant introductions to
replace the ones lost during the storm.
FNPRU has a storied scientific tradition that goes back to when the
arboretum was started. But the investigation of floral and nursery crops began
in 1862, when Abraham Lincoln established USDA and the department initiated
programs such as plant exploration to find and introduce new species.
Today, FNPRU scientists use classical breeding, genetic engineering,
molecular biology, entomology, and virology to solve problems for industry
professionals as well as for the avid recreational gardener who's looking for
hardy plants resistant to pathogens and pests.
Sort of a "Secret Garden,"
the U.S. National Arboretum is
tucked into the nation's
capital. This view of the
U.S. Capitol and the
surrounding Washington, D.C.,
area was photographed from
the arboretum's Mount Hamilton
one of the highest points
in the city.
researchers recently used genetics to investigate plum pox virus, which spells
trouble for the $1.3 billion stone fruit industry that includes plums, peaches,
apricots, nectarines, and other ornamental relatives. A technique called
polymerase chain reaction allows ARS scientists to confirm the presence of PPV,
detect the different strains, and assess their potential to damage host plants.
FNPRU scientists also help introduce new cultivars that can defend
themselves against disease-causing pathogens. The lab recently released a new
Chinese redbud, a cultivar called Don Egolf, a variety of Cercis
chinensis with a natural defense against Botryosphaeria dothidia
canker. A leafhopper-resistant variety of red maple with brilliant fall colors
and elm trees resistant to Dutch elm disease are testaments to the work done by
arboretum researchers to help protect America's backyards against both visible
and invisible foes.
The Don Egolf Chinese redbud,
recent introduction by the
U.S. National Arboretum.
Volunteers to the Rescue
One of the arboretum's first famous plant introductions, the Glenn Dale
azalea, almost got buried under weeds on the hillside of Mount Hamilton,
located on the grounds.
Benjamin Yoe (B.Y.) Morrison, the second director of the arboretum, serving
from 1937 to1951, introduced Glenn Dale azaleas and oversaw mass plantings of
the hardy, larger flowered hybrids.
From Mount Hamiltonone of the highest points in Washington,
D.C.visitors can see the U.S. Capitol. Yet, walking along covered paths
through the trees and the hillside was once virtually impossible, and many of
the interior azaleas had become buried under invasive vines and other weeds.
U.S. National Arboretum
researchers devised a
technique to develop a
whole rose plant from
cells. Here, technicians
Brandy Jones (left) and
Siobhan O'Connor examine
rose cultivars regenerated
from somatic embryos in
Bullock and her team of volunteers restored the beauty and value of the
estimated 15,000 azaleas spilling down the hillside.
"For one reason or another, an important part of the arboretum's history
was almost lost. My volunteers and I put in a lot of hours clearing the trails
and accentuating the azaleas," Bullock says, while whizzing her small
utility vehicle along the narrow ways. "We rebuilt paths and placed
markers so visitors will know which varieties are which."
their efforts, thousands of people once again enjoy the flowers on April
weekends when the shrubs are in peak bloom.
Purple iris, Iris pallida.
It would be difficult for the arboretum to function as effectively as it
does without the supportfinancial or otherwiseof private-sector
organizations. The Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA) is a key nonprofit
organization that provides valuable financial support, especially for arboretum
internship programs, the maintenance of the gardens and collections, the
Washington Youth Garden, and special projects. FONA also plays an important
role in communicating the arboretum's needs to Congress, foundations, and
others. Their quarterly newsletter, Arbor Friends, is an effective tool
for disseminating information about the arboretum and about FONA's
Another organization of great value to the arboretum is the National Capital
Area Federation of Garden Clubs, Inc. This group maintains its headquarters at
the arboretum and operates a gift shop as a service to visitors. In 1958, the
federation was instrumental in establishing Fern Valley, the arboretum's native
plant collection, and its members continue to support the arboretum by
volunteering as gardeners and tour guides. The group also funds a variety of
special projects. activities.
Daisylike flower, Leucanthemum
One project that is partially
funded by another support group, the National Bonsai Foundation, involves
improvements to the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. The museum was closed
last fall so construction crews could give it a $1.3 million, 7-month-long
facelift. Funds for the project came from ARS and the foundation, which was
established 20 years ago to support the creation, development, and ongoing
activities of the museum.
Renovations to the bonsai museum's courtyard area make it more accessible to
visitors with disabilities, one of the goals outlined in the arboretum's
strategic plan. Narrow gravel pathways are being replaced with hard,
wheel-friendly surfaces. Crews are also installing an automated irrigation
system and lighting for nighttime events, and they are repairing grading and
Scepter holly cultivar
introduced by the U.S. National
Arboretum in 1999.
"Newcomers are always amazed
at the beauty of the bonsai collection and often become repeat visitors,"
says curator Jack Sustic. "Our goal when the museum reopens is that their
experience will be even greater than before."
Now comprising about 150 bonsai, the nation's collectionwhich is the
world's first bonsai museumbegan in 1976 as a Bicentennial Celebration
gift from the people of Japan. Since that time, the U.S. National Arboretum has
become the conservator of additional bonsai gifts made to U.S. presidents,
beginning with one presented to Richard M. Nixon. The oldest tree, a 375-year
old Japanese white pine, survived the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan more than
50 years ago. It was tended by a single family for six generations before it
became part of the collection. The exhibit also features younger,
"thirtysomething" bonsai of American trees like spruce and maple.
Like the bonsai, the U.S.
National Arboretum has strong roots, which secure its place among the nursery
industry, government, and the American public. There's something for everyone
at this beautiful paradise for education, plant collection, and scientific
exploration.By Lupe Chavez,
formerly with ARS.
For more information, contact the U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York
Ave. N.E., Washington, DC 20002-1958; phone (202) 245-2726.
"U.S. National Arboretum: Still Beautiful at
75" was published in the
issue of Agricultural Research magazine.