Sunday, April 5, 2015

Washington, DC: more than just cherry blossoms

Smithsonian Castle
Smithsonian Castle and Enid A. Haupt Garden, July 2014

If you asked almost anybody what Washington, DC is known for, cherry blossoms would probably be in the top five things they list.  This time of year, tourists start taking picture of pretty much any tree with pink flowers, thinking they're cherry blossoms.  In reality, these are often flowering plums or magnolias, both of which bloom a bit earlier than the cherries.  There are a few early cherries blooming here and there, but this has been a late spring and it will be another week or so before the cherries reach their peak.

Visitors enjoying magnolias in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden

Why this obsession with the cherries?  They draw thousands upon thousands of tourists every spring, just to see their fleeting flowers.  Heck, there's even a National Cherry Blossom Festival, with its own parade.  Forget driving or parking anywhere near the Tidal Basin during cherry blossom season; the traffic and crowds are so awful that most locals steer clear unless we have visitors who insist on seeing them!  When you think about it, that's pretty amazing: all those people coming to Washington, DC just to see flowers.  How many cities in the United States can say that?  And truthfully, if you can get there early enough to beat the crowds (and I'm talking around dawn), the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin are absolutely breathtaking.  There's a reason why people flock to see them.  Then, a week or two later, they're gone, and so are the crowds.  But that's not the end of the growing season here; it's just the beginning.

Stump the kids: where else will you see a giant typewriter eraser?

In a few short weeks it will be azalea season, another short but glorious time for our city, and people will descend upon the United States National Arboretum to see the azalea collection, which again is quite breathtaking.  This is more of a local event, because most tourists don't even know the arboretum exists.  And again, once the flowers are finished blooming, visitors to the arboretum dwindle to a mere trickle.  This is truly a shame, because the Arboretum is one of our city's jewels and deserves a lot more attention than it gets.

Gymnocladus (NOT ALBIZIA!) chinensis
Gymnocladus chinensis, rarely seen cousin of Kentucky coffee tree.  National Arboretum, July 2010

Last year I wrote a series about the Smithsonian Gardens around the museums on the National Mall (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). There are many other wonderful public gardens in and around Washington, DC, all of them worth seeking out, and most of them are free.  But spring is not the time to see them.  In my opinion, summer and fall are the best times to see our gardens because that's when most of them reach their peak.  The gardens aren't just beautiful; they include many rare, unusual, and exotic plants thanks in large part to the work of botanists and horticulturists at the USDA, the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the National Arboretum.  These federally-funded institutions have helped make Washington, DC a unique horticultural destination, and most visitors--and even many locals--don't even know it.

Rhododendron (Azalea)
Early-blooming azalea, Butterfly Habitat Garden, Smithsonian Institution

If you love gardens, then Washington, DC is a city you should visit.  How can we get the word out about our great gardens?  Susan Harris, a local garden blogger known for her contributions to Garden Rant, has spearheaded an effort to help publicize our local gardens and bring them the attention they deserve.  With the assistance of Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener magazine, the DC Gardens website is dedicated to "showing off DC's fabulous gardens and spreading the word about gardening."  Susan has enlisted local photographers (including yours truly) to contribute photos of our local gardens, but the website also provides information about local garden clubs and garden-related events.  Susan has produced a couple of videos to introduce DC Gardens:

Susan has already put a huge amount of time and effort into this, but there's still a lot more to do.  To help get this effort off the ground, Susan has established a fundraising campaign called DC Gardens - Beyond the Cherry Blossoms with a goal of raising $25,000.  There are 4 weeks left in the campaign, and only 20% of the goal has been raised so far.

Washington, DC can--and should--be a horticultural destination, and not just during cherry blossom season.  So this year, get past the tyranny of the cherries and brave the summer heat, or better yet come and enjoy our wonderful fall weather, to see some fabulous gardens.  Please help us get the word out, and please contribute to the DC Gardens fundraising campaign!

For more information:

DC Gardens website
DC Gardens Indiegogo fundraiser
Washington Post article about DC Gardens


  1. What a great campaign! And the answer to the stump the kids question about the giant eraser is - Seattle, in that other Washington.

  2. I love our public gardens. Anyone who visits DC and doesn't visit them, has really missed out.

  3. Right now in Newark, we have our own massive Cherry Blossom festival along all three linear miles of Branch Brook Park.
    Being 300 miles north means one can drive to DC and see Newark's 1 week or 2 later. Newark is microclimate 7a.