The U.S. Botanic Garden is a living plant museum located on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Its mission is to promote the importance of plants through displays and educational programs, as well as providing ideas for home and sustainable gardening. There are three gardens on the U.S. Botanic Garden campus – the Conservatory, the National Garden and Bartholdi Park. They are all administered by the Architect of the Capitol.
Even before the federal government took permanent residence in Washington, DC, President George Washington expressed his desire to erect a Botanic Garden in the new capital city. Washington, along with the other Founding Father presidents, were not just politicians, they were gardeners. Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison spent years researching, collecting, and cultivating plants and seeds to improve agricultural production and protect the integrity of the land. They also experimented with what were then, innovative farming techniques, such as crop rotation and use of manure. As an agrarian nation, they knew that agricultural advancement was essential to expanding the young nation’s food supply, discovering medicines, and developing new products to grow the economy. The visionary George Washington wanted this information to be accessible in the new national capital.
With a limited purse and a deep war debt, however, the fledgling nation barely enough money to fund the essential public buildings being constructed in new federal city. George Washington’s Botanic Garden was put on hold. It was not until 1820 that fifth president James Monroe signed a bill granting five acres of land to the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, which intended to use it for a botanic garden. The land assigned to them was located at the foot of the U.S. Capitol. One of the Institute’s goals was to collect seeds and plants from all over the world, then cultivate and distribute them throughout the country. But by 1837, funding dried up and the Institute folded. The garden was lost, but not forgotten.
Around the same time, the U.S. government sent Lieutenant Charles Wilkes on a four-year U.S. Exploratory Expedition to explore and survey the Pacific. Though collecting plants was not its primary mission, he and his team returned in 1842 with about 10,000 plant species and over 250 live plants from all over the globe, including the Fiji Islands and Brazil. Now they needed space to study and grow them. The plants were first housed at the U.S. Patent Office (now home of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum) until Congress appropriated funds for a Botanic Garden. In 1850, the first greenhouse was built on the same land previously designated to Columbian Institute where the U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool and Ulysses S. Grant Memorial stand today. For the next several decades, the greenhouses and collections expanded. Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan brought more variety to the mix. The greenhouses became a popular attraction with its array of exotic plants from China, New Zealand, Panama, and the East and West Indies.
Toward the latter part of the 19th century, however, the City Beautiful movement inspired a redesign of the haphazard layout of Washington, DC. The Senate’s McMillan Commission recommended restoring and expanding architect Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the city, which entailed clearing the National Mall of obstructions. As a result, the greenhouses were dismantled and a new Conservatory was built at its present day location between Maryland Avenue, SW and Independence Avenue, SW. The glass and aluminum structure was completed in 1933, and a major renovation was completed in 2001. Bartholdi Park, located across Independence Avenue from the Conservatory, was created in 1932 and renovated in 2016. And the most recent addition was the National Garden, a three-acre outdoor garden located next to the Conservatory was opened in 2006.
Today, the mission of the Botanic Garden is the same as it was in the days of the Founding Fathers – to educate the public on the importance of plants. Be sure to visit the garden and enjoy it for its intended purpose. You will be inspired.
There are three garden spaces in the U.S. Botanic Garden campus on Capitol Hill – the indoor Conservatory, and the outdoor National Garden and Bartholdi Park. Here’s a sample of what you will see.
The Conservatory, originally completed in 1933, is an aluminum and glass-domed greenhouse that contains ten enclosed garden rooms and two outdoor courtyards. The plants on display represent a variety of climate types including the tropics, the desert, and the Mediterranean; there are other rooms displaying orchids, medicinal plants, and endangered plants. The two-level Tropics room has a metal gangway for viewing the plants and trees from a high perch. There is a Children’s Garden in an outdoor courtyard (opened seasonally) and galleries for special exhibits. It’s a magnificent collection of plants from common to exotic, strange to beautiful, representing plant life from all over the globe.
The National Garden is a three-acre, outdoor garden opened since 2006 on the grounds of the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory. After President Ronald Reagan declared the rose to be the national flower in 1986, plans were underway to create a garden displaying dozens of varieties of roses. In addition to the Rose Garden, the layout was expanded to include a Regional Garden featuring native Mid-Atlantic plants; a Butterfly Garden; an Amphitheater; a Lawn Terrace; and the First Ladies Water Garden. Visitors can stroll through the winding paths past the ponds and streams, or sit on a bench in a quiet niche. Any time is a good time to walk through the garden as plants come in and out of bloom from season to season. May is an especially good month to see the roses in full bloom.
Bartholdi Park is a two-acre outdoor garden across Independence Avenue from the Conservatory that provides a relaxing, shady spot for busy Washingtonians. Its centerpiece is the cast-iron Bartholdi Fountain that is illuminated at night. The garden contains a revolving collection of native plants, flowers, shrubs and trees used to demonstrate planting techniques and plant combinations that can be applied in home landscapes. It also features a large kitchen garden, where visitors can see a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs growing on Capitol Hill. Check the website for cooking demonstrations and food lectures in the park.
The U.S. Botanic Garden offers a variety of children’s programs, concerts, tours, workshops, lectures, cooking demonstrations, fitness programs, and more. School field trips are also available. Check the website for more details.
Be sure to stop by during the holiday season for the annual “Season’s Greenings” display. The Garden Court is decked out with hundreds of poinsettias surrounding miniature versions of our national monuments made from all natural materials. There’s also a themed Model Train exhibit, located at a separate entrance, which is a delight to children every year. Live seasonal concerts are given on select evenings.
The gardens are open daily, including weekends and holidays. Admission is free. Check the website for regular and extended hours, maps, special exhibits, programs and events, tours, educational and volunteer opportunities. Public transportation is recommended as parking is limited.
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