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February 2008

In Our Own Backyard

Finding Winter Warmth at the Botanic Garden

By Michele Bush Kimball, Ph.D.

Barren trees, dormant plants and cold, wet ground on the outside make entering the United States Botanic Garden almost magical at this time of year. Visitors are met with warm, humid air, blooming plants and lush greenery around just about every corner. It is in fantastic contrast to what is actually happening outside the walls of the conservatory.

A wintery visit to the Botanic Garden had Joey, 4, and Gracie, 3, enthralled. They like plants and learning about them, but they don’t have a strong interest in botany. The gardens offered so much activity and learning for them that, to our surprise, they didn't want to leave.

First proposed in 1816, the Botanic Garden is located right next to the Capitol on the National Mall. It has been in continuous operation and open to the public since 1850. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were instrumental in establishing the garden in 1820.

We started our visit in the Garden Court right inside the entrance. The oblong courtyard was filled with economic plants – the kind of plants that provide food, beverages, spices and other commodities. On the walls are colorful murals depicting the ways the plants are used. The cacao tree, which provides chocolate, was exciting to Joey and Gracie, who were not nearly as enthusiastic about their parents' favorite commodity: coffee, but we were thrilled to see a plant with actual coffee beans on it.
From there, we entered the Jungle Room, which is as humid as any afternoon at our former home in Miami. Many of the plants were ones we had in our own backyard. So for Joey and Gracie, it was as much a quick trip to their old stomping grounds as it was a learning experience about the jungle. Steam rose from a stream as Joey and Gracie peaked into the water from a bridge.

“I smell warm,” Gracie said as the humidity swirled around her.

Joey was excited that he could go through one door and enter a jungle, right in the middle of the city. “It’s a jungle in here,” he said. “I love this.” And then he dashed off to see if he could find some jungle animals. He had no luck, much to my relief.

In every room, there is some sort of activity for children. There are interactive boards that help them (and adults) identify the plants around them. The Botanic Garden also offers a Junior Botanist program for kids. All they have to do is bring an adult with identification to the front desk, and they will get to borrow a backpack filled with tools they can use while exploring the conservatory. When they get home, kids can work on some activities online. They will graduate from their apprenticeship to become an official junior botanist, certificate and all. There is also a Children’s Garden where children can play among the plants, but it was closed for the season when we visited.
From the jungle, we went to the desert. All four of us loved not only seeing the difference in plant life as it changed from vibrant green to sandy beige and gray, but also feeling the change. The difference between the humidity of the jungle to the arid dryness of the desert was palpable.

The plant life in the desert was strikingly different also – from leaves to spikes. Joey and Gracie crouched down to look at the cacti growing in the sand and rocks. Joey said they looked like creatures to him rather than plants, then assured us that he “was not afraid of these.”

Gracie, on the other hand, warned all of us not to touch the cacti because she thought we might get hurt. “I don’t like them to poke me,” she said.
After a quick trip through Hawaii, we entered the Garden Primeval, which shows a landscape of ancient plants that have survived for 150 million years. Look for the dinosaurs hiding among the greenery.

Next, we visited a room devoted to plant adaptations. There are several interactive learning stations for kids of all ages. Joey and Gracie especially enjoyed the hands-on aspect of this room, and we parents enjoyed all that they learned about how plants have evolved.

In the far corner of the conservatory is a stunning orchid display. The Botanic Garden holds about 5,000 specimens of orchids, and it displays about 200 at any time. As an orchid grower myself, I could have stayed in this corner for the entire afternoon. Even the kids were impressed with the odd shapes, colors and sizes of orchid blooms.
The highlight of the trip for Gracie was the West Gallery. The room is filed with whimsical sculptures of plants and flowers, with several other sensory stations. Visually, the bright colors and exaggerated sizes of the sculptures captured the kids’ attention immediately. But the sounds and smells held them. In the middle of the room are recorded sounds of people talking about gardens, with moveable pictures of different kinds of gardens nearby.

Among some of the sculptured plants are herbs and spices for visitors to smell. This is the part Gracie loved because she smells everything, all the time. It is her favorite sense, we are sure. She could not get enough of filling her olfactory system with scents of cinnamon, sage, balsam fir, dill or wasabi. She found a friend near the arrangement of curries; they discussed whether cloves smelled like cake, and they concluded affirmatively. Gracie could have spent the entire day in this room and gone home happy.

By then, it was time for us to leave. Both kids were disappointed to go home. And for two kids who don’t agree on much, it was a testament to the variety of exhibits at the Botanic Garden. So, we bundled ourselves back up and braved the cold, knowing that we’ll be back.

Michele Bush Kimball is a freelance writer based in Springfield and a stay-at-home mom.

Things to know if you visit the United States Botanic Garden

Location: 100 Maryland Avenue, SW, just southwest of the Capitol.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Cost: Free.

Transportation: Parking is available at a few meters around the building. We had no trouble on a Sunday morning, but it would be very difficult on a weekday. Public transportation is a better bet.

Metro: Federal Center SW or Capitol South stations.

Food: There is no food on the premises. For lunch, we dashed across the street to the cafeteria in the National Museum of the American Indian, where there were many choices.

Website: www.usbg.gov

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