Established in 1850, the US Botanic Garden in DC is a congressional project that has experienced openings and closures through its centuries old history, but enjoys its current life as a complex of three parks along Independence Avenue. As an institution dedicated to the study and conservation of plants, the US Botanic Garden has been under the care of the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress since its inception. The Architect of the Capitol resides over future renovations and construction.
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The three parks – the Conservatory, the National Garden, and Bartholdi Park – are home to about 65,000 plants, some protected under the gardens’ directive to conserve endangered plants. Each plant is labeled with their names and native ranges, introducing visitors to the garden’s residents at their own pace, bringing them closer to species that may otherwise be impossible to find in the wild. Admission to the gardens is free, but photography is limited to personal use and artists wishing to bring solvents or larger easels must seek a permit from the gardens’ management. For those looking for more information on how to include more plants at home, there is a catalog of classes on the gardens’ website. These classes must be paid for but feature a variety of gardening topics and other demonstrations that accommodates all plant-related interests.
The first established structure of the park, the Conservatory’s exterior has remained mostly the same since its construction in 1933, housing the same pair of courtyard gardens and ten garden rooms from its opening. Even through updates to its environmental systems, renovations, and rotating exhibitions, the main gardens and collections still flourish under the glass of the original Lord and Burnham greenhouse.
The Garden Court features plants that give us the resources we need for everyday life, while the Tropics leads visitors around the ruins of an old plantation overgrown with jungle foliage and up a mezzanine level to view the canopy at eye level. The exhibitions grow even more foreign as the visitors move to the Garden Primeval, a Jurassic park with plants that survived hundreds of millions of years of evolution, and the vegetation of Hawaii, the Mediterranean, and World Deserts, each brimming with plants that developed different adaptations and have different uses and meanings to the cultures that surround them. The Medicinal Plants, Plant Adaptations, and Rare and Endangered plants show different ways plants interact with the environment and the ways people who use them, while the Orchid exhibit shows the more decorative aspect of the garden.
While exhibits like the Southern Exposure exhibit steers guests from interacting with the succulents and cacti, smaller children can enjoy exploring their own Children’s Garden, which features a climbing structure, a kiwifruit vine tunnel, and a digging area that is open for planting, watering, and other plant activities. For the bigger garden-lovers among the visitors, the West and East Galleries house the seasonal exhibits, which can feature hands on activities along with holiday displays and art exhibitions. The current and past rotations of exhibits, each around six months long, can be found on the gardens’ website.
The newest addition to the US Botanic Garden, the National Garden is the outdoor counterpart to the indoor Conservatory. Featuring several views down to Capitol Hill, the National Garden specializes in plants that can thrive in D.C.’s climate. All plants compete for space within their designated gardens, an experiment in survival of the fittest in action.
The Regional Garden shows a selection of local plants, while the Rose Garden is an experiment in organic rose-gardening on the Mid-Atlantic coast. The National Garden also includes the Rain Garden and the Terrace Gardens, both outdoor features located around the windows of the Conservatory.
Built when the Botanic Garden was relocated, Bartholdi Park and its gas lights have been a popular night attraction since the 1880s and today serves as both a demonstration garden for those interested in learning how to cultivate their own plants at home and a green retreat from the park’s urban surroundings. The park’s two acres undergo constant landscaping and plant changes, making the park the best place to see the latest in modern horticulture trends and newest plants. The plant variety ensures that something is flowering, growing, or turning colors no matter when one walks its grounds. The heart of the park is the Fountain of Light and Water, a cast-iron structure better known as the Bartholdi Fountain. The fountain’s 30-foot stem is surrounded by a basin lit at night by several lamps.
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