Journalist: Kate Baltzell
Photographer: Dongah Shin
When a visitor to Washington, D.C. plans a trip to our nation’s capital, he or she is more than likely going to focus on seeing museums, monuments, and other historical sites of interest. However as the first year students from the Longwood Graduate Program embarked on our first summer field trip experience, we were looking for some natural/horticultural lessons set in outdoor museums amongst all the buildings. That is just what we found at the Smithsonian Institution. Upon arriving in Washington, D.C. we bypassed the urban, industrial parts of the city and headed straight for the steps of the National Museum of Natural History to meet our guide for the day, Barbara Faust, the Associate Director for the Smithsonian Institution’s Horticulture Services Division. We stopped first at the Butterfly Habitat Garden, which was originally just a sidewalk. However, with continuous efforts since its opening in 1995 to claim additional space, the Garden Club of America and the Smithsonian Women’s Committee facilitated its growth to 11,000 square feet, which includes great learning opportunities for visitors. The informative signage about particular butterfly/plant relationships through the four habitats (Urban, Woodland, Meadow, and Wetland Habitat) helps this garden become more like an exhibit and, as Barbara says, ‘People get it!’
Crossing over the grassy lawn of the Mall we cut through the open-air Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden and ran into Diana Brambel. Being the horticulturist in charge of this serene haven, she must continually work with major challenges, such as carefully trimming plant material away from pricey artwork, constant construction hazards, and the large numbers of visitors. The lush green of the grass and creeping ivy provides the quintessential backdrop for the sculptures in this garden. Yet the look and feel of this garden today is much different than an original plan, which had this space dominated by a reflecting pool and pebbled walkways. Once we were inside the contemporary office facility of the Smithsonian Institution, Kelly Crawford and Paula Healy, the Museum specialists with the Horticulture Collections and Education Branch, enlightened us as to how the Smithsonian is working on policies while also setting the standards for their digital photography collection. This department is working with the Garden Club of America to organize an ongoing collection of photos (35 mm and digital) while also preserving about 30,000 slides and nearly 3,000 hand-colored glass lantern slides from the 1920s. All of these priceless images showcase public and private gardens. The Smithsonian also houses books, periodicals, and horticulture artifacts (e.g. seed packets, posy holders, and garden antiques). To keep these valuable documents available to scholars, researchers, and the general public conservation and preservation are very important.
As the group returned to the hustle and bustle of the District’s streets, we found ourselves greeted by Christine Price-Abelow and Erin Clark, horticulturists in charge of the grounds at the National Museum of the American Indian. This site is intended to look much like the natural landscape that existed prior to European settlement. The four different habitats we toured in this garden are extensions of the museum’s indoor exhibit showcasing 33,000 plants and about 150 species naturally found in the Piedmont region for food, fiber, dye, and ceremonial paraphernalia. The Meadow Habitat displayed a 10-year project entitled Always Becoming by artist Nora Naranjo-Morse, who installed five clay structures amongst the meadow’s grasses. These structures are designed to disintegrate back to the earth. In the Cropland Habitat, peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, corn, beans and other vegetable crops are grown using a waffle and a mounding technique. The staff is invited to make use of harvested produce, however the tobacco is dried and given as gifts to be used in tribal ceremonies. Following the curving sidewalk reminiscent of the curving architecture of the museum, we arrived at the Wetland Habitat alive with mockingbirds, lilies, and cattails. Lastly, Christine and Erin led us to the Northern Woodlands Habitat, which moves from wet to dry and blooms year round with phlox, heuchera, tulip poplar, azaleas and other woodland species. The continuous trickle of water from the fountain representing the Tiber Creek, a former tributary of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., was replaced by the sound of steel drums as we passed a street performer on our way to the next stop.
The area between the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden was destined to become a parking lot until Mrs. S. Dillon Ripley, wife of the Smithsonian Institution’s eighth Secretary, stepped in. Thanks to her efforts in 1978, this garden is still bringing a horticultural oasis to the guests and business people of Washington, D.C. Janet Draper works with two volunteers to maintain this third of an acre, wheelchair accessible garden. Janet is full of life and color, much like this garden space. She’s not afraid to try plants unexpected to survive in this climate, like Viburnum awabuki 'Chindo,’ and she wants to excite the public with strange plant specimens such as Solanum quitoense, Aristolochia, and Amorphaphallus. Janet understands the importance of educating garden guests about plants while luring them in for an eye-opening encounter they might not have inside a museum.
With the Smithsonian Castle as a backdrop to the beautiful Katherine Dulin Folger Rose Garden, we gave Shelley Gaskin a break in her busy day. As the Horticulturist in charge of this Garden for six years, she continuously works to maintain year round interest and exudes an obvious sense of pride for bringing horticulture to the public. The roses in the garden are modern roses and most have fun names along with wonderful fragrance. Shelley collaborates with Michael Riordan who is the Horticulturist in charge of the Enid A. Haupt Garden and our final stop for the day. Built in 1986 and funded by noted garden philanthropist Enid A. Haupt, it is made up of three separate gardens (Moongate Garden, Fountain Garden, and Parterre). The three styles of architecture (Roman, Norman, and Neoclassical) and cultural influence of the museums below are reflected in the 4.2-acre rooftop garden. Michael’s eclectic mix of containerized tropicals, funky pots of Mussaenda frondosa, brightly flowing hanging baskets, and never ending ideas left all of us wanting to see what came next.
One theme was recurrent throughout our day: The Smithsonian is different from other “public gardens” in that all but one of the gardens are open 24 hours and 24 million visitors come a year. Most of these visitors may not even realize that the gardens of the Smithsonian exist until they stumble upon the hidden horticultural jewels en route to the next museum. Like us, hopefully, once they have experienced the educational offerings outdoors, they’re sure to be back for a planned visit.