So, as I mentioned, my mother-in-law was recently visiting, and I was on the hunt for interesting places we could take her that would be easy, and very “DC”. It wouldn’t hurt if the thing we chose to do was cheap or free, and would take advantage of the lovely weather and the fact that the cherry blossoms were in bloom. And as I thought over these requirements, it became obvious – we should visit the National Arboretum.
First off – the Arboretum is tucked away in a corner of Northeast DC that most people don’t generally don’t go to accidentally. But there, tucked amid strip malls and residential neighborhoods, there are entrances to the Arboretum. Technically, an arboretum is a botanical collection of trees, but the National Arboretum has slightly more than that. As part of their collection, there are also flowers and flowering shrubs. Part of this is probably to make sure there is something interesting growing green and blooming as much of the year as possible, but also because it allows the USDA (which runs the Arboretum) to put on display as many types of plants native to the United States as possible, and not just the trees.
Although honestly, we were there for trees. And not just any trees, but to see the cherry trees. The National Arboretum and the USDA are part of a program that actually cares for the flowering cherry trees that all the tourists visit each spring down at the Tidal Basin and around the National Mall. Because the trees only live for about 100 years maximum, the USDA and the Arboretum have both created clones of the original trees which were a gift from Japan in 1912, but has also created new cultivars – hoping to gain the best attributes from a variety of sub-species in order to find a blossoming cherry tree that is both hardy and produces a wonderful bloom.
Because of this, there are a variety of the cherry blossom tree species scattered throughout the Arboretum. And since the Arboretum itself is out of the way of downtown, and there’s not much of tourist appeal in the immediate surrounding area, there are many fewer people walking around looking at the blossoms. So this felt perfect – the weather was lovely, the blossoms were just at their peak, and because the Arboretum has many cultivars, if one subspecies had lost all its flowers, chances are that another would be in full bloom. And guys – it was SO GOOD. Not only did we get to go around and look at all the different species, but the Arboretum supplied a handy map and guide which told us where each particular tree was located, and gave a little additional information on each one. The loop that we walked was a little over a mile on paved roads, so very easy going. In fact, it was so easy going, that the baby fell asleep in her carrier!
And it wasn’t just the cherry trees that were in bloom, but there were quite a lot of magnolia trees as well with their giant flowers opened up. My mother-in-law was intrigued by these, as they have some in gardens near where she lives, and we had a lovely time just walking around and seeing what was blooming and taking pictures. We also had an interesting time climbing up onto the Capitol Columns, which are columns that really did attach to the U.S. Capitol years ago, but when the building was redone in the 1950s, they were removed and brought to live at the Arboretum. They are imposing and impressive, and feel slightly out of context in the field where they stand, like the ruins of a long-lost civilization.
In any case, this is all to say that the National Arboretum is a wonderful place to visit, especially if you have out of town guests. If you manage to go on a weekday, chances are that there will be far fewer other visitors, and you can wander around the many spaces in peace. There is plenty of free parking, and there is no admission fee, so that’s all wonderful as well. At various times of year they have events related to what’s in bloom, and to their specific collections. We didn’t have a chance to stop in, but there is a large permanent collection of bonsai trees as well, and what I imagine is a temporary exhibit that we saw on the American lawn – different kinds of grass, and how that relates to water usage.
I feel so lucky to live in and near a large city with lots to do. And while I definitely have not been everywhere that’s cool, I feel like having visitors forces me to find these places that will be interesting and memorable. And the National Arboretum now stands squarely near the top of my “recommended places to visit” list.
Details: U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002. Free parking, free admission. Open daily, 8am – 5pm.