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US Botanic Gardens Reopens - 2001-12-16

At the foot of the U.S. Capitol, where the U.S. Congress does business, is a glass palace. Inside are, among other things, a miniature tropical rain forest, a room filled with orchids and a desert.

This oasis in Washington is the U.S. Botanic Garden, the oldest continuous operating public garden in the United States and a popular attraction for tourists and residents alike. But the institution has been closed for the past four years for renovations.

The art deco architecture from the 1930s has been totally preserved with new walls, skylights, ceiling, lights and floors. But the renovations have made it a wonder of modern technology.

Blanche Kelly, a grandmother from Rutland, Vermont, was the first in line ahead of the tour buses and office workers from nearby government buildings. "My husband has a conference, and I'm free to walk around DC, and I'm so excited because every time I come this has been closed for renovations, and I'm really thrilled to be here to see it again," she says.

You need a map to orient yourself. And the building is overwhelming at first. Four thousand plants, ten greenhouses and automatic doors that lead from a desert with golden barrel cactus to the garden primeval with mosses and ferns from the time of the dinosaurs to a house with orchids in bloom an explosion of baby blue, and lavender and purple. And, with every turn, a discovery.

Map-in-hand you can climb to a catwalk and stand inside a canopy of palm trees, enter the medicinal garden with plants that cure, or watch the insect eating plants. The U.S. Botanic Garden showcases rare and endangered species and plants you might find in your own backyard. Only here a team of gardeners cares for them.

"This is the garden primeval. I not only grew the plants here, but helped design where they went, maintain them for the four years we were closed, help acquire them basically, did the whole process," says gardener Wally Reed, who explained the complex environmental control system. "We can control the relative humidity. We can control the temperature. In the old garden the way we controlled humidity we would put soaker hoses on the radiators and hope that we could put enough humidity in the air to keep the plants going. Now it's all computer generated. We have shading systems that will make it as dark as night or as bright as day."

With a computer opening the air vents and adjusting the temperature, Wally Reed says he's got more time to garden. "I am walking [through] my houses two or three times a day just looking, looking for changes in the plants themselves," he says. "Is it as green as it was this morning? Does it look a little dry? Are there some [signs of] disease showing up?"

Visitors might stop and chat with Wally Reed. But, relaxing on one of the many benches, Public Programs Coordinator Christine Flanagan says newcomers probably won't be aware of the climate sensors hanging from the glass ceiling or the new underground infrastructure. "The entire bottom level is filled with [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] equipment, reverse osmosis water treatment facilities, misting systems, steam access, chilled water lines, huge blowers. I can't even list everything down there. It looks like a factory, and of course all of the environmental control systems are all hooked into it. There are miles of conduit that operate each environment in each house completely independently," she said, noting that most of it is not noticed by the public.

"The visitor notices almost nothing, unless they are on a tour and the guide points out the sensors. They will feel the difference in the environment. They will go from a wonderful warm tropical jungle into a hot dry desert house into a cool garden primeval. They will go from a room where there is wonderful background music because the exhibits are about the human relationship to plants and you hear [the sounds of] a wonderful tropical jungle with frogs and birds and so they will definitely notice a difference in the exhibits," said Ms. Flanagan.

Among the curious this day is a class of four and five year olds from a Capitol Hill nursery school with teacher Carol Betts. The group is entranced by a model electric freight train that circles a 7-meter tall Fraser Fir Christmas tree. But for at least one of the children the attraction is a bit smaller. "I like the red flowers. They smell really good!" says the girl.

It is that awe that Public Programs Director Christine Flanagan hopes the Botanic garden will inspire in children of all ages.