Our first quest came from Mohamed Hussein.
"Please, I like to see U.S. National Arboretum."
First, I had to find it.
The arboretum is not part of the downtown Washington Mall area where 14 museums and institutions line the grassy and treed area that stretches from the Washington Monument (an obelisk) to the U.S Capitol. That's what you normally see on postcards.
The National Arboretum is more than 400 acres of trees, plants, herbs and flowers in the northeast part of the city, along the Anacostia River. It was established in 1927 and it's a living museum where trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants are cultivated for scientific and educational purposes according to its website.
The arboretum -- "arbor" is a garden structure on which plants and vines can grow -- is divided into 10 themed gardens and collections such as Asian Collection, National Herb Garden, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum and others. It’s like taking a walk in a really big and well organized park, but with research labs.
Thanks to Google maps you can actually take a virtual stroll through the Arboretum.
We arrived in the morning and headed to the information center and asked for the four best things to see. The lady at the desk took our map and with a steady hand circled National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, National Herb Garden, National Capitol Columns and Asian Collection.
We started in the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum. The difference between bonsai and penjing (or penzai) is that bonsai is the Japanese style of growing ornament trees and penjing is its Chinese precursor. Bonsai is the Japanese way of pronouncing penzai and thus the origin of the word. This artistic way of growing trees dates thousands of years back. For the grower it is an exercise of patience, consistency and ingenuity, and for the viewer it's a pure pleasure of looking at little ornamental trees. The miniature bonsai can be as small as 8 cm and the large can be as "big" as 200 cm, depends on the type. The age of the trees also depends on their type, but due to their need for delicate care, they can be killed fairly quickly. The collection in the National Arboretum is divided into three Pavilions (Japanese, Chinese, North American) and was started in 1976 by donation of 53 bonsai to the people of the United States.
When you're approaching the Herb Garden the smell of herbs just hits you (what a surprise). The Herb Garden began in 1980 as a gift to the people of the United States by the Herb Society of America. To this day, it is the largest design herb garden in the country. It contains over 800 kinds of herbs. Every plant in this garden is an herb, including trees.
However as you walk through you realize that you have no idea how each herb looks like, even the ones you normally use in kitchen, which makes you feel really smart. With that in mind I started looking for chili peppers. I was positive I would recognize at least those, but I did not find them. Not many people realize trees are also considered herbs as many of them are used as medicine and spices.
The perfect example would be Elder, Ginkgo, Lemon Tea Tree and Coffee plant. The coffee plant is considered herb because it's not used only to make our favorite coffee drink, but is also used as medicine. I ended up having a little love moment with the coffee plant as coffee is my daily live support and we headed over to the National Capitol Columns.
The cool thing about the Columns is that they have nothing to do with flora, yet they are the most photographed attraction in the National Arboretum. Nevertheless they are very majestic as they used to be part of the U.S. Capitol. The columns were built years before the dome of the U.S. Capitol. The dome ended up being bigger than planned and didn't match the columns. That is why they were replaced in 1958. The U.S. government held the original columns in storage until 1984 when the Department of Agriculture decided to display them in the National Arboretum. The steps leading up to the columns also used to be part of the east side of the Capitol.
After the columns the day was growing old and we ran out of time to visit other collections and had to end our visit at the National Arboretum.
The arboretum is a very large area. Even though there are streets connecting all its parts and you can get to different parts quicker, time is still of the essence. We spent over an hour enjoying the calm atmosphere of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum and about the same time discovering herbs of the National Herb Garden. It is easy to loose track of time if you wonder around such beautiful surroundings, but every minute is worth it.
I want to thank Mohamed for sending me to the U.S. National Arboretum, because it is a truly beautiful place and I wish I could’ve spent the whole day there.
The arboretum is open every day (although I recommend to check their website as there might be exceptions) and the admission is free. It is a perfect place to take an afternoon walk if you want to get away from busy city.
If there’s anything else you want us to see or do, leave a comment and we’ll go right ahead and do it. Next VOA Student U guide is our Liz K!
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