Even though I grew up in Virginia and have visited just about every attraction that Washington, D.C., has to offer, this was my first time at the U.S. National Arboretum. With the autumn leaves at their peak, and lacking a car to get out to the nearby mountains, we headed to the national park and botanic garden in the hope of seeing pretty fall colors.
Before setting out, I had only a vague idea of what an arboretum actually was and the Webster’s dictionary definition wasn’t terribly exciting:
a place where trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants are cultivated for scientific and educational purposes
In actuality, the U.S. National Arboretum is a 446 acre park with nearly 10 miles of pathways winding through woods and gardens. The most famous feature is perhaps the National Capitol Columns, a field of 22 original sandstone columns that once graced the front of the U.S. Capitol Building. Constructed in 1826, the columns served as the backdrop to several presidential inaugurations including that of Abraham Lincoln. The columns were taken down in 1958 when the Capitol was expanded, and were later installed in the arboretum.
We picked up a map from the visitor’s center to keep from getting lost in the large and hilly expanses. Our explorations were focused on the southwest corner of the arboretum, walking past the lovely Lee Garden and its still-blooming pink azaleas to the summit of Mount Hamilton from which we could supposedly see the Capitol. The view, partly obscured by trees, was nothing to write home about, but the walk was lovely and peaceful.
My biggest surprise was the Arboretum’s National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, which came highly recommended by staff at the visitor’s center – and for good reason! Having seen stellar bonsai gardens in Asia, my expectations for these local offerings were low. I was operating under the assumption that bonsai were always created from green conifer trees and was delighted to find that isn’t the case. Bradford Pear, Japanese Maple, Quince, and even California Redwood trees can be pruned into delicate shapes with time and patience. Better still, the leaves of the miniature trees had turned brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange!
Have you been to an arboretum? Where’s your favorite place to see the changing leaves of autumn?