The National Arboretum: Washington DC’s Playground

A magnificent pine bonsai at The National Arboretum
A magnificent pine bonsai at The National Arboretum

By Kurt Jacobson

For almost eight years I had driven past The National Arboretum without venturing inside. The humdrum black iron and stone gateway on New York Avenue in Washington DC gives no indication of the treasures inside.

All one can see from driving past this entrance on New York Avenue is several varieties of well-spaced trees and some old out-buildings. It is only upon driving through the entrance one starts experiencing the best of this 446 acre reserve created by an act of congress in 1927.

Checking out the National Columns
Checking out the National Columns

Thanks to the concierge (Chris) at The Jefferson Hotel my wife and I were introduced to The National Arboretum.  Chris said “They have the most famous bonsai tree in the world there!” so we knew it was time to visit.

Inside the 446 acres we found picnic areas for our lunch, several theme gardens, a bodacious bonsai display, and an area dedicated to the State trees of the United States. There are also miles of trails or roadways suitable for walking, bicycling, and garden gawking.

If you don’t have a bicycle you can rent one at the R Street entrance. Capital Bikeshare is an automated service paid by credit card. For visitors opt out of a membership and choose the 24 hour option costing about $8, and return to any Capital Bikeshare location.

Bike rental near R Street entrance
Bike rental near R Street entrance

On this pleasant Labor Day Monday we found parking lots close to the visitor center bustling with foreigners and locals. Our first stop was the National Grove of State Trees area of the arboretum.

Here are examples of most state trees, but a few are excluded due to climatic conditions not suitable for some.  Each planting of a state tree is marked by a metal sign. Other trees have been planted just to shade certain trees not from the Mid-Atlantic needing a break from the sun.

Great place for a picnic

The picnic area was almost empty at 12:30 p.m. on this sunny day which was a lovey change from the over-crowded Holocaust Museum we bailed out of minutes earlier.  A quick stop at the nearby Costco for a rotisserie chicken and a Caesar salad set us up for a perfect picnic lunch under stately trees.

With few restaurants or grocery stores nearby, Costco fit the bill. We were hungry for lunch, fresh air and no crowds. This part of the arboretum couldn’t have been better. Our picnic table was surprising clean; considering birds like trees and this table was under one, we enjoyed a perfect outdoor lunch.

Lunch time in the State's Trees section
Lunch time in the State’s Trees section

Our hunger satiated, we were now ready to explore. First stop was the parking lot at the administration building that holds the visitor information desk. The desk agent showed us where to find the bonsai display the concierge at The Jefferson told us about.

We exited the admin building on our way to see these little trees that fascinate many a visitor, but detoured for the restrooms by the gift shop. Out back of the gift shop were a few picnic tables on a stone patio.

One table had an umbrella and all three tables were surrounded by the late-summer Friendship Garden still in bloom. Inside the shop were a few snacks like cheese and crackers, soft drinks, and ice cream guests could enjoy out back.

Dog friendly

Dogs love the National Arboretum
Dogs love the National Arboretum

On to the bonsai display we went passing many a cheerful visitor and occasional happy dog being walked in this dog friendly environment.

I asked one of The National Arboretum staff about dogs in the park and she told me, “Dogs are welcome in most parts of the Arboretum as long as they are on a leash and well behaved. Owners must pick up after their pets.” We saw a state-of-the-art water fountain behind the admin building.

This fountain included a water bottle filling feature, a dog water bowl near the ground and the usual spout to drink from (both for visitors in wheel chairs or standing). The bonsai display turned out to be as fantastic as advertised. Dozens of trees from junipers, pines and flowering types like Bougainvillea held the interest of young and old visitors.

Boy and Bougainvillea in the bonsai area
Boy and Bougainvillea in the bonsai area

Some of these trees are over 350 years old. The trees didn’t have to be extremely old to captivate us though as each one was a work of art. Take for example the Goshin bonsai, donated by John Naka, started training in 1953.

This touching display features eleven Foemina junipers representing John’s eleven grandchildren. This miniature forest is said to be one of the finest examples of bonsai anywhere in the world. The National Arboretum is lucky to have such a treasure.

One of my favorite trees was a Sargent Juniper, age unknown; with the most gnarly-tortured tree trunk I have just about ever seen on a living tree. The bare trunk shed most of its bark ages ago. The smooth bark-free trunk tempted me to touch it to see if the trunk was a smooth as it looked, but there are signs warning, “Do not touch.” So I figure I’m not the only tempted to fondle the bonsai.

The World's most famous bonsai
The World’s most famous bonsai

Natural Worlds in Miniature

Next up was the Chinese Pavilion where natural worlds in miniature were the theme. Similar to bonsai, but containing figurines and other adornments these displays showed expert craftsmanship blending rocks, trees, and figurines from this ancient Chinese art form.

Think landscape painting but in 3D with living miniature trees and you get the picture.

We were running out of time and hurried to the Herb Garden where heavenly scents of exotic and common herbs perfumed the air. Butterflies and bees were busily gathering nectar before the end of this year’s growing season. I spied several varieties of ornamental pepper plants on display before exiting towards the parking lot.

The last display that caught our attention was the Grass Roots lawn display showing the history of mankind’s love of a green, manicured lawn. I was surprised to see this history stretched back thousands of years to Egyptian times. It wasn’t until the lawnmower was readily available that lawns exploded on our landscapes.

Kids in the garden

I was surprised to see how much children loved the Arboretum. At the Youth Garden I asked a woman with five kids if they were all hers. Yes they were and they were having a blast. The mother told me, “We bought a home near the R Street entrance so we could be close to the Arboretum.” Her children are home-schooled and The National Arboretum is an excellent classroom for their education.

Kids love the National Arboretum
Kids love the National Arboretum

We left The National Arboretum knowing we would be back to explore more of this national treasure. There were the state trees, youth garden, dogwood collection, fern valley, capital columns and more to spend quality time in. Now that we know about this natural place, free to the public and open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except December 25th, we will return.

Bring the Dog

It’s a great destination to bring our dog and see the gardens in the spring, summer and fall. Since the park is on a popular route out of DC back to Baltimore, there’s easy access for those coming from the north or east off of either I-95 or 295 (Baltimore Washington Parkway). The National Arboretum is part of the Agricultural Research Service. The Bonsai and Penjing Museum are open 10 am to 4 pm, except winter holidays from Veteran’s Day through President’s Day. The grounds and restrooms remain open.

What a perfect way to end a visit into downtown DC by getting some fresh air and quality time in a natural environment. It’s a good reward for tolerating the madness of I-95 traffic to and from DC. One should take time to sniff a few flowers and relax under the shade of these magnificent trees.

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Kurt Jacobson
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.