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Green Acre #106: Under the Stars

June 13, 2018

THIS WAS our maiden voyage, virgins we were, and this was our deflowering, so to speak.

The Prince and I were at the annual Dinner Under the Stars at the US National Arboretum, the 446-acre garden wonderland tucked in an unlikely pocket between New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road, NE.*  

On perhaps the single most gorgeous June evening ever seen in Washington, brilliantly sunny and just shy of cool, the men looked spiffy, the woman wore light wraps over their summer frocks and palazzo pants (that would be me), and there were more oysters than I’ve ever seen in my life. Shrimp too.

Thankfully, I didn’t have a scotch. The last time I mixed scotch and shellfish my eyes were swollen shut the next morning. Glued down so hard I needed to pry them open with my fingers. An allergy, who knew?  That was, I think, an informative aside.

Cocktails and appetizers were served in the Herb Garden, a lovely scallop of gardens surrounding a central lawn, each scallop devoted to a variety of culinary, ornamental or medicinal herb. Set adjacent to the rose garden, where 100 types of roses mingle with pots of jasmine and oranges, the beginning of this shebang was a complete sensory overload.

Cathy Kerkam, director of philanthropy for the Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA), said she glanced around the crowd of about 650 exceptionally happy guests and thought, “Oh my god, this is a knock-out.”  It was the first time the center lawn of the herb garden had been used for the event, and the first time oysters were served. It won’t be the last, she assured me.

Then came crab cakes . . . and this and that other stuff with veggies for the rabbits among us, no offense. Did I mention it was a buffet? Thankfully, I had an elastic waistband. Dinner was served under a tent on a lawn sloped down from the Capitol columns, a necessity given the uncertainty of the weather this spring.  

Now in its 24th year, Dinner Under the Stars honored New Jersey congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen for his advocacy of the Arboretum. VIP guests, of which there were many, included Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the Arboretum being one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s premier research and educational facilities, as well as a glorious series of gardens.

The speeches were painless and easily washed down by endless wine, and then dessert was served amid the 22 Corinthian columns that were part of the U.S. Capitol from 1828 to 1958.

Dinner Under the Stars, a major fundraiser for the organization, is open to all members and guests. Ticket prices start at $250, which is—we’ve calculated this for you—100 oysters at Hanks Oyster bar in Washington.

For $50,000 you get a table for 10 that includes VIP guests. How many oysters is that?

FONA, which was founded in the 1980s has more than 1,000 members, said Kerkam. The primary private partner in the Arboretum provides direct financial support for major projects and organizes public programs such as the free Summer Concert Series, and the nearly-impossible-to-book Full Moon Hikes (which are exactly what they sound like: escorted hikes around the Arboretum grounds on nights when there’s a full moon).

Membership starts at $35 per year and includes a subscription to the excellent quarterly newsletter, invitations to member-only events, discounts on programs and discounts at more than 300 gardens across the country.

The highest membership circle is the David Fairchild Society, named for the Arboretum’s founder, plant explorer and pathologist, who introduced us to the avocado, among other of life’s essentials, and promoted the acquisition of our splendid cherry trees from Japan.

With a level of donation starting at $1,200, these super-members help fund major projects while enjoying benefits that include exclusive, behind the scenes, tours and events.

For more information on FONA programs and membership, visit www.fona.org

* Birder alert! Did you know that the Arboretum is also the home to four bald eagles: Mr. President, Mrs. First Lady and two eaglets hatched in May? Take your binoculars and a camera.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

End Note: A special thanks to Elizabeth Dugan, who hosted us at her table, a particularly convivial bunch of friends and family.

LittleBird “Stephanie Gardens” reports on garden-related matters.

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