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Green Acre #130: A Capital Christmas (Choo-choo!)

IT’S THE CALM before the storm at the U.S. Botanic Garden, the magical greenhouse at the foot of the U.S. Capitol. By this weekend the lines will curl like Christmas ribbons out the door and onto the plaza, with grown-ups and restless kids waiting impatiently to view the annual holiday train exhibit.

For today and maybe tomorrow, however, it’s nearly a private show.

This year, the trains are in the West Gallery, with tracks running around the room and overhead, bustling G-gauge models curtsying before vignettes that feature railway stations from across the country rendered in acorns and twigs and cinnamon sticks, all nestled in poinsettias, ferns and draping moss.  

Here’s New York’s Grand Central Terminal, there’s Maui’s Lahaina Station, and over here’s the Chattanooga Train Shed. Into the mix, more fanciful waylays intended to delight the kids: A little red train that looks like R2D2 from Star Wars zips past Montana’s East Glacier Park Station; a happy-faced turquoise toy train skitters beneath a dinosaur; a holiday train chugs past Santa’s Workshop, itself surrounded by charmingly elfish houses that would suit Marie Antoinette’s hamlet at Versailles.

While miniatures normally curdle my gizzard (those gardens featuring plastic fairies and “cute” latrines can’t disappear fast enough), each of these constructs from Applied Imagination, an award-winning crew of creative artists, botanical architects and landscape designers, is a masterpiece.  

For a taste of the show without the lengthy lines (and trains) you can opt to stay in the Garden Court, the main hall of the building with its fabulous trees, hundreds of unusual poinsettias, giant animal topiaries and a dozen amber-hued models of Washington’s iconic buildings and structures, from the Smithsonian Castle, to the Jefferson Memorial (with a dome made from a gourd), to the magnificent U.S. Capitol. The installation, they say, took more than 600 hours to build.

I don’t know what they call the twin flower beds in the center of the room, but do look at the red sticks that punctuate the greens. They’re actual red sticks from a pile of sticks! (Okay, tall twigs.) I had this confirmed by the kindly volunteers at the desk. If one can steal no other idea from this show, one can certainly steal this. A few broken branches, a can of spray paint and voilà!

Of course, the rest of the Botanic Garden is open for wandering. I suspect the jasmine is about to bloom on a fence in the Mediterranean Gallery; pause there to sniff. While you’re at it, also admire the single, ridiculously large lemon dangling heavily from the potted tree—if it hangs in there. The orchids are little skimpy at the moment, but still admirable, and there’s always the tropical jungle, the centerpiece of the place. Close your eyes and you’ve flown a few thousand miles away.

Side trip! If you’re looking for last-minute gifts and stocking stuffers, wander across the National Mall to the National Gallery of Art’s gift shop, one of the best in the city. There are gorgeous art books, including a fine selection of garden and gardening-inspired tomes, including signed copies of The Gardens of Bunny Mellon, which any plant lover would drool over.

When Baby was a baby I would get most of her gifts here, as the buyers here understand pink and purple and glitter.

Among the reasonably priced scarves and jewelry are grown-up gifts too, ones that tempt the inner child—art supplies, for instance. There are all manner of little kits and brushes and coloring sticks (and books) that will have you slapping on a beret and making like Monet at sidewalk cafes, sketching the people and buildings and gardens over steaming cocoa, even if you have the skill of an 8-year-old.

One can daydream, can’t one?

The holiday show at the Botanic Garden runs through New Year’s Day. Admission to the U.S. Botanic Garden is free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, go to the website

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

4 thoughts on “Green Acre #130: A Capital Christmas (Choo-choo!)

  1. Magge Hall says:

    I’ve visited many times over the years….but thanks to Stephanie’s observations I have a much greater appreciation of this most fabulous show.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it Alan – I think what you wanted has been added. Stephanie

  3. Alan Rudlin says:

    I liked the Botanic Garden train piece- I may try to go after Xmas. May I offer 2 suggestions for similar articles: if about shows/exhibitions, include hours of operation, fees, and any tips for least crowded times; and it’d be ideal to have a live link in the piece to connect for more info.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      You’re absolutely right. We editors fell down on the job. I hope you found your way to usbg.gov, which has all the info you need. Next time we’ll get it right!

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