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Green Acre #332: Beyond Azaleas

A yellowwood tree at the National Arboretum in Washington DC. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

THE AZALEAS are past their peak at the National Arboretum, the verdant surprise tucked into one of the grittiest corners of Washington DC.  

Unfortunately, because we had to be out of town, the Prince and I missed by maybe a week what is perhaps the most spectacular show in the 500-acre park. In years past we’ve trundled along in our rickety Mustang convertible at 20 miles per hour past hillsides smothered with massive plants, rising and tangling in a cacophony of pink and orange, red, white and purple. 

So we looked for something else, which is generally not too difficult. 

The peonies have a lovely bed across Bladensburg Road and Mount Olivet Cemetery. Baby learned to drive there, crawling the curving paths past headstones and mausoleums in our previous ancient Mustang convertible (we’re nothing if not loyal). There wasn’t anything to kill there, so it was quite safe. 

Yes, right, the peonies. Unfortunately the Arboretum powers have decided that we can no longer drive near that patch; one must get out of the car and walk, which presents a problem for us hobbled by rickety hips.  

Other roads are rerouted, one-way when they’d been two-way before. We became so turned about that we never found the dogwoods, which is a pretty enormous glade to miss. You may be more successful—it is a glorious display and will be so through next month. As it is unlikely to have changed in a year, except growing ever more monumental, you can read about it here.

Thankfully, the North Terrace is still easy to get to. The entrance to the rose and herb garden is flanked by a magnificent yellowwood tree, laden with white blossoms, and what appears to be a wisteria tree—there was no tag—perhaps 20 feet tall and about as wide, with fantastically scented white panicles.  

The view from here is dazzling: A pair of arched and vine-covered trellises flank a stone wall overlooking Ellipse Meadow, where 22 Corinthian columns that once were part of the US Capitol stand at a distance on a green hillock.  A quiet pond in the center of the terrace is surrounded by pots thick with jasmine and orange. Under the trellises are shade-loving plants—including, and surprising, a hefty potted avocado tree. (Maybe I’ll try planting a pit again. I can offer plenty of shade.) 

But the real reason for this trip was the roses, usually a stunning series of beds and lattice walls with blooming teas and climbers, bourbons and floribundas. This area is a walking must, and accessible to most. In fact, a wheelchair might be a lovely transport, eliminating the necessity of bending every few feet to sniff and compare the blossoms. 

Don’t we miss roses that have scent? Are we not tired of those ever-bloomers yet? 

It’s a little disappointing, the display this year. Signs announce renovations in progress. I seem to recall there have always been such announcements here. One begins to suspect that it’s an easy excuse for never being finished.

But then, what garden ever is?

The trip is still worth it, particularly on a fine Monday when the weekend crowds are nonexistent and the sky is so blue. Take a blanket and a picnic, the pup can come too if on a leash. It’s easy to find a spot with no one about at all. Pretend it’s all yours. 

US National Arboretum, 3501 New York Avenue NE, Washington DC 20002-1958; telephone 202-245-4523; usna.usda.gov.


2 thoughts on “Green Acre #332: Beyond Azaleas

  1. Lauren says:

    Thanks for this overview of the Arboretum – such a treasure for us all. I recently planted a Yellowwood – fantastic tree and a native so it serves dozens of species of caterpillar (aka butterflies) and many pollinators.

    Don’t forget Fern Valley at the Arboretum – beautiful shaded area showcasing our Mid-Atlantic natives in all their glory.

  2. Maggie Hall says:

    Thanks for the reminder. Haven’t been for years. Must take that drive before it get too stinky hot in DC.

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