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Green Acre #354: Asian in Place

The Asian Collection at the National Arboretum in Washington DC seems slightly overgrown these days, but not enough to crowd out the area’s charming pagoda. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

WHY WOULD ANYONE want an Elmer Fudd tattoo? It’s not a good look.

Elmer was joined by other cartoon characters running up the calves and down the biceps of a, shall we say, plenitudinous young lady, who was meandering about the National Arboretum with her beau, who was similarly inked, though more advanced. His characters ran up his neck and into his buzzed cut. Their dog, a specimen of no particular breed, or perhaps many breeds, had no visible adornments. 

Wasn’t half the point of my nature stroll to relax, de-stress, breathe? Not get caught up in mean-spirited nose wrinkling?   

Right. They seemed content. Smiling, nodding at us politely, as if he wore a top hat and she a parasol, swishing the taffeta skirt of her day dress. Nice people, lovely, just wandering the Asian Collection, like My Prince and I, on a brilliantly sunny weekday afternoon. 

As determined as I am to be positive, the Arboretum is looking a little . . . disheveled. A not unpleasant wildness has taken over. The plant tags are faded or missing, leaving one (meaning me) to wonder if Nature is impinging on design, or if this is deliberate neglect. One (me again) wonders how many years and nimble fingers it will take to put it to rights. 

The website is also sadly out of date—as though the caretakers have gone to seed. There should be no excuse for this, as a website can be managed in pajamas, at the kitchen table. But far be it from me to carp. 

Anyway, the missing tags excite a hasty fumble to download Picture This, a plant finder that my friend Chris Alvear mentioned a few weeks ago and which I’d been meaning to try. A click of the phone’s camera and any plant is identified, along with care and diseases. It does prove a blessing today. There’s a free trial week, and at $29 for the year, I think I’ll keep it. 

It’s also a handy program at home, for identifying that plant over there that you felt absolutely certain you would remember and therefore tossed the tag. There are too many of these in my garden, like the kiwi I thought might be a kiwi, but as it hasn’t done anything in the fruit department in the last decade I thought I might be wrong. I was not. It’s a kiwi that just happens to be obstinately fruitless. That’s an aside. 

Back at the Arboretum, I spy (I’m told) a Japanese persimmon heavy with fruit, clumps of kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, Tartarian asters, pokeweed and hirsute raspberries—none tagged. Isn’t hirsute raspberry a delicious name? The Picture This program calls it a “scrambler bramble . . . with lovely flowers and tasty fruits.” It is also “ . . . super easy to take care of, with resistance to almost all pests and diseases. It is a perfect option for gardeners with brown thumbs.” What’s not to like?

Most of what’s in flower is purple, patches here and there that add a layer of moodiness to a stroll, perfect for the dying season. The last roses of summer malinger.   

Particularly interesting is the variety of groundcovers and low-growing perennials such as Nippon lily and lilyturf (or liriope) that line paths and form sweet nests for stepping-stones. There are swaths of fern, drifts of pachysandr, and a sprawl of Chinese plum yew, a wealth of lawn ideas beyond grass.

I now have a list.

We haven’t been here in more than a year. The place was Covid-closed for a lengthy spell, and then stuff got in the way of a visit. But I seem to recall this area being tamed, in that Asian fashion, with views more structured, plantings more designed, pruned into shape. 

This is more the forest reclaiming its own than a garden, but it’s still a fine autumn ramble.

The Prince tips his hat to the cartooned duo, I twirl my parasol, and on we go. 

At the National Arboretum in Washington DC, groundcover forms “nests” for the stepping-stones that lead through the Asian Collection. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.


4 thoughts on “Green Acre #354: Asian in Place

  1. Well, yes and no, Maggie. The app is good fun if you like a plant — you can see if it might survive your brown thumb at home.

  2. Carol Roger says:

    Well said, as always!

  3. Maggie Hall says:

    The image of Victoria decorum – as virtually displayed by the visitors – is as stunning as the somewhat splendid sounding disarray of the foliage. Also: do hope the powers-that-be at The Arboretum read this and so get their act together. The thought of having to resort to an App to identify blooms etc is gloomy.

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