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A walk through America's garden.


The smiling middle-aged man, chatting away about his home garden and his new pink iris named Beverly Sills, hardly looks like a guerrilla leader. Yet Dr. H. Marc Cathey, the director of the United States National Arboretum, is a rebel in the world of gardening--a man ready and willing to wage war against convention and the meticulously manicured and tended lawns of so many American homes.

In Cathey's idealized New American Garden, pesticides and excessive fertilizers have no place: plants will be selected for their natural resistance to insects and disease and for the seasonal display. Sprinkling systems will be abandoned; the sturdy stock will be quite capable of surviving on available rainwater. And though the plants will be just as colorful and intriguing as their carefully tended predecessors, they'll require no staking, minimal pruning, and little, if any, fuss.

"Tough plants for tough times." That's Cathey's battle cry, as he urges gardeners to act "with professional standards and conduct." When water is in short supply, he says, "it is unethical to plant water-guzzling species." With pollution threatening the environment, he adds, "we must choose plants without chemical dependencies."

"We must stop abusing our planet," says Cathey, co-author of The National Arboretum Book of Outstanding Garden Plants, a 320-page guide to some of those tough plants. "We gardeners must be true activists."

And what better place to practice such tactics than America's own garden, the 444-acre National Aboretum? Although the Aboretum is a serenely peaceful spot in the nation's capital, visitors sometimes mistakenly think of it as a static site, a museum of rooted relics. Yet beyond the bucolic setting atop the District of Columbia's Mount Hamilton, this federally funded institution--with a $5 million annual budget--is moving into the 21st century with behind-the-scenes research and plant explorations that could change the face of American gardening.

Just last month, Cathey went to China and set the foundation for future plant explorations in that country. Scientists hope to bring back plant samples that can withstand tougher climatic conditions; because much of the Far East has a climate very much like our own, China could be an excellent source of new plants. Consider, Cathey says, the Orient's past riches: "Magnolias, azaleas, the iris--they're all of Asian origin, all Asian imports." He grins. "The Toyota was a late bloomer."

A typical tourist will drive right past the greenhouses (not open to the public) and test plots that line the Arboretum's ten miles of winding roads. But tucked away in nearly every corner are research projects. In the 63 years since the Arboretum was established by congressional act, it has introduced more than 150 new landscape plant varieties; 30 more are expected in the next three years.

Among the contributions thus far: the showy Bradford pear, developed from seed collected in China in 1917; the Mohave pyracantha, disease resistant and one of the most widely grown new shrubs in the world since its introduction in 1973; and 17 new hybrids of the crape myrtle, resistant to powdery mildew, tolerant of subfreezing temperatures, and characterized by cinnamon-colored bark.

One of the most exciting successes, however, came this year, when the Arboretum released its new American elm, completely resistant to the deadly Dutch elm disease that has killed nearly 75 million trees since the 1940s.

When the Arboretum releases a new plant, commercial nurseries are offered cuttings free of charge. It is then up to the nurseries to propagate the plants and make them available to the public.

But amidst all this science, Cathey cautions, we shouldn't forget the real appeal of gardening, nor the 60,000 reasons--all neatly labeled--for visiting the public gardens of the National Arboretum.

A first visit to the Arboretum can be overwhelming, with so much to see and so many different areas to explore. One good way to get your bearings is to follow the suggested tour offered by Erik A. Neumann, the Arboretum's education director, in his detailed guide to the grounds. Neumann is a walking encyclopedia of botanical lore, and as he points out the seasons' changing landscapes, you realize every visit to the Arboretum can--and will--be different.

On a cool fall day, the blaze of fall foliage is the perfect backdrop for exploring the 2-1/2-acre National Herb Garden, a gift of the Herb Society of America, dedicated in 1980 as the largest designed herb garden in the world. There you'll find a classically designed knot garden and the Historic Rose Garden (abloom in June and early July). You'll also find a series of ten specialty gardens, including Dioscorides' Garden with samples of ancient plants described by the Greek botanist and physician in 60 A.D.; the Dye Garden, with such plants as goldenrod and weld (which yield yellow dye), indigo (blue), and madder (red), once used for coloring wool and other fabrics; and the Fragrance Garden, with lavender, mint, rosemary, lemon balm, clary, and a bevy of scented geraniums.

Just beyond the Herb Garden, you'll see one of the newest additions to the Arboretum, the 22 sandstone Corinthian columns that once graced the east portico of the U.S. Capitol. Removed in 1958 for an expansion of the Capitol, the columns languished in mud and weeds until they were salvaged and brought to the Arboretum, displayed in a design created by the late Russell Page, a noted British landscape artist. Old marble steps taken from the Senate wing of the Capitol also were located and used as paving between the columns, and a reflecting pool at the base mirrors the display, dedicated in June.

Although starkly surreal in the midst of a grassy American meadow, the columns are being proposed as a grand setting for special Arboretum events. In the meantime, the quiet location is an inspiring spot for reading or meditation.

Also new to the Arboretum: the North American Bonsai Pavilion, housing 80 of the carefully groomed miniature trees. Scheduled to open this month, the American pavilion will join the garden's current collection of Japanese bonsai and Chinese penjing in what will become the Arboretum Bonsai Complex.

Penjing, from the Chinese mainland dating from the first century, are dwarfed in small pots like bonsai but the penjing container often depicts an elaborate miniature scene complete with small porcelain figures.

Nearly every Arboretum visitor claims a favorite nook, whether it's a quiet pathway in shady Fern Valley, a secluded overlook of the Anacostia River in Asian Valley, or a hideaway among the 1,500 firs, cedars, spruce, pines, and yews in the Gotelli Collection of Dwarf and Slow-Growing Conifers.

One spot not to be missed, however, is the view of the U.S. Capitol from Mount Hamilton's summit. There, the Arboretum has given mother nature a hand and cleared a million-dollar view. Like the rest of the Arboretum, it is open, free of charge, every day of the year except Christmas.

"Gardening is the No. 1 hobby in America," Cathey says. "It's because all your tactile senses are provoked. We'll have six new 'attractions' here in the next two years--as they would say at Disney World--but our attractions aren't plastic and bright lights. They smell and shake and rattle and roll and grow better and more beautiful each year."

And they become a part of you--their color, their touch, their scent. Plants, Cathey says with a shy, sentimental smile, can unlock memories nearly forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until you sniff a wet boxwood on a drizzly and gray October day.
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Title Annotation:U.S. National Arboretum
Author:Bartley, Diane
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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