The United States National Arboretum, located in Washington, D.C., is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service – the same people who bring you the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map. And while this is a place where important scientific research and plant development occurs, a trip to the U.S. National Arboretum is filled with beautiful and practical ideas you can bring home to your own garden.
The Arboretum is also more than just trees. Although it has extensive tree collections, including magnolias, hollies, conifers and all 50 state trees, it also features azaleas, boxwoods, perennials, grasses, tropical and succulent plants, herbs, ferns, and even bonsai.
One of the most useful and relatable displays for home gardeners is the Friendship Garden, located on the grounds around the Arbor House Gift Shop. This garden was designed to provide an example of a sustainable, low-maintenance home landscape. Planted in a style called “New American Garden,” the garden weaves waving grasses between large swaths of perennials.
We visited during the transition from late summer to early fall, when the masses of Black-eyed Susans were setting seed heads and the Autumn Joy sedums were deep red.
The curved beds made use of grasses like little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’ ) and Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra), but did not include turf grass to save on mowing and watering. Both the flower heads and dried grass stems will be allowed to stay in place throughout the winter to reduce chores and add interest.
National Herb Garden
The National Herb Garden is larger and more diverse than you might expect—just as the true definition of an herb is also
far broader than most people realize. This garden includes trees, grains, evergreen shrubs, roses, and other plants which might be used for dyes or medicine, have a historical use, or be used to make beverages or industrial compounds.
You enter to a large brick courtyard with a pool and fountain in the center, and are surrounded by a colorful panorama of herbs from around the world. While some areas of the Herb Garden are simply collections of a single genus, most areas manage to be informative and decorative at the same time.
The garden is slightly elevated over the Knot Garden to help you appreciate the intricate medieval design of this formal area. Looking beyond the Knot Garden, you have a good view of the National Capitol Columns; salvaged from the original U.S. Capitol building (you can also view the current U.S. Capitol building from the Mount Hamilton Overlook in the Azalea Collection).
National Bonsai and Penjing Museum
The Arboretum’s oldest tree – a Japanese White Pine Bonsai tree in training since 1626 — is also one of its smallest. You can find it in the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, a collection of both the well-known Japanese horticultural art form and the lesser-known but older Chinese style.
Go through a traditional round “moon gate” to discover Penjing, a Chinese word meaning miniature trees and landscape.
As that implies, the art includes more than just the trained trees of the bonsai collection, and is meant to evoke an entire landscape.
There is so much variety to the exhibits that it is well worth the trip for any plant enthusiast (even people only interested in growing the perfect lawn can get great info from the Grass Roots exhibit!). While we enjoyed the beautiful grasses and lush tropical during our early autumn visit, there’s something to see in every season.
15,000 azaleas bloom during the springtime; boxwoods and hollies shine during winter; and award-winning daylilies are on display in mid-summer.
A few changes could make the visitor experience easier. Signage was sometimes limited, and a simpler map with larger icons would have been easier to read. The Arboretum covers a large area, and some of the collections are far from the entrance. There is a guided tram tour, but it only runs on weekends and holidays.
There were renovations underway when we went, so you had to watch your step around the Friendship Garden and the koi were not in their pond. Finally, we were discouraged from extending our visit over lunch because the only listed picnic area was far from the area we planned to visit, but discovered there were tables behind both the Arbor House Gift Shop and the Administration Building.
Visiting hours & info
On the plus side, like most National Museums, there is no entry fee at the U.S. National Arboretum, and the gardens are open 8:00 a.m – 5 p.m every day except Christmas Day. (Note: The downloadable Visitor’s Guide on the website lists a
more limited schedule, but we were told by phone this was out of date. The hours listed on the website should be correct but can be verified by calling 202-245-2726).
You can see the full list of collections and gardens and even take a virtual tour on the website.
Once you are at the garden, you can get additional information at the Administration Building or get brochures and maps in the Arbor House Gift Shop.