Flourish at the U.S. Botanic Garden

Flourish at the U.S. Botanic Garden

An Interview with Devin Dotson, USBG Public Affairs and Exhibits Specialist

During one of our monthly writer lunches last spring, our team walked through the U.S. Botanic Garden as part of one of the Friday noon tours. We talked ahead of that visit about how our series on The Great Outdoors and nature’s restorative elements coincides with the work of the U.S. Botanic Garden. Looking at the exhibits currently available, I’m immediately drawn to Flourish Inside and Out. Can you tell us about it—what people might learn from it or how it’s helping people see how they can flourish?

Flourish Inside and Out celebrates how seeing and interacting with nature and gardening is shown to provide health and emotional benefits. The interior portion of the exhibit presents several indoor scenarios (waiting room, school, office, living room…) and examples of plants and plantings that you could follow to bring living plants indoors. The outdoor portion of the exhibit showcases examples of programs from around the country that are using gardening and horticulture as therapy and training programs.

I noticed it was developed in consultation with the Horticultural Therapy Department of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Can you tell us the story of how that partnership and the exhibit came to be?

With the creation of the National Park Service’s American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial adjacent to the U.S. Botanic Garden, we wanted to present an exhibit on horticultural therapy and accessible gardening. From working with Chicago Botanic Garden in the past, we knew they have a history of working in this realm with their Buehler Healing Garden. It was a natural fit to reach out to them to build on their years of experience for this exhibit.

It seems every time I go online I see another group celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. How is the Botanic Garden celebrating it?

In February we opened an art exhibit Flora of the National Parks that celebrates the plants – from iconic to rare and endangered – that make so many of the national parks across the country unique and special. We are now continuing that celebration in our new exhibit Flourish Inside and Out by spotlighting the National Park Service's Find Your Park campaign as a way for people to interact with nature.  We are also working with the NPS American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial located adjacent to the USBG to do therapeutic horticulture programming for veterans and active duty service members. We will continue the NPS centennial celebration with other programs and exhibits later this year.

And how can congressional staffers or others learn about their home districts through the Flora of the National Parks exhibit?

A great part of the exhibit is that we included both well-known plants – the ones that people who live in an area or have visited that area will immediately know and identify with – and also plants that are important in the area that may by lesser known. It’s a way to find something familiar to relate to and maybe also learn something, too. To further the exhibit, we have programs scheduled throughout the year where different national parks people are presenting lectures and classes at the USBG. You can find a full list of those programs at www.USBG.gov/FloraoftheNationalParks.

What are some other ways congressional staffers or others working close by can take advantage of the garden’s location and programs and get outdoors?

From free yoga and theatre programs to lectures on plants and workshops on gardening to specialty tours and even cooking demonstrations, programs at the USBG are diverse and frequent! We also have programming for children, geared toward different age groups, and welcome staffers and others who work or live on and around Capitol Hill.

When I was a staffer, I loved eating lunch, catching up on reading during recess, or even meeting with colleagues at Bartholdi Park. Can you tell us about it, the fountain, and the restoration work going on there?

Bartholdi Park is a wonderful part of our three garden spaces (the Conservatory and National Garden are the other two). Named for the historic fountain in the center of the garden created by Auguste Bartholdi, Bartholdi Park was created in 1932 and has served as a home demonstration garden through the years, but has not undergone a comprehensive renovation since its construction. Currently, the USBG and the Architect of the Capitol are renovating the park to include accessible pathways, improved access to the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, increased safety via new lighting, improved stormwater collection, updated irrigation, new plantings, and restoration of the historic small fountain at the northwest corner. Bartholdi Park will continue to have demonstration and educational gardens, featuring additional seating, American native plants, patio gardens, rain gardens, an edible garden, and accessible gardening areas.

When I got the call that my grandpa passed away in early 2015, I withdrew to the Conservatory to reflect on a great life, take iPhone photos of the plants, and just be still. Do you have any stories of how the garden or its programs have benefited other people’s lives—or even your own?

On my very first trip to D.C. many years ago, I encountered the Conservatory while exploring the National Mall. I ventured inside and fell in love. Over the next 10 years, I visited D.C. many times for others trips and even interned a few times here. In every trip, and multiple times during each summer internship, I explored the USBG. There’s something special about being able to immerse yourself so completely in beautiful and amazing plants from around the world – and even more so to be able to do it just steps from the U.S. Capitol!

I love the diversity of temperatures and climates within the Conservatory itself. Can you tell us about the work it takes to make the jungle be the jungle, the desert be the desert, and the Garden Primeval have that thick, humid, earth-moss smell?

Constructed by the Architect of the Capitol in 1933, this historic greenhouse totals 28,944 square feet of growing space. Behind the scenes is a state-of-the-art completely automated environmental control system. Computers monitor the outside weather and automatically control misting, shade cloth, fans, air-handling equipment, heat and window vents to achieve a perfect range of day and night temperatures and humidity. Each room has different settings for each of these aspects to create an environment that’s good for the plants growing in that room. As you note, that can be quite a difference from one room to the next.

Now that summer is here, what should people know about the outdoor National Garden?

We are excited to celebrate the National Garden’s 10th anniversary this fall! We have expanded programming happening outdoors throughout the summer and fall and would love for people to explore the National Garden for ideas on rose growing in our Rose Garden, plants for butterflies and other pollinators in our Butterfly Garden, and inspiration for plants to use around your home in the Regional Garden filled with plants native to the Mid-Atlantic region. 

What does the future look like for the U.S. Botanic Garden? Any future exhibits you can share with us? Any new ways to engage Congress and spark inspiration to spend more time in the outdoors, flourish, and hopefully begin solving some of our nation’s most pressing issues?

We will continue to celebrate the holidays with our famous holiday show including the model train exhibit with dioramas and DC landmarks all made from plant and natural materials. And each February we will continue to co-host an annual orchid exhibit with Smithsonian Gardens. Beyond that, we will present seasonal flowers and plants throughout the Garden, and at least one large-scale exhibit each year. But I personally think our hidden gems are our programs. We offer more than 500 each year, most of which are free. In the past year, they’ve covered everything from Biscayne National Park to container gardening to children’s programs to two world premiere theatre shows co-commissioned with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to live concerts to art and photography classes to the science behind how things taste and how plants are used to create vermouth! Quite a few of them are offered on Fridays during the noon lunch hour for locals that want to come over on their lunch break and join. You can find all of our upcoming programs at www.USBG.gov/programs -- we hope we’ll see you soon!

Weekly Action Item:

This week, check out the programs the USBG is hosting as part of the Flora of the National Parks, including this lecture on photographing the Everglades with Larry Treadwell. Or if that doesn’t fit your schedule, their calendar is almost as full of events as the garden is full of plants.  

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