There’s so much to see and do in Washington DC (See the Contest below to help you plan.) However, spending days running from museum to monuments can be overwhelming. Where can you get out into nature to relax, recharge, and still enjoy National Treasures?  It’s closer than you think. Take a ten-minute drive from the Capitol Building and you can wander a 446-acre wonderland – the US Arboretum. The palette of natural beauty shifts year-round. It’s free to attend and, most wondrous for me, where you’ll find the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.

Arboretum: A plot of land on which many different trees or shrubs are grown for study or display.

Gift of the Imperial Household, Japan 1976 In training since 1795!

Japanese Red Pine Pinus densiflora. Gift of the Imperial Household, Japan 1976 In training since 1795!

If you’ve ever marveled at pictures of gnarled miniature trees from Japan or walked around carefully nurtured specimens, imagine what it’s like to see dozens. Many in the National collection are over a hundred years old but less than four feet high! How they got there and why they’re in the US Arboretum at all is a sweet story.

Admiring the Bonzai inside the US Arboretum.

Admiring the Bonzai inside the US Arboretum.

In 1976 the US threw a big party – the American Bicentennial Celebration of Independence. As with any big birthday celebration, there were presents. International friends showered gifts on the country. The people of Japan gave something unique from their culture to represent peace between our two nations. Imagine attending the formal presentation of fifty-three bonsai trees from the Nippon Bonsai Association! That living tribute seeded the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.  Today the artistically trained trees are arranged in three distinct galleries and each has a meditation garden.

Penjing is the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, other plants, and landscapes in miniature.

The path up to the National Capitol Columns inside the US Arboretum

The National Capitol Columns are on the Arboretum grounds and one of the more curious parts of the US Arboretum. They weren’t built for the hill in Ellipse Meadow but as part of the US Capitol building when it was constructed in 1828. However, the builders realized that the columns couldn’t support the dome and just didn’t look right. They were removed but didn’t find a final resting place until 1980. Today everyone wants a picture with the columns.

An Instagram moment in front of the Capitol Columns.

Elaine’s Instagram moment in front of the Capitol Columns.

The US Arboretum is planted with significant collections like the National Herb Garden, the National Grove of Trees and next to the central building, the open air Bonsai, and Penjing pavilion. I look forward to returning one day in a different season to explore Fern Valley, the Friendship Garden and perhaps run across a meadow full of flowers.

One of the hillside trails inside the US Arboretum near Washington DC

One of the hillside trails inside the US Arboretum near Washington DC

In the center of the US Arboretum is a public building dedicated to research. Established in 1927, of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) works there to find solutions to agricultural problems of national priority. You can find out more at the ARS website.

The Administration building is built to mimic a stand of trees. It’s full of information and educational displays. The Arbor House gift shop is packed with goodies for gardeners and unique souvenirs. There are classes, tours, and volunteer opportunities as well.

The National Herb Garden inside the US Arboretum

Plan your visit for seasonal displays:

If you imagine the joy of running through flowery fields, posing with cherry blossoms, and having the pictures to go with that, here’s a schedule of the various blooms. Given the vagueries of weather, you might check the website or call before scheduling your visit. Phone: (202) 245-2726

  • January through early March: Witch-hazels, hollies and dwarf conifers
  • Late March to early April: Magnolias, spring bulbs
  • Mid-April: Woodland wildflowers, flowering cherries
  • Late April through May: Crabapples, dogwoods azaleas, peonies, roses
  • June through August: Daylilies, waterlilies, crape myrtles, herbs, meadow wildflowers
  • September to October: Crabapple and viburnum fruits, herbs, and meadow wildflowers
  • November through December: Hollie berries, conifers, boxwood, and camellias.

Getting to the US Arboretum

The easiest way to get to the Arboretum is by car. Parking at the museum is free and easy. A free shuttle moves between the various lots and the heart of the park. There is a Metrorail station relatively near but you need to catch a bus and then walk about four blocks to the park entrance. Detailed directions are on the website.

One of the plazas inside the US Arboretum

One of the plazas inside the US Arboretum

Contest: Win a year’s subscription to GPS My City

I only wish I were using GPS My City when I planned my visit to Washington DC or Rome or Quebec! The App helps to set up guided or walking tours. It’s a great way to get your bearings in any city you may visit.

To Enter: I’m giving away ten subscriptions. Each annual subscription, which normally costs $18.99 on the app store, allows access to all the walking tours in 1,000+ cities worldwide. Leave a comment below and I’ll select the ten winners by random from all comments. The winners will be announced in my December 15th blog post. Good luck!

Bonsail Museum at the US Arboretum near Washington DC



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