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In Hot Pursuit

By Caroline Kettlewell
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page WE30

February. What can be said in its favor? The shortest month of the year, February somehow manages the neat trick of seeming to be the longest, more drawn out than the siege of Stalingrad and about as much fun.

The revelry of the holidays is far behind us, leaving only a lingering residue of credit card bills, extra inches around the waistline and brown-needled Christmas trees abandoned in alleys. Spring's sweet-scented blossoms and warm, whispering breezes are a distant promise, somewhere on the far side of this drear vista of leaden skies and bare-limbed trees, with one last ice storm sure to strike just when you've packed away your long underwear for the year. In short, February is the seasonal equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard.


The U.S. Botanic Garden's Conservatory features a jungle with exotic plants and trees as well as a warm, humid environment for those craving a respite from the winter blahs. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

Thus, it's the time of year when people thunder off by the planeload to equatorial climes, to lounge about drinking fruity beverages topped with paper parasols while cultivating first-degree sunburns.

But what if your bank account is too empty (those holiday bills!) or your schedule too full for a beach-blanket Bali Hai to be anywhere in your immediate future?

Then you must do what I do.

Adopt a policy of determined denial.

After all, what do St. Bart's or Bora Bora have that Washington doesn't? Well, yes, azure waters and sun-kissed beaches and several time zones' remove from the one in which your boss is at the moment blathering on about the newest Employee of the Month. And sure, here it's 40 degrees out and the sky is the color of old gym socks and spitting an icy drizzle. But with the proper degree of deception and self-delusion, it can still be summer in your soul.

IT'S NOT THE HEAT, IT'S THE HUMIDITY

Winter is dry. Dry cold. Dry heat. Dry skin. Dry cough. You know what I mean -- pulling off your fleece jacket generates more electricity than the Hoover Dam. You find yourself yearning for those August days when you could wring out the air like a sponge.

While we wait for the days of haze and heat-index forecasts to return, there's one place in Washington where the thermometer's always set on "steam": the Jungle room at the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory (on the Mall at 100 Maryland Ave. SW; 202-225-8333; www.usbg.gov). It's summer under glass here, with all sorts of plants, in every possible shade of green, all around and overhead as well. If you were of a scientific or horticultural bent, you could learn many interesting things about the plants at the Conservatory. There is one, for example, called finger of God. And another one called a strangler fig, which doesn't sound very pleasant. But never mind that, you're here for the humidity, and there's plenty of it. The air is warm and damp and thick and smells of loamy earth and growing things, and the twitter of birds and croak of frogs are piped in through speakers cleverly disguised as rocks nestled among the greenery, furthering the illusion that you have left winter behind.

"I've been here about nine times. I love it here," says Seema Swaminathan, who on a February Friday was in attendance, this time for research purposes, with her classmates from Mary McKenna's ecology class at Howard University.


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