Within These Havens, Winter Is Just a Word

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Outside the distant glass wall, a wet snow is falling. Inside the conservatory of the U.S. Botanic Garden, however, winter is but a memory. A fountain bubbles, the sounds of Elgar fill the warm air, and I am captivated by a bromeliad whose flower spike looks like strung popcorn kernels, except in electric blue.

Spring may be depressingly far away, but there are a few magical places in the city that keep the floral world alive and with it the gardener's spirit. The fouler the weather, the more delightful the experience. The cost of luxuriating in these princely winter gardens? Zilch. Thanks, Uncle Sam.

The most obvious floral oasis at this time of year is the botanic garden's conservatory at the foot of the Capitol. Completely restored and reopened in 2001, the conservatory houses examples of far-off plant worlds as diverse as a primal fern forest and Old World deserts.

The Garden Court, broad and abundantly green with the plants we sort of know but never see (olive, cacao and coffee trees), is one of the majestic spaces, and the centerpiece of the conservatory. The Jungle is another, full as it is with tall palm trees, old cycads, salmon-flowered bougainvilleas and hundreds of other inhabitants of the rain forest. But I tend to lose myself most in the more intimate houses, where the smaller scale invites the type of close observation that brings its own rewards.

The plants fall into two broad classes, those that are unknown and made enchanting by their novelty and those that are familiar, either as houseplants or variants of houseplants, albeit big ones. The 30-foot Norfolk Island pine in the Jungle may engender either alarm or envy for those of us with three-footers at home, but the Botanic Garden will have its own concerns in time: The popular potted plant is actually one of the world's largest conifers, reaching 200 feet at maturity, way taller than even the Jungle's 80-foot-high glasshouse.

In the house dedicated to plant exploration, I noted the same variety of lowly rubber plant that I have, Burgundy, with leaves of the darkest green with purple veins. I was happy to see it in so exalted a place, because it validates my feeling that the rubber plant in particular, and this variety especially, is uncommonly beautiful for all its ubiquity.

It's worth noting, especially in a display honoring plant explorers, that something as ordinary as a rubber plant was brought to the West by plant hunters who risked and endured a great deal in their pursuit of the exotic. But I like this exhibit, too, because it is well planted, in combinations that offer guidance on how to put together a border of hardy plants in our own yards.

On one side, a bed is anchored by a large, spiky crinum with straplike leaves five feet in length. Picking up on its faint purple cast, the gardeners have developed a subtle color scheme with a pink flowering anthurium, Bubble Gum; a hot chili pepper with white-and-cream leaves splashed with purple spots, the way we used to loose ink from a fountain pen; and another, larger foliage plant, a stromanthe, Triostar, in green, white and pink. The back of the border features two large variegated dieffenbachia varieties, Tropic Forest and Camouflage. Let it snow.

Nearby a decorative open-metalwork screen becomes a support for a robust species of passionflower, the batwing passiflora. The stem tips reach out from the screen with thick, ridged stems, and the plant is full of coiled tendrils, like steel springs, but lime green. A mess of flower buds is about to reveal the vine's extraordinarily ornate bloom. The base of the screen is framed by a simple line of maidenhair ferns. You could use hardier species of both fern and vine to create the same effect in your garden.

But walk on a few feet and you will find the type of vine that makes you wish you lived in a warmer place. Covering a metal arch, the purple coral pea is a climber from Australia whose botanic name, Hardenbergia violacea, acknowledges the violet-like nature of the blossoms, each about the size of a child's fingernail. A closer view reveals them as flowers of the pea family, arranged in sprays like those other leguminous vines, wisteria and runner beans. Alas, no sweet-pea fragrance. You can't have everything.

The adjoining Orchid House, small and with the jungle canopy brought down to eye level, gives a sampling of the incredibly diverse world of orchids, from a rare and endangered white species named Coelogyne onstata to a blowsy corsage type, also white but with a yellow throat. Don't forget to look down on your way out to see ground-dwelling species of slipper orchids. (Orchid fans, take note: Hundreds of orchids from the collections of the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Smithsonian Institution will be displayed in the annual orchid exhibit in the conservatory, Feb. 2 through April 13.)

For an entirely different experience, I paid a visit to the new Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, the large space nestled in the ring of classical buildings housing the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum. Years ago, the courtyard was open to the elements and featured a pair of elm trees, a couple of Victorian iron fountains and panels of grass. It was always popular as a place to gather, but only in clement weather.

The rebuilding of the museums included $63 million for the new courtyard, which opened in November and whose most striking feature is a glass canopy, actually a meshlike sculpture of glass and steel by the British architect Sir Norman Foster.

The courtyard, covering almost two-thirds of an acre, was designed by a Seattle-based landscape architecture firm headed by Kathryn Gustafson. She is perhaps best known for the Diana memorial fountain in London's Hyde Park, which has had its share of problems and detractors. The Kogod courtyard also includes a water feature: a thin sheet or scrim of water that runs its length and reflects the museum facades and the canopy in black and gray granite.

Gustafson's colleague Rodrigo Abela said the idea was not to create a hothouse conservatory but a sense of an outdoor space using temperate-looking plants. The most striking plants are two enormous ficus trees. They are more than 30 feet high and were shipped from a nursery in California, said Paul Lindell, a landscape architect for the Smithsonian who helped select them. In addition, 16 black olive trees, grown in Florida, add height to the plantings. The bases of the trunks are planted with a variety of evergreen shrubs and five species of fern. The ficus are a variety of Ficus rubiginosa named Florida.

The roof is designed to reduce light levels by 70 percent. That prevents a greenhouse effect for visitors but also cuts down on vital sunlight for the plants. Many of them, including the trees, were raised in low light conditions before coming to Washington, to acclimate them.

The courtyard is designed for two contrasting uses: large public events and quiet meditation. For all its scale, it has a real tranquillity about it. That may change, of course; the museum is in one of the most revitalized parts of the city.

The keen-eyed will see a lot of sapsucker activity on the black olives; it is one of the bird's favorite trees to peck. The holes will heal in time, because the trees now live in a bird-free zone. "That won't happen anymore," Lindell said.

But there is something to be said for enlivening indoor gardens with birds and other animals; witness the Amazonia exhibit at the National Zoo. This house, which opened in 1992, is mobbed for much of the year, especially on weekends, but the winter months offer a chance to experience this re-creation in relative solitude. The creatures are the stars, of course, and the first floor of the exhibit is home to some of the largest and weirdest freshwater fish you will ever see. Upstairs, the Brazilian rain forest exhibit is alive with colorful and noisy birds, including the melodious red-crested cardinal. "He's the boldest guy," said Amazonia biologist Edwin Smith. He identifies a faint trill as belonging to a reclusive poisonous frog.

The 80-degree heat and high humidity allow the jungle plants to excel. (It's also great for the skin, Smith noted.) The balsa tree is pushing against the ceiling, 55 feet up, and the Panama tree, covered in tree-dwelling plants such as orchids and bromeliads, is similarly vigorous.

Smith stops to point out a terrestrial bromeliad with a scarlet red blossom that, in nature, is pollinated by low-flying hummingbird species. Nearby, a small tree with flaking tan bark offers a white flower growing straight off the trunk. It will mature to a grape-size fruit with fragrant, sweet white pulp. This is the Jaboticaba. "You talk to a Brazilian about it and they will tell you about varieties the way we talk about apple varieties," he said.

Smith clearly loves the place, and he urges more to see its exotic wonders in the dead of winter. "This is an ideal time. You don't have to elbow your way through; you don't have to wait in line," he said. "And it's quiet."

U.S. Botanic Garden conservatory, 100 Maryland Ave. SW (202-225-8333,http://www.usbg.gov); Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Eighth and F streets NW (202-633-7970/8300,http://www.npg.si.edu): National Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW (202-633-4800,http://nationalzoo.si.edu).

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