GREAT WASHINGTON GARDENS.
For growing things around Washington, August is the cruelest month: It is hot, but there is the occasional sharp night tothrow things off balance; it is humid but without enough rain, or the rains come in lashing torrents; and the bugs run riot. It takes a great garden to show acomely face in such adversity, and we are blessed with five of them that are open to the public and well worth the sweat.
Back in 1934, the year after the existing conservatory for the U.S. Botanic Garden was completed, they were wp in arms on the Hill about how had jurisdiction over the fronds. Who would it be: Department of Agriculture? Or the Joint Committee on the Library? At that time, Congress also seized the opportunity to create subcommittees under subcommittees to decide on issues pertinent to the plants such as improvements, administration and correlation, education and public relations, publications, legislation and reports to Congress for the Garden.
Through it all, one imagines, just as today, the plants at First Street and Independence Avenue SW were unconcerned. Up on the Hill, the bureacracy may get denser, political parties may rise and fall. Down in the other jungle, as long as the temperature is hot enough for the cactus and warm enough for the chocolate tree, the ivy remains down, the trees up, and the flowers exuberant with color.
A pamphlet at the entrance of the gardens offers visitors -- of which there were more than a million last year -- self-guided tours through towering trees in the Cycad House, intricate ferns in the Subtropical House, squat cacti in the Cactus House, mosses sweeping in careless elegance in the Bromeliad House.
The plants have stories you can read about on your tour: from the Sapodilla tree, we make chewing gum. A banana tree can bear only one bunch. The sago palms are not related to any palms, actually, and were around before the dinosaurs. The breadfruit plant got Captain Bligh into some mutiny on the Bounty. (You'll have to go there to find out about that one).
On the other hand, you can ignore the pamphlets: have a seat on a cool bench or wander the walkway bridging a brook filled with goldfish; stroll under a blossom-lined trellis, past the largest collection of flowering orchids in the world.
Shows later in the year include chrysanthemums and poinsettias, but now is the proudest season for the Garden, a conservatory primarily for tropical and sub-tropical plants. The summer terrace display features, through September, 300 baskets of hanging plants. Summertime visitors also get the pleasure of being greeted by topiary animals awaiting them at the entrance: a squirrel poised to shake paws, a seal playing, a crocodile preparing to chomp.
Too few people make it across Independence Avenue to see the Botanic Garden's park, an acre of flora with the frothing fish of the Bartholdi fountain in the middle. That's open 24 hours a day; summer hours for the Conservatory through September are 9 to 9.
The U.S. Botanic Garden is now under the office of the Architect of the Capitol. The Capitol and its inhabitants may remain watchful over its garden, home to thousands of plants from countries as far-flung as Peru, Africa, Brazil, China and Mexico; but as long as they get watered, the plants don't seem greatly affected by wars between their countries or who's doing the watering.