ALTHOUGH BASHO wrote this poem in 17th-century Japan, it vividly describes the tranquility and activity of the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Northeast Washington. During a recent visit, I walked along the park's wide, grassy paths dazed not only by the heat, but by the sights and sounds. Huge lotus leaves, wide and round as dinner plates, hovered over still pools, while delicate pink and white waterlilies, elegant as teacups, floated on smaller ponds. I spied a small, gray garden snake curled up on a lily pad; when I approached for a closer look, it slipped gracefully into the water. Dragonflies buzzed around in pairs while bullfrogs barked in call and response. I heard a splash behind me; when I turned, though, Basho's frog was long gone.
"We have all sorts of things buzzing and jumping around here," said a gleeful Deborah Kirkley, a ranger with the National Park Service, which maintains this site near the Anacostia River. Bordered on three sides by the Kenilworth Marsh, the garden attracts snapping turtles, herons, fox and deer. Beavers occasionally sneak in at night to snack on delicious waterlily roots. Forty-five ponds ranging from eight to 80 feet in diameter span the garden, where waterlilies bloom in abundance from May through September.
Skirting a densely populated neighborhood just off Route 50, many metro Washington residents would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly where the Aquatic Gardens are. "It's a hidden treasure," Kirkley observed, that predates the area's urban development. In 1882, Civil War veteran Walter B. Shaw purchased 30 acres along the Anacostia from his mother-in-law. He had lost his right arm in the war, but with considerable determination he learned to write with his left hand and secured a job as a clerk with the U.S. Treasury Department. Meanwhile in Kenilworth, Shaw started growing waterlilies in an old ice pond. His interest soon grew into a business: He dug additional ponds on his land, imported exotic varieties of waterlilies and developed a few of his own.
Eventually he established W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds, which sold waterlily tubers and aquatic supplies via mail order. His daughter, Helen Fowler, assisted him with the gardens and after his death in 1921, became the manager. With an eye to expanding the business, Fowler supplemented the gardens' holdings with species from such far-off places as Asia, Egypt and South America. Meanwhile she opened the gardens to the public on Sunday mornings during the blooming season. In the 1930s, Shaw's gardens were threatened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which wanted to dredge the area and reclaim the marshes. Fowler protested, and in 1938, the Department of the Interior purchased the site for $15,000, thus ensuring the gardens' preservation.
Thanks to Shaw and Fowler's industry, the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens feature 30-plus varieties of waterlilies, many of which will be on view at Saturday's annual Waterlily Festival. The freshwater perennials are members of the plant family Nymphaeaceae, named after the flighty Greek deities thought to inhabit lakes and streams. Waterlilies have the same basic needs -- sun and still water with rich mud beneath. Yet there are significant differences among them. Hardy waterlilies, as their name suggests, survive in ponds in this region through the winter. In the spring they grow round, smooth-edged lily pads and upright flowers that peak in May and June. Most are white, soft rose or deep pink, such as the rich-toned Helen Fowler. Tropical waterlilies, meanwhile, are far more temperamental; they bide their time in Kenilworth greenhouses until Washington's midsummer miasma arrives. "We have to wait until July to set them out [in the ponds]," Kirkley explained. "The water has to be warmer for them to thrive."
On the day I visited, a few tropicals were taking a "test drive" in near-empty ponds. The plants are characterized by serrated leaf pads and more open flowers. Further, many are vibrantly colored. The Director Moore, for example, had a purple flower with striped leaves; nearby was a William McLean, a medium blue bloom with leaves that looked almost aubergine.
While Kenilworth has a large, modern greenhouse, the staff still uses a low wooden greenhouse dating to 1913. The inside is warm and musty with long sinks filled to the brim. Greg Dodson, one of Kenilworth's expert gardeners, explained how the tropicals are preserved from year to year. "We propagate them from tubers," he said, reaching into the depth of a sink to pull one up. It looked like a large, wrinkled olive with a few specks of green growth on the surface. During the winter, the tubers are stored in sand at a constant temperature to keep them dormant. In spring, propagation begins. "We're not in the tropics, so we fool them," Dodson explained, by putting them in mud-lined pots submerged in warm water. "In the water they get the nutrients they need," and the tubers sprout roots and stems. When leaves start to appear on the water surface, the plant is well established, and the tuber can be broken off to propagate another lily. The mature plant, meanwhile, is planted outdoors, provided it is warm enough. The process takes four to six weeks.
A number of waterlilies are named after growers yet sound more like characters from the board game Clue, with titles such as General Pershing, Madam Walska and Mrs. Perry Slocum. Others are visually descriptive and poetic, such as Green Smoke (a lavender waterlily with a green center), Red Flare (a night-blooming flower with red petals) and Woods White Knight (also a night-bloomer with ghostly white flowers). Kenilworth offers two evening tours in September so visitors can see these rarified night-blooming varieties. "It's quite dark, but the rangers use flashlights and guide people around," Kirkley said. Those interested in the tours can call the garden in August for specific dates and times.
One category of aquatic plants at Kenilworth is literally and figuratively in a class by itself. The East Indian lotus, while a waterlily, belongs to the genus Nelumbo. Its immense proportions shift viewers' perspectives, making them feel like they've been transformed into one of the garden's frogs. Long stalks rise three to four feet above the water, topped by leaves that look like inverted umbrellas or sumptuous flowers as big as basketballs. While visually impressive, the lotus for some is more significant for its cultural associations.
"The lotus is embedded in Asian religion and arts," explained Jason Kwahk, District resident and member of Modern Buddhism of America, a New York-based publication devoted to Buddhist practice and cultural traditions. "In Buddhist iconography [it represents] something pure. The reason is that it grows in the mud and blossoms above water, untainted, suggesting new life and spirit."
This year both the waterlilies and lotuses will be celebrated at the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens' Waterlily Festival and Lotus Asian Cultural Festival, co-hosted by the National Park Service and Modern Buddhism of America. According to Kwahk, the prevalence of lotuses at Kenilworth made the location ideal for the event. The lotus festival highlights include performances of traditional dances from Thailand, Laos, Korea and Sri Lanka, workshops on meditation and lotus-themed craft projects for families. There also will be guided tours of the ponds and greenhouses.
When Shaw first grew waterlilies in an abandoned ice pond, he couldn't have known that the flowers he tended would one day be the inspiration for a multicultural festival in his garden some 120 years later.
KENILWORTH PARK AND AQUATIC GARDENS' ANNUAL WATERLILY FESTIVAL AND LOTUS ASIAN CULTURAL FESTIVAL -- Saturday from 11 to 2. 1550 Anacostia Ave. NE (Metro: Deanwood). 202-426-6905. www.nps.gov/kepa. Open daily from 7 to 4. Free. From Interstate 295 south, take the Eastern Avenue exit. Take a slight right onto Quarles Street, then turn left onto Anacostia Avenue. The park entrance will be on the right.