Good news, D.C. leaf peepers: Fall has finally arrived, and trees across the city are bursting into color. We may not have entire hillsides of fiery foliage, like you get on Skyline Drive, but what D.C. lacks in intensity we make up for in diversity. More than 350 different species of tree call the capital region home, and that results in a very long foliage season. Native trees like dogwoods and tupelos get it started in early October, and cold-hardy foreigners like the Japanese maple can keep it going well into December.
D.C.’s tree variety is due to our mild climate, international visitors who bring flora from their homelands, and the U.S. National Arboretum — 446 rolling acres that are home to roughly 14,000 different species of plants, some of which are quite rare. So, when I wanted to see autumn in full flame last week, the Arboretum was my first choice.
My Uber driver, a lifelong D.C. resident, had never heard of the Arboretum. “Where are you going?” he asked, surprised that his app was taking us to an otherwise industrial corner of Northeast D.C. When we rolled through the main gates, he was floored. “This is amazing! It’s like a forest in a city!”
Except the Arboretum isn’t like any forest that nature would devise. Much of the landscape is neatly mown and regularly weeded by an army of volunteers, and its canopy is made up of international trees as well as ones that were Frankensteined in USDA laboratories. In fact, the Arboretum was founded largely as a place for Agriculture Department scientists to showcase new varieties of ornamental plants — created by crossbreeding (and, more recently, genetically engineering) flora to be more beautiful and hardy than their forebears.
I bid my driver goodbye and pulled my bicycle out of his trunk. This is cheating, I know, but biking to the Arboretum means navigating busy highways and one vertiginous hill. Once you’re inside the gates, though, cycling is a delight, and probably the best way to explore the Arboretum’s 9 miles of meandering roads.
Following the suggestion of the official Arboretum app, I biked to a place called Maple Hill and found a stand of trees ablaze in fall colors. Among the familiar oranges, yellows and reds was a tree that had turned an unusual purple-red. Unlike many trees at the Arboretum, this one didn’t have a label. Luckily, the app includes a map of every single plant on the premises, so I was able to determine that my mystery tree was a Brandywine maple, a cultivar developed by Arboretum scientists in 1998 for pest resistance and distinctive, long-lasting fall color.
I sat down underneath a sugar maple and soon all the animals that had scattered upon my abrupt arrival resumed their daily routines. A flock of squabbling blue jays alighted on the grass near me, looking like pieces of sky falling to the ground, and a pileated woodpecker tapped out a message of doom to bugs hiding in the bark of a sugar maple. A huge vulture drifted by, looking thoughtful, perhaps also taking in the fall colors. I was jealous of his lofty perspective.
Where else should I go? My app sent me to the fall-blooming camellias, another Arboretum invention. They were less than a mile away, but I took a scenic route, biking past the Capitol Columns — 22 Corinthian pilasters orphaned by a 1958 Capitol building renovation. In the fall, they look especially lovely, a tidy Roman ruin framed by golden grass and blue flowers — bluestar and aster, the app said.
I made my way to the shady, terraced hillside that houses the Arboretum camellia collection — or what’s left of it, anyway. In the late 1970s, a few bitterly cold winters killed almost all of the Arboretum’s 900 camellias, a sign explains. One of the remaining plants, romantically called #162475, became the basis for an Arboretum program to breed cold-tolerant camellias. Perhaps it hasn’t been cold enough for them yet — I only found a few of the white and pink flowers open among the glossy green leaves.
It’s practically illegal to go to the Arboretum without swinging by the bonsai pavilions and seeing the world-famous collection of dwarf trees, so I made that my last stop of the day. A few of them were just beginning to change color, and a gardener told me that they’d likely peak in time for the weeklong autumn bonsai exhibit, which opens on Saturday.
I guess I’ll just have to go back then!
More adventures with the Staycationer