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Botanic garden explores growing food and how it has changed

U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington highlights what gets from farm to table and how it happens.

The Dawfor family of York, Pennsylvania — Nuna, 3, Alexander, 11, dad Yao and mom Tynisha — check out a map of legumes of the world in the “Cultivate: Growing Food in a Changing World” exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden. The exhibit shows how agriculture is part of everyday life. (Vanessa Larson)

Did you know that crayons, chalk, toothpaste, sneakers and even diapers contain materials that in some way come from corn? That one-fifth of land in the contiguous United States is used to cultivate crops? Or that 1 in 3 American households — whether on farms, in backyards and community gardens or on balconies and windowsills — grow some of their own food?

A new exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) covers these topics and more. “Cultivate: Growing Food in a Changing World” shows how agriculture isn’t just an activity that takes place on faraway farms but something that shapes almost every aspect of our existence.

“Agriculture is part of our everyday life, and it’s in a lot of everyday things that we never thought about,” says Amy Bolton, the museum’s manager of learning and engagement.

The exhibit, the largest the USBG has ever put on, is spread throughout the glass-enclosed conservatory building. The entry courtyard is filled with species of formerly wild plants and trees, many from the tropics or subtropics, that humans have cultivated to make them more suitable for food or other needs. These include coconuts, bananas, coffee, citrus, bamboo and cacao (pronounced kuh-KAU), a plant whose seeds are used to make chocolate.

The exhibit highlights some popular dishes to show how even meals that don’t seem to contain many agricultural products can still rely on farming. Take sushi, for example: Although the seafood and seaweed used to wrap it come from the ocean, not only the rice but also the flavorings — such as soy, wasabi and ginger — come from plants.

A section on the cultural aspects of what we eat features three chefs with local connections, and it appeals to almost all of the five senses. For example, visitors can listen to a recording of African American food historian Michael Twitty speaking about cooking; see and touch a re-creation of his kitchen setup (including jars of pickled okra and hot sauce); and smell a container of chile pepper salt. Elsewhere, there are profiles and video interviews with farmers around the world.

Two large maps made with grains and legumes show which staples — such as rice, corn, barley, quinoa or teff — are most common in different parts of the world. Another section looks at five plants, including wheat and sugar cane, that have transformed food systems and economies and in some cases shaped human migration.

Outside in Bartholdi Park, a kitchen garden showcases edible plants that grow in North America. Veggies including lettuce, Swiss chard, peppers and leeks, along with herbs such as cilantro, basil, dill and parsley, are now in season.

In a neat twist, some materials in the exhibit were made thanks to agriculture. Most of the walls and graphics use board produced with wheat straw, while the linoleum on a bench incorporates jute and linseed oil. You can sit on stools covered with petals and seeds from sunflowers.

The plant-based surfaces and furniture are just one more way that Bolton hopes the exhibit will expand people’s ideas about agriculture. “Agriculture is science, agriculture is food, agriculture is people, it’s culture,” she says.

If you go

What: “Cultivate: Growing Food in a Changing World”

Where: United States Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Avenue in Southwest Washington.

When: Through December 2023. Open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

How much: Free.

For more information: Call 202-225-8333 or visit usbg.gov.