As you enter the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a sign says, “No Ice Skating.”
Don’t laugh; even in high summer, you can see the winter allure of the gardens’ 44 ponds, large and small. But these water gardens in Northeast Washington come into their own during the dog days. They embrace the season like no other public garden in the metropolis, and their fame rests with two plants, the water lily and the lotus. They bloom by the thousands in June and July.
Fame might be too strong a word, because the gardens struggle to get noticed for much of the year, being hard to find and located in an unfashionable corner of the city (although the nearby Anacostia River is slowly becoming an ecological gem).
The gardens, a free, public asset of the National Park Service, get to shine this Saturday at their most popular event, the annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival, which typically draws about 3,000 visitors.
The hardy water lilies peak in late June, although the show is still good well into July. Check out an intense magenta variety named Pink Opal, which occupies at least one of the larger ponds. But this is the month of the sacred lotus, an ancient and mystical plant of the Middle East eastward to Japan, known to the pharaohs, curiously hardy here and fittingly exotic during the weeks when the Washington climate turns tropical. Everything about the plant is big and dreamy, from the blue-green leaf parasols, with their bizarre water beading quality, to the complex and languid blossoms.
The buds ascend on their own stems, at first the size of peas but developing into something the size of a goose egg before bursting open. Over the course of three days, the rose pink petals fade to a creamy yellow and then to ivory as the true flowers form a collar around the central seed-bearing cone. The fragrance comes and goes through the day but at its strongest is cloyingly sweet.
Douglas Rowley, gardener supervisor, said a July 3 storm damaged many of the lotus buds, but when I returned to the gardens last week, the display seemed anything but subdued. Anyone who is not moved at the sight of a lotus pond in peak bloom needs to check his pulse.
For good measure, Rowley grows more than 20 varieties of tropical water lilies in six of the ponds. Their blooms tend to have even more vibrant colors than the hardy lilies, in pinks, blues and reds, and they flower on and off until the fall. In October, the cool nights induce a dormancy, and the plant tubers are moved to indoor aquariums for the winter. Visitors also will find a few examples of the Victoria lily, an Amazon giant with pads the size of tabletops.
Eventually, the paths encircling the ponds lead to a boardwalk that takes you along a tidal tributary of the Anacostia. Here the experience is more natural, less overtly ornamental, offering a glimpse of something rare in the city: a view little changed in centuries.
As we walk along the boardwalk, Rowley points out some plantings of the native lotus, a yellow-flowered species named Nelumbo lutea . The wetland is also defined by what is not there, the normally invasive and ubiquitous reed phragmites. Acres of it have been eradicated by one of the Park Service’s exotic plant management teams. Today, lime green patches of native wild rice can be seen taking hold (if they survived spring browsing by geese).
Back in the aquatic gardens, there is a wonderful tension between a landscape that is both natural and manmade. It seems neither one nor the other. It could benefit, arguably, from a great deal of renovation of the worn dykes and aging visitor center, but there is something timeless, too, to these ponds and redolent of a Washington that has faded into the past. The aquatic gardens have changed little, outwardly, since the 1920s when Calvin and Grace Coolidge popped over from the White House. (At the time, the gardens were privately owned as a water lily nursery.)
A friends group, formed 13 years ago, helps supply an army of volunteers for weeding, trash removal and infrastructure repair.
If there is artifice to these dug ponds, the wildlife don’t seem to care. The gardens are awash in animal life. Though it might not be so surprising that there are dragonflies constantly on the wing, what is remarkable is that there are so many kinds: a common species whose body is splashed a sky blue, another striped like a tiger, another that is a deep black-purple.
Beavers have worn swales between the ponds. When I was there in late June, a black rat snake glided swiftly away, bothered by our presence but not panicked.
The great blue heron is normally wary of people, but the one that stalks a central pond seems far less fazed. As I was watching it from 20 feet away, another creature began to stir the murky water. After a while my brain registered what was going on: A mature snapping turtle had emerged from the mud to munch on a dead fish.
The stimuli are aural as well: The thick summer air is pierced with the chatter of cicadas and the calls of frog species.
The ponds are edged with willows, alders and other slender trees, and in the shade and in the breeze, the heat seems bearable, even pleasant.
On my more recent visit I could see movement in one of the canopies. A bird showed itself, but one I had never seen before. It was long, slender and ruddy brown above and light gray beneath, and seemed to be frolicking in the branches like a parrot, at one point turning upside down. Back home, I thumbed through my bird guide but couldn’t figure out what it was exactly. A veery? A kingbird? Nothing quite seemed to match.
I e-mailed the photos I took to Pat Leonard of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and within moments she replied. “Looks like you have a yellow-billed cuckoo there!” And yes, that’s what it was. Apparently, Washington has a bunch of cuckoos. Who knew?
The gardens might be at their showiest now, but I sense that Rowley would like people to return at quieter times of the year. Yes, even in winter. The leaf drop opens up the landscape and the ponds capture the pale sky and its light. “You get all these great reflections, especially with the fresh snow. The colors reflect off the ice and the trees,” he said. “It’s very peaceful and quiet, a great place to walk around.” Just leave the skates at home.
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