Most gardening does not involve canoes.
Then again, most gardens aren’t like Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, where flowers and lily pads float atop acres of ponds, and maintenance occasionally involves casting off from the shoreline, scythe in hand, like some combination of Charon and the Grim Reaper.
This week, I visited the National Park Service gardens, which are gearing up for Saturday’s annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival. The flowers and seed pods of the lotus bobbed in the breeze. Dragonflies flitted. Frogs fixed me with their jeweled eyes. Surrounded by nature in the drowsy, late-morning heat, I found it hard to believe we were in Northeast Washington, barely a half-mile from the Anacostia Freeway.
Doug Rowley, Kenilworth’s supervising gardener, showed me where it all begins: in the greenhouses where walnut-size tubers — the seeds of an aquatic plant — are bathed in 74-degree water. When green shoots have reached the surface, the tubers are potted and the pots moved to temporary quarters in three display ponds. Here were King of Siam, Blue Lotus of the Nile, Victoria and other cultivars that spoke of jungle rivers and tropical lagoons.
The mighty Victoria was discovered in the Amazon. Its green pads can grow to five feet in diameter, the edges turned up like the crisp rim of a pie crust — albeit a pie crust that’s dotted with sharp spikes to dissuade animals from eating it.
That particular water lily was named in honor of Queen Victoria. Water lilies remind me of the Victorian era, when pith-helmeted Englishmen tromped through the muck to collect ever more beautiful specimens. I think maybe you have to be a little crazy and sun-addled to obsess over these plants.
Doug is. Obsessed, I mean. (I can’t speak to crazy.) His father was in the military, and the family lived for a while in Puerto Rico. That’s where Doug was first exposed to a tropical climate. Water plants became his first love.
“I don’t mind getting muddy,” Doug said.
Kenilworth’s lilies are actually a little behind this year. Aquatic plants need water — duh — but so far in 2015, there’s been too much of it. Rain has flooded many of Kenilworth’s ponds, making them too deep for gardeners to work in. Doug’s crews have been trying to drain some of the ponds that house tropical water lilies.
The gardens were started by a one-armed Civil War veteran, Walter Shaw, who in the 1880s bought land that included a disused ice pond. When frozen over, that pond had provided ice to District ice houses. Shaw planted white water lilies that reminded him of his native Maine, then started moving in soil to build dikes and create a network of ponds in the marshy land. He pulled out arum, cattails and wild rice and put in his beloved blossoms.
On my visit Tuesday, I ran into Yin Leung, a retired pharmacist from Queens. He and his wife, Jenny, visit Kenilworth three or four times a year to take photographs. On Tuesday, each of them was pulling a case full of camera equipment along the rutted paths.
Yin said his wife sometimes questions his decision to devote so much time to this specific landscape. “I tell her, ‘With this one scenery, you can create many different pictures,’ ” he said.
Cindy Dyer would agree. She’s an Alexandria photographer whose pictures of Kenilworth water lilies grace a new set of Forever postage stamps that were designed by Phil Jordan. The print run is a whopping 500 million. (I think Doug will probably buy a few million of them.)
“I always use a tripod,” Cindy said when I called her up to talk technique. “It makes you much more deliberate in your choices. If you set up on a tripod, you move slower.”
And with a tripod, you can focus on a single flower — then wait.
“I always say a little prayer: ‘Gosh, it’d be perfect if there’d be a bug on it.’ Nine times out of 10, something lands. . . . A lot of people will photograph a flower and move on. I set up and wait for that bug.”
The Lotus and Water Lily Festival is runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, 1550 Anacostia Ave. NE. Free admission.
For information, visit www.nps.gov/keaq. For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.