Gardens of heritage: A piece of the District rich in history, beauty

One of the oldest botanical gardens in the U.S., the United States Botanic Garden has been open to the public since 1850.

According to the visitors guide, during the late 18th century George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all wanted a national botanic garden and all had a part in establishing one on the Mall.

In 1928, the gardens received enough support to be moved across Maryland Avenue to their present location between 1st and 3rd streets SW, adjacent to the Capitol. According to Christine Flanagan, public programs manager, the gardens were closed for renovations in 1997 and reopened four years later on Nov. 23, 2001. The gardens have been administered through the Office of the Architect of the Capitol since 1934.

The gardens were formally placed under the jurisdiction of the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress in 1856, according to Flanagan.

Flanagan first became interested in gardening at age 6, when she used her allowance to buy petunia seeds. She developed this interest while studying marine biology in school.

Some of the first plants in the gardens were from a U.S. expedition led by Lt. Charles Wilkes, a member of the Navy and author of the book Sea of Glory, according to Flanagan.

“Wilkes led explorers around the world in six ships for 89,000 miles and returned with some of the first plants in our conservatory,” she said.

Flanagan said that at the conservatory door, garden staff counts how many enter the building. “Usually we say about 650,000 people enter the gardens every year, but of course we can’t count those who visit our outdoor gardens, so I think the best number to estimate would be 850,000 to 1 million people annually,” she said.

Flanagan said that the gardens have a fairly modest staff of 66 plant experts and employees.

D.C.’s gardening scene is larger than most people think, according to Flanagan. “People are really making the most of their Capitol Hill postage-stamp yards.”

A lot of the USBG’s visitors are from D.C., but many are from suburban areas.

“Many of our visitors either come in and say they have a green thumb or they kill everything in their paths,” Flanagan said. “Many people see plants as this alien life form and not like animals — do plants sleep? Some are dormant, yes.”

There is a very interesting physiology relating to plants, she added.

“The best advice I would give to those who are interested in gardening, or would like to get more involved would be to grow herbs and tomatoes if you are more into food and eating; or if you’re more into the aesthetic part, orchids and pines are very easy,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan recommends not just picking up a foliage plant, but getting something that changes. “African violets are fairly easy and won’t outgrow your space,” she said.

Flanagan also touched on biophilia, the theory made popular by Edward Wilson’s book Biophilia. It is the theory that there is something in our genes and our psyche that makes us have a need to be nurtured. “It’s a subconscious, subliminal thing,” Flanagan said. “It’s not purely aesthetic, and having plants around us makes us feel that we are in an environment that can support life.”

The USBG offers many classes given by experts who work at the gardens and others who come in to teach. A class on keeping and maintaining a butterfly garden will be given this Saturday from 1 to 2:30 p.m. by Jim Gallion from the National Wildlife Federation. Pre-registration is required.

The gardens also offer a lot of classes in horticulture therapy, or using gardening and plants as therapy to improve well-being.

For more information on the United States Botanic Garden, visit its website at