Season’s Greenings at the U.S. Botanic Garden

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The train exhibit is one of the most popular features of the Season’s Greenings show at the U.S. Botanic Garden. Courtesy of USBG

A Christmas holiday tradition for many Capitol Hill residents is a trip to the U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) at the bottom of the Hill. Our neighborhood contingent is part of a massive quarter of a million people stopping by the oldest continuously operating public garden in the United States, established by Congress in 1820.  Its annual holiday display is free to all and is an event enjoyed by all ages. The exhibition will run from Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, 2023 through January 1, 2024. It is closed on Christmas Day. It is open 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each day.

One big feature especially loved by children is the toy model trains that travel through hill and dale in an outside exhibit. But that’s not all. There are 22 DC landmark and monument replicas made entirely from plant materials. They are awe inspiring from an architectural, artistic, and naturalist viewpoint.

You will also appreciate the 2,000 poinsettias tucked into many different corners of the glass Conservatory. They include new cultivars never shown before. This season there is also a gift shop run by the Friends of the U.S. Botanic Garden.

The plant sculpture company Applied Imagination builds the 22 DC landmark replicas entirely from plant materials. It took 600 hours to build this model of the Capitol. Photo: Melissa Ashabranner

As you can imagine, with all this to see your visit can be a holiday season highlight and a way to enjoy the season in a wholesome non-commercial setting.

DC Landmarks and Monuments

Since 2004, the Botanical Garden has collaborated with Applied Imagination, an Alexandria, Kentucky plant sculpture company.  The firm’s installations are award-winning displays and are featured in many holiday displays including the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx, New York; the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina; Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio;  and Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The company combines G scale model trains with inventive settings, all created with botanical materials.  It could be fun to organize a scavenger hunt to see if all the replicas can be found during your visit.

The U.S. Botanic Garden is beautiful at the end of a day. A quarter of a million people will visit during the holiday season. Courtesy of USBG

Each building replica begins with a frame of acrylic based foam. The details are made from dried plant materials. Applied Imagination staff find most of their plants by scavenging lands near their shop and homes.  For example, the Lincoln Memorial in the Conservatory’s Garden court is made from walnut shells, birch sticks, bamboo twigs, forsythia sticks, elm wood, and locust bark.  It took over 600 hours to build the Capitol, one of the first made for USBG.

Devin Dotson, Public Affairs Specialist for the United States Botanic Garden, says this year “all 22 replicas will be on display, including the latest ones, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the USBG’s historic 1800’s Conservatory, the Palm House interior, and the National Gallery of Art East Wing.”  Each year a few of the models need to be touched up, reglued, and prepped for the holiday season.   Staff from Kentucky are deployed to the many different sites around the country to perform the restorations.

Trains Running on Time

Devin says a change necessitated by COVID has now become a regular feature. That’s moving the train display from the inside exhibition halls to outside the Conservatory in the garden space. “Folks who came in past years will remember the long lines to get into the train exhibit,” Devin notes.  “It was pretty tight and crowded.”  For the past couple of years, the very popular exhibit has been operating outside, letting visitors circulate around the trains with greater space, and no lines.  This year the theme of the exhibit is pollinators. The trains will pass by oversized butterflies, flowers, bats, and hummingbirds. About 75% of all flowering plant species need animal pollinators for reproduction.  The trains will highlight the need for pollinators to protect our ecosystems.

The Friends of the U.S. Botanic Garden operate a small gift shop that
sells botanic garden objects and a few orchids and small plants.
Photo: Rindy O’Brien

USBG does note that the trains may not operate during inclement weather. “The trains seem to be fine running outside,” says Devin, “but high winds can be problematic.”  The pollinators are created by Applied Imagination and the G-gauge model trains are also part of the company’s inventory.

Shop at the Gardens

Friends of the U.S. Botanic Garden was established in 1991 and plays an integral role raising funds to support the gardens that supplement government funding.  The non-profit supports over 200 public programs, organizes volunteers, and supports internships for both high school and college students.

The garden shop in the holiday display is partnered with the local Rewild store, which has a store at Eastern Market. You can choose from a number of botanically themed gifts.  The shop also features a collection of flower and plant books, art cards, towels, honey, and orchids and other small plants.  Part of your purchase will support the Botanic Garden. During the special holiday season, Zeke’s Coffee will also sell coffee, hot chocolate, and snacks.  Zeke’s will be set up near the train exhibit.

Anyone can enroll in the membership-based “Friends” group. It costs $75 per individual or $150 for a family of four.  Membership is available online at www.usbgfriends.org  One benefit is the opportunity to attend a special night on December 8th where  only members are invited.  Devin also says public extended hours on December 14, December 21st and December 28th are usually a great time to attend.  These evenings are open until 8:00 p.m. and include live seasonal music.

Tips for Visiting

Devin suggests that if Hill residents want to enjoy the gardens before the crowds arrive, coming between Thanksgiving and the first two weeks in December is ideal.  “It can be somewhat empty these early days and a fun way to get to see everything up close. And the evening programs are a nice way to see the exhibit and get into the holiday mood and are not crowded.”

Parking is always a challenge so if you can walk down the Hill rather drive, that is highly recommended.  If you do so, you can also check out The Capitol Christmas Tree.  This year’s tree is from West Virginia and is a. 38-year-old tree.  The nearest Metro Stop is Federal Center SW on the blue, orange, and silver lines.  It is about a four-block walk from the metro to the Conservatory.

The U.S. Botanic Garden is located at 100 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington DC 20001. www.USBG.gov

Rindy O’Brien adds the USGB to her family’s holiday calendar. Contact Rindy at rindyobrien@gmail.com. Happy Holidays to All!