Washington, DC

The 2nd World Forum offered some fantastic field trips. A tour of Smithsonian Gardens was one. The property encompasses fourteen major spaces and some smaller ones as well. We took the two-and-a-half-mile loop to see only a fraction of what they have to offer. It was a beautiful autumn day among the granite monoliths of Washington.

Along for the ride were sixty or so World Forum attendees glad to get outdoors after three days of science and politics within the confines of a luxury conference hotel.

Shane Degroy
Dana Karcher
Jake Hendee, Cindy Brown, Sarah Hedean

Some of the staff met the group at the entrance to the Enid A. Haupt Garden. Jake Hendee, the Smithsonian Garden’s Arborist, informed the group about some of what they might expect on the walk. Cindy Brown, Manager of Collections, Education and Access, also attended, along with Sarah Hedean, who heads up Living Collections.

Cindy explained that the tree collections here “are official Smithsonian collection items along the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz or Abe Lincoln’s inaugural top hat.” She added that the biggest challenge with the Garden’s tree collections “can be the conflict with construction. Sometimes they have to remove them. It’s priorities – for example if they’re expanding a building, like Air and Space.”

These gardens are described as being largely “rooftop” because the museums here are actually situated under the ground. For example, the Museum of African Art and part of the Asian Museum were down below. You could see the skylights.

Museum Skylights
Joseph Brice

The staff here is extensive and dedicated. Joseph Brice, one of the Biological Science Technicians, is the most senior and is getting ready to retire after forty-three years.

Flowering Senna

“I love using my hands when I’m out here in the garden,” he said. “And the people.”

All around are interesting plants.

Luana Vargas

Visitors on the tour expressed their enthusiasm. Luana Vargas of ISA said, “I used to watch a show that had a backdrop here – Bones. And I used to work at a botanical garden. Actually getting to see the plants up close is so exciting.”

Joy Columbus

Joy Columbus, Smithsonian Gardens Director, told the group that for fifty one years it’s been engaging, informing and inspiring visitors.

Angel’s Trumpet
Charging Station

In 1972, ecologist and ornithologist S. Dillon Ripley founded the gardens. The 180 acres with 13 individual public gardens “offer ecosystem services that are so important to our cities.” The public gardens, she stressed, are really “garden galleries,” much like the galleries in the Smithsonian’s built museums. “Plant documentation is very important. We collaborate with scientists about where plants are going, and we partner with other public gardens around the country.”

Cindy Brown attended the World Forum sessions earlier in the week. “I have so many ideas in my brain right now, I’m going to have to go home and get some rest!”

We passed some exotic plants, like a Brazilian Angel’s Trumpet.

We paused at an electric charging station, its solar array used to charge the gardening equipment and for the public as well. The Gardens are committed to sustainability.

Cindy told us, “Our biggest goal here is to share what we know. We started a virtual program called “Let’s Talk Gardens” this year, and we collaborate with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Our African American gardeners are traditionally some of our best. So we promote the benefits of trees. We’re striving to be a global garden.” She described a collaboration with artist and environmental activist Maya Lin earlier this year – “Art of the Bark” was an effort to “help students pay attention to trees” by keeping journals and other activities. With thirty million visitors every year, this is “an equitable garden, free and open to the public 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.”

We paid a visit to the Rose Garden, installed in 1997.

Rose Garden

It’s laid out in the shadow of the 1875 National Museum structure which has been closed for twenty years for renovation.

Even the carvings at the base of the light posts boast ecological themes.

Historic Building
Light Post Carving

In 2016 the rose garden was updated with plantings of perennials.

Another stop was the Ripley Garden, where a purple-overalled horticulturalist named Janet walked us through some of the highlights.

“Monoculture used to exist here,” she said, “with extensive plantings of elms. One goal of the gardens is to have more diversity.” Accordingly, she has been installing more tropical plants, like the “Lulu fruit” or narajillo from Equador. She shows us the inside of a Lulu fruit.

“It’s all seed,” she said, “with the possibility of being invasive. So when it’s spent it goes into the trash. It’s important to teach people about invasives,” she adds.


Walking, we passed diverse and beautiful plants.

Arborist Boots

You know you’re with a group of arborists when you see the wear and tear on the typical work boots.

Fall Color

The colors all around were outstanding.

Matthew Morrison

We met Matthew Morrison, the urban forester for NPS, at the National Mall with its vast array of historic elms.

“We treat them with a prophylactic every year,” he said, “Arbortek 205.” He pointed out a nearby “Jefferson elm,” one of the originals dating back to Frederick Law Olmsted’s design of the mall.

“This is the mother of all Jefferson elms,” he said. “For some reason it never got Dutch Elm Disease, and people have been propagating it, so all around the world you can find Jefferson elms. We finally put a chain around its base this year.”

Jefferson Elm

Morrison described the process of “remediating the soils here, air spading, and adding a cocktail of compost to critical root zones, with wood chips from a brush chipper. Wood-chipper therapy seems to be the best thing we’re doing.” He added, “We want to leave this park a legacy for our unborn children of the future, and an owner’s manual so we hope it will carry on. I try to spread the word – if I could afford a billboard I would!” It used to be a requirement that only elms be planted around the mall’s buildings, but streetscape guidelines are now under review and revision in order to incorporate more diversity of species.

We walked to the south side of the mall, passing a 200-million-year-old petrified tree trunk along the way in front of the National Museum of Natural History.

Petrified Trunk
Philip Evich

Horticulturalist Philip Evich told the group about the new trees planted here, including a sweet gum “that will be massive one day.”


He described the Gardens’ efforts to restore the native chestnut population here.

Longleaf Pine

And showed the group a long leaf pine that forms a nice juxtaposition with a nearby critter.


We visited a pollinator garden that exemplifies rewilding even at the entry to a major highway. A diverse canopy of native trees like sourwood, river birch, red wood and serviceberry have been planted in this dense urban space. Horticulturalist Sylvia Schmeichel asked the group to compare this diversity with “the two species on the mall: turf grass and elm.” And she shared a joke: “What did the tree say to the arborist? I don’t know, I’m stumped.”

We visited the “Big Tree Garden,” the site of massive willow oaks and red oaks. Joy said, “I get chills every time I come here.”

Nearby is a victory garden, whose crops are donated to homeless shelters. Horticulturalist Alex Dendker said that “fantastic volunteers come in every week, even in twenty-degree weather – accountants, doctors, lawyers. They come dig holes for us in August.”

We were joined by Jake Hendee, who described “doing science” with the Garden collections. “There are best practices, based on science,” he stressed, “and the prevailing practices that are currently on the landscape. There can be a big gap between them. We think of our role as a public garden as putting the puzzle pieces together.”

The tour wound up outside  the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There we were met by Carla Thomas McGinnis, Assistant Director of Council Operations and Museum Initiatives.

All the trees here are roughly six years old, since they were planted when the museum first opened. “The question has been, ‘How can we use our trees to connect with our visitors?’” She pointed out the live oaks nearby.

Carla Thomas McGinnis
Live Oak
Fallen Leaf

“Live oaks are a symbol of strength,” she says. “They tell the story of ship building, hush harbors, a place to bury the dead without the eye of the enslaver in the woods.”

Science, culture, history. Stories. All worth observation and appreciation when it comes to the urban forest, here on this magnificent morning at the Smithsonian Gardens.