- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

''This is a party, this is a Florida party," said Friends of the National Arboretum board member Becky Dye, making sure no one missed the point as she welcomed friends and neighbors from the state to the Great Arboretum Cookout last Thursday night."

Indeed, the National Arboretum did feel like a little corner of the "Sunshine State" as Sen. Bob Graham emceed the steamy proceedings for 650 guests under a white open-sided tent pitched on the National Columns Meadow, a lawn that could have doubled as a polo field in Palm Beach.

Women were colorful in filmy chiffon numbers with sandals, while hats and Audrey Hepburnesque sunglasses were the rule of the evening. Men leaned back in their chairs and shot the breeze over beers while women sipped chardonnay and took the children to an improvised petting zoo in a potting shed featuring Florida fauna a flamingo (of course), a black vulture, an osprey, a red rat snake and an armadillo.

FONA hosts the gathering every June and dedicates it to a different state, whose resident lobbyists and politicians rally to raise funds for the cause. This year, Mrs. Dye said, the party raised about $300,000 for the garden she calls "the best-kept secret in Washington."

"But we don't want it to be a secret anymore," she said, and for Floridians, it won't be. She had made sure the Florida congressional delegation was invited to the festivities, and many members came, including Reps. Michael Bilirakis, Allen Boyd, Peter Deutsch, Joe Scarborough, Tillie Fowler, Carrie Meek, Bill McCollum, Robert Wexler and Jim Davis.

The congressmen could stay only a little while, however, as a roll-call vote soon beckoned them back to the House. That left children and spouses to enjoy the outdoorsy menu of Florida fare that included ruskin tomatoes vinaigrette, fried Florida tilapia, center-cut sirloin, corn on the cob, hush puppies and Key lime pie.

There still was plenty of fun to be had after the Hill denizens departed and a keynote speech as well when Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman took over the microphone to extol the virtues of the arboretum at a volume that had guests covering their ears.

"The arboretum is a jewel something unequaled in the world," he shouted. It makes a big difference in peoples' lives where there are trees and plants and shrubs, people are generally happier."

"Louder," someone in the audience hooted, drawing guilty laughter from the suddenly clued-in perpetrator.

FONA Executive Director Linda Wilson reminded guests that although the arboretum is funded by the Department of Agriculture, it needs private-sector contributions to continue various activities for public benefit, including student horticultural internships and the Washington Youth Gardens outreach program for inner-city youngsters.

The arboretum, she added, is getting more popular, with the number of annual visitors increasing by 30 percent to 40 percent over the past several years a fact that came as no surprise to FONA board Chairman Woodruff Price, who lives on Capitol Hill and goes there almost every weekend to walk his dog.

"It is a place of refuge and respite, a place to catch your breath and to look at some green trees and lovely flowers," Mr. Price said. "It's one of the most wonderful places in Washington."

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