- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

The United States Botanic Garden at the foot of Capitol Hill recently went through its spring makeover and sports hundreds of spring flowers — pink cyclamen, red tulips, peach-colored amaryllis, white Easter lilies, pink azaleas — in its main hall, the Garden Court.

Parents with strollers, retirees, tourists and others come to sit and relax in this space, which also has small fountains and classical music flowing through its speakers.

“It’s aesthetically appealing to people — and peaceful,” says Kyle Wallick, a botanist with the garden. “But aside from the aesthetics, we also hope to teach people about conservation, diversity and our dependence on plants for food, oxygen and medicines.”

There is a section devoted solely to medicinal herbs and plants, showing that both modern and so-called alternative and primitive medicine make use of flora.

Among these medicinal plants is the Asiatic pennywort, used as an herbal treatment of asthma, epilepsy and syphilis. Its pharmaceutical uses include treatment of burns.

Next to the section of medicinal herbs and plants is a room full of intricate and colorful orchids, including the fuchsia-colored Brassolaeliocattleya, which is the size of a hand, and the delicate white phalaenopsis.

“This is probably our most popular exhibit. People are fascinated with orchids — their exotic look and vivid coloration,” Mr. Wallick says. “It’s also our biggest collection. We have about 600 orchids.”

People’s love of orchids is nothing new, according to the exhibit. The ancient Greeks used them as an aphrodisiac, and in the 1800s, orchid mania took hold in Europe as explorers brought back thousands of specimens from the tropics. Today, up to 35,000 species of orchids exist in the world, according to the exhibit.

For those with a special interest in orchids — or model trains — a walk across the Mall to the Natural History Museum might be worthwhile, Mr. Wallick says. The museum, in conjunction with the Botanic Garden, is showcasing the “Orchid Express,” an exhibit featuring 200 species of orchids, until May 1.

The exhibit also features a model train and dioramas that help tell the history of orchids, including such themes as exploration, collection, production and conservation.

Plants don’t have to be showy to carry significance in the plant world, however. The modest Wollemi pine is a perfect example. A small specimen of the pine sits on a pedestal in a glass case in the room next to the orchids. To the naked eye, it can look insignificant, but to a scientist. it is anything but.

“It’s like a living fossil,” Mr. Wallick says. “Finding it was basically the equivalent of stumbling upon a dinosaur.”

The pine, which is from Australia, is one of the world’s oldest and rarest plants. It’s more than 200 million years old, and only about 100 adult trees are known to exist in the wild, he says, so having a specimen at the Botanic Garden is a big deal.

Finding the Wollemi pine provides a glimpse into how ancient forests looked and gives an idea of the genetic makeup of an ancient tree family, according to the exhibit.

The Botanic Garden also features rooms devoted to desert, jungle and oasis plants. Other permanent exhibits include “How Plants Work — A Guide to Being Green,” which aims to show the daily needs and contributions of a plant. A new permanent exhibit, “Six Plants We Can’t Live Without,” features large-scale illustrations of corn, cocoa, citrus, cotton, tea and rice.

As diverse as the many Botanic Garden exhibits are, the underlying theme is the same, Mr. Wallick says.

“I think our take-home message is really the importance of conservation,” he says. “We’re dependent on plants in one way or another for our survival, but sometimes we don’t act like it.”

When you go:

Location: United States Botanic Garden, 245 First St. SW, Washington.

Directions: The garden is located on the Mall, just southwest of the Capitol.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Parking: Limited metered parking is available on nearby streets. The closest Metro stop is Federal Center SW on the Orange and Blue lines.

Admission: Free

Information: 202/225-8333 or www.usbg.gov.

Notes: Upcoming family events at the garden include:

• Wilkes Birthday Festival, 1 to 5 p.m. today. The festival marks the 207th anniversary of Adm. Charles Wilkes’ birth. Wilkes led explorations in Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica in the mid-1800s. The United States Botanic Garden will celebrate with music and refreshments. A re-enactor will portray Wilkes. The event ends with birthday cake and singing.

• The Sprouts program, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Wednesdays in April and May. This program, aimed at preschool-age children, features an art activity, walks in the garden and songs. Children must be accompanied by an adult. The event is free, but registration is required.

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