- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2016

Surrounded by the concrete jungle of Northeast Washington sits a haven of greenery and wildlife — a 446-acre living museum called the U.S. National Arboretum.

And like many museums, the arboretum focuses on research and conservation — in this case, flora and fauna of various shapes, sizes and species.

Established by Congress in 1927, the arboretum is part of the Agricultural Research Service, the main research department of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its mission: “The U.S. National Arboretum enhances the economic, environmental, and aesthetic value of ornamental and landscape plants through long-term, multi-disciplinary research, conservation of genetic resources, and interpretative gardens and exhibits,” according to its website.

Multiple research spaces are scattered throughout the foliage, such as the world’s largest collection of boxwood shrubs, where researchers are striving to discover how to make the plants resistant to blight.

Hard by the Anacostia River, the arboretum harbors not only vegetation but also many kinds of critters. In fact, the arboretum’s Azalea Garden currently is closed to the public due to frequent visits by a pair of bald eagles that are raising a set of eaglets nearby.

“It’s great because efforts to clean the Anacostia Watershed have been successful and that’s their main source of food. We wanted to make sure they’re well habituated to this place because eagles come here every year,” said Jillian Aldebron, volunteer and visitor services manager.

The Asian Collection, home to hardy camellias native to East Asia, stands next to the Anacostia. A rocky and winding path travels deeper within the 13 acres of greenery, leading to a secluded, peaceful spot. Chinese cobra lily and numerous shrubs line the path to a pagoda, adding an East Asian flair to the garden.

The arboretum’s most impressive collection is neither plant nor animal but mineral — a piece of history towering over golden wheat fields.

The National Capitol Columns rise in the middle of Ellipse Meadow’s 22 acres. The 22 Corinthian pillars of Virginia sandstone originally formed part of the east portico of the U.S. Capitol Building and were moved to the arboretum in the 1980s. The columns, their reflecting pool and open fields resemble an English estate.

Nearby, the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum features some of the finest horticultural art from Japan and China.

The minimalistic design of the courtyard allows visitors to contemplate the bonsai in peace. The stoic yet elegant miniature trees are spaced apart so that a viewer can meditate on one at a time. The feeling of Zen continues in the Chinese pavilion, where visitors can rest in an oasis courtyard.

Besides research and conservation, the arboretum gives back to the community. The Washington Youth Garden is celebrating its 45th anniversary on Saturday with a potluck for the students and families it serves, having partnered with local schools to create urban gardens and give produce to food banks.

Visit the U.S. National Arboretum any day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to trade the sidewalk for paved forest trails.

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