- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

The campus covers 446 acres, but there are no dormitories or academic buildings — not unless you count the museum, administration building and greenhouses. No diplomas are awarded, although most staff members have at least a master's degree and students attending classes often say the knowledge they gain is the equivalent of that offered at many formal institutions of higher learning.

The U.S. National Arboretum at 3501 New York Ave. NE is an educational facility of a special kind. Its primary mission is to serve as a botanical research arm of the Department of Agriculture, but, unknown to much of the public, the place also offers varied study programs throughout the year. They run the gamut from an international symposium centered around the arboretum's collection of bonsai — the artistically trained trees in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum on the premises — to moonlight walks on the property to enjoy the sounds and scenes of night with an arboretum horticulturist.

The night walks are conducted monthly under a full moon at least through November. Those successful in signing up for these popular events on Nov. 1 and 30 (full moons on the calendar) will learn all about the "blue moon," the name of a second full moon in a month. The hikes cost $7 a person or $6 for members of Friends of the National Arboretum, a support group.

With the recent hiring of program coordinator Jennifer Lebling to work under Nancy Luria, head of educational and visitor services, the arboretum is hoping to broaden its appeal and make greater use of its widespread — mainly natural — resources. "We're trying harder to defederalize the image of the place," Ms. Luria says. She wants to get out the message that the grounds are not just for government use, she explains.

A beautifully manicured and professionally tended "park" located just four miles from downtown would be unusual in any city. A facility that is both an urban oasis and a laboratory for research into floral and landscape plants is doubly so. The arboretum's potential for expanded formal and informal educational efforts is limited only by a lack of funds, Ms. Luria says.

For that reason, most of the programs instigated by Ms. Lebling will be on a fee basis. Many workshops involve a charge, especially when hosted by outside groups, such as the recent two-day silk-painting classes held in the auditorium and directed by Diane Tuckman of Spin (Silk Painters International). The event cost participants $125 each. The arboretum contributed the site and hosted an open reception Aug. 12 to show off the art that is on display (and for sale) in the lobby of the administration building through Sept. 30.

Also, as part of a monthlong celebration called "Asian Accent," an intern created a silkworm project that is on view in the lobby to illustrate how these tiny creatures, which feed only on mulberry leaves, are responsible for some of the most sensuous fabric known to man.

Students in the silk-painting classes discovered that one of the tricks of controlling watercolor paint on this fluid material is the use of salt.

Arboretum connections to the Far East are long-standing. One of the dramatic landscapes on the grounds is a grouping of plants from China, Japan and Korea. In addition, the Bonsai Museum, which will be closed for extensive renovation Nov. 1 until spring, is the most visited facility on site.

The Spin sessions fit the arboretum's mission another way, too, Ms. Luria says. Many ornamental plants in bloom on the grounds are the inspiration and models for the paintings and silk scarves done by Spin members and recruits to Ms. Tuckman's workshop. Spin artists also will be at the arboretum's Koi Show next month part of the 10th annual Japanese Koi Festival centered around the brilliantly colored fancy nishisigoi carp that swim in the ponds next to the administration building.

The festival includes a koi and equipment auction, craft activities and a seminar on judging koi that is expected to draw participants from as far away as Japan. Fans of this special species are so fiercely loyal that koi lovers stay overnight on the grounds to protect their prize fish from being stolen.

Most arboretum programs have more general appeal. Houseplants will take center stage the weekend of Sept. 8 in a free slide show and lecture. The Floral and Nursery Plants Research Unit plans an open house Sept. 14 at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. (Call the center at 301/504-6570 for more information.) Orchid lovers can rally in early October for the 54th annual National Capital Orchid Society Show and Sale, which, like the Spin event, will be accompanied by a display of botanical artwork.

Also planned for that month are a number of less exotic, more down-to-earth programs literally. The morning of Oct. 13 will be devoted to dividing and transplanting perennials. On Oct. 17, an arboretum staff member will tell how to turn dead leaves on the ground into a useful resource for gardens and give a tour of the composting facility. A photography workshop, "Nature and the Great Outdoors," is scheduled for Oct. 20. Registrants are expected to bring their own equipment, and a suggested list will be available at registration.

A botanical sketching workshop is on tap for November, as are a lecture and tour by the curator of the Conifer Collections, highlighting evergreen trees in the Washington area. An urban tree symposium, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 23, is targeted for the homeowner, Ms. Luria says: "Anyone curious about how to select which trees to plant where and how. It's meant to get people thinking about spring and may include a 'stump-the-staff' session." Participants will be invited to bring cuttings for identification.

"This will have cutting-edge information," Ms. Luria says with a smile.

Arboretum curators and staff try to be available to the general public with questions about gardening techniques and plant identification, but schedules seldom allow for a rapid response. Ms. Luria says she intends to publish information to tell people what to expect when they call the arboretum and hopes one day to see the establishment of a separate visitors and education center alongside the new entrance planned for Bladensburg Road.

The preferred method is for outside callers to be connected to the librarian, who screens the questions and direct callers to the right experts on staff. Members of the public must call ahead and make an appointment if they wish to visit the library. Ms. Luria expects interactive online services one day to be part of the operation as well.

Staff long ago decided that the best way to handle commonly asked questions about which plants are at their peak during which periods was to produce a bulletin, Hort Hot Spots, which pinpoints plant names and locations with a general description of each. Those featured around the administration building during the hottest days this month included lotus, waterlilies, Egyptian paper reed and two varieties of crape myrtle.

For help in finding other plants, a visitor can check the information desk in the administration building or the arboretum's Web site (www.usna.usda.gov) where education matters are explained in detail and updated regularly.

Meanwhile, Ms. Luria's department has plenty of challenges ahead, including the job of increasing the number of plant and tree labels on the grounds. Meanwhile, this past spring, Friends of the National Arboretum underwrote the first month of a newly established Metro bus route, the X6 shuttle, that runs between Union Station and the arboretum on weekends and holidays. The bus is operating on a trial basis for 18 months. Once inside the gates, visitors can get on a tram that tours the grounds.

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