- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Hundreds of visitors oohed over magenta and yellow orchids and aahed over lush tropical ferns in a rain forest complete with steam as the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory reopened yesterday after a four-year closure for renovations and a two-month delay caused by the Capitol Hill anthrax incidents.
"We were disappointed even as we were honored to be able to serve," said Christine Flanagan, the conservatory's public programs manager about the garden being used as a federal command center for law enforcement agencies dealing with the anthrax contamination at nearby congressional office buildings. "Now we hope people come to enjoy."
That they did.
Alice Kozick sat on a bench in the Garden Court, serene in the shower of light through the glass ceiling and the trickling water in the reflecting pool.
"I was waiting for [the garden] to open," the Maryland hospice nurse said. "I just couldn't see all these treasures anywhere else. It gives you a spiritual feeling, making contact with all these creations."
Surrounded by "useful" plants in the court, she surveyed the tamarind and coconut trees, the lipstick tree that provides reds for cosmetics, the citronella grass that mosquitos hate.
"So many things touch you when you sit in a garden," she said.
Joli McCathran and Vicki Andrews had a hard time containing their glee over the garden. They played hooky from their respective daily duties to make the trip downtown from Washington Grove.
"Mmmm, the smells," said Ms. Andrews, sniffing the air. "The plants, they are gorgeous. We were crazy [waiting] for this to open."
"To walk in here where it's so appealing, it changes your mood," said Ms. McCathran. "We're out to play."
Before closing for its $33.5 million overhaul, the U.S. Botanic Garden attracted more than 700,000 visitors annually. Now D.C. officials hope it will be one more lure for the visitors who have stayed away since September 11.
"To walk past the Capitol and its armed guards, and then walk in here where it's so appealing, it changes your mood," said Ms. McCathran.
Carol Betts led a group of prekindergarten students from nearby Kenilworth Elementary School through the exhibits yesterday. It was her first visit to the Botanic Gardens since childhood.
"Local people should come here, to rekindle old memories and fall in love with their city all over again," she said.
It's a lush playground high-tech, too, with computerized climate controls and misting machines.
There are 10 indoor and outdoor exhibits, including one of plants used by humans for wood, food and commercial products, and another of medicinal plants. There is a another that replicates a sultry rain forest, complete with waterfalls, steam, ferns and a canopy walk over the treetops. Another landscape features the dry heat and almost menacing flora of the desert. And to commemorate the holidays, poinsettias and decorated evergreens greet visitors in the lobby and Garden Court while a 22-foot Christmas tree sits in the middle of a toy train display in the next room.
And then there are the orchids.
Proudly displaying their finery in lilac, salmon and pale yellow, the fragrant blooms attracted the most attention from senior citizens, visiting nuns and the schoolchildren on hand for the opening.
"Shari baby," a chocolate-scented orchid, was the star attraction.
These blossoms are the pride of veteran horticulturist Rob Pennington, who has been with the Botanic Garden for almost three decades.
"I have seen a lot of change," said Mr. Pennington, the horticultural manager for the garden. "It has gone from a quaint botanic garden to a state-of-the-art garden."
He said he was glad the garden had finally reopened and described the new era for the center as "on a new mission with lots of new challenges."
"It's nice to spend days producing products for the public to enjoy and learn from," he said. "Everyone enjoys plants."
Just as they seemed to enjoy the garden's comeback.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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