Friday, November 30, 2001

The U.S. Botanic Garden the vast glass-and-stone conservatory at the bottom of Capitol Hill opens to the public next week after a four-year, $33 million restoration project.

Come Dec. 11 it will be one sure place to find solace in politically charged Washington. Just be careful not to sit on a cactus.

One can avoid that fate by taking cover in the Meditation Garden adjacent to the junglelike environment of the rebuilt 90-foot-tall Palm House now encircled by a mezzanine walkway where visitors can look down on lush green plants and vines already climbing the steel girders, as planned.

Artificial bird songs abound in the air-conditioned, state-of-the-art, climate-controlled structure. Snakes, mosquitoes and other little nasties found in the wild are absent, of course, as are remarkably “Do Not Touch” signs.

If the interior has a somewhat artificial air, being something of an anomaly in its setting, designers working under the supervision of Alan M. Hantman, architect of the Capitol, have produced a much- improved horticultural education site. City water used throughout is purified, and real chicken manure, the so-called “gardener’s gold,” is the nourishment of choice.

The facility also will be one of few government buildings open to tourists during the holidays, including Christmas. Daily hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a series of free tours and instructional lectures on tap beginning on Jan. 18.

Seasonal decorations include an elaborate model-train display and an exhibit of botanical art amid plentiful poinsettias. A 22-foot Christmas fir in the West Gallery area is topped by a colorful American eagle.

“We’ve kept the best of the past,” Mr. Hantman said at yesterday’s media preview.

Visitors who remember the building before it closed in 1997 will find the same dimensions, patterning of glass and Art Deco details, all distinguishing characteristics of an institution that had its origins under a congressional mandate in 1820 as a plant showcase. This came at a time when the country had a largely agricultural base. An 1838-42 world expedition by Adm. Charles Wilkes greatly increased its holdings.

The conservatory was built on its present site in 1933 and has received only minor repairs since then. For safety’s sake, the old Palm House had to be dismantled in 1992.

“Gardens are like children. They take a great investment of time to bring into maturity,” Botanic Garden Executive Director Holly H. Shimizu reminded her audience. Exterior landscaping and two interior courtyards, one of which will be a garden for children’s activities, aren’t expected to be ready until spring. The National Garden, on three acres of land adjoining the West Gallery, may not open until 2004.

Most of the permanent exhibits of approximately 4,000 plants are in place, however. A hot line has been installed so the public can ask questions about plants.

“We deliberately chose the positive approach,” said Christine Flanagan, the garden’s public programs coordinator.

Plants are arranged by themes relating to their natural environments under the titles of World Deserts (watch those cactuses), Oasis, Plant Adaptations, Medicinal Plants, Rare and Endangered Species, Plant Exploration, and Garden Primeval. The pomegranate plant in the Oasis room really has a fruit growing on it.

The so-called Happy Tree in the Medicinal house is said to be useful in treating ovarian cancer.

Garden Primeval contains samples of nonflowering plants that were food for dinosaurs 150 million years ago.

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