- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

Few tourists come to Washington to see the cactus, but it's right there among the rolling, green hills and wide meadows of Northeast in the U.S. National Arboretum.
The prickly pear cactus, the needle palm tree and the dawn redwoods from China stand as examples of the varied collection of plants the arboretum has nurtured minutes from the heart of the District for 75 years.
The arboretum is a scientific laboratory, an open-air school, a historical museum and a public playground, all rolled out on 446 acres bordered by Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue in Northeast.
Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman will mark the arboretum's 75th anniversary next Friday with a 1 p.m. celebration on Capitol Hill across the street from the National Gallery of Art. At the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, will sponsor the planting of a Sun Valley red maple, a new tree species introduced by the arboretum.
"It's an opportunity to draw attention to a lot of scientists who have created a lot of gifts for this country, and not a lot of people know about it," says Rindy O'Brien, executive director of Friends of the National Arboretum.
Mrs. O'Brien says the ceremony will be held at the Capitol "to draw national attention to the arboretum since it is a national facility."
A national facility of international renown, apparently. The arboretum is one of the leading centers in the world for plant research and introduction. But most local folk just know it as the place to go to see the trees.
Arboretum Director Thomas S. Elias says comparisons of his daily work environment to the 843 manicured acres of New York's Central Park are way off the mark.
"Central Park is a park for people to come for recreation," he says. "Whereas the arboretum is a scientific collection of materials for research and documentation. … Active recreation is not part of our mission."
Part of that mission is botanical study, education and conservation with an $8.2 million annual budget under the U.S. Agriculture Department's Agricultural Research Service.
Over the past 75 years, arboretum botanists have introduced 650 new plants or variations of plants. One of its newest introductions is a flowering cherry tree called the "dream catcher," which grows to about 25 feet tall, produces large pink flowers in late March and early April, and bears blood-red fruit.
What's more, in the past five years the arboretum has secured eight patents and two registrations for pesticides from the Environmental Protection Agency. Current research is focused on how to make plants and trees flourish in urban and suburban environments replete with chemical pesticides and vehicular pollution, as well as exploring new technologies for nurseries and floral businesses.
The arboretum has other research facilities in the District, Beltsville, Glenn Dale and McMinnville, Tenn. It employs about 100 workers and enjoys the services of about 200 volunteers who work everywhere on the grounds in the city.
Yet even with all the scientific inquiry, erudition and invention the arboretum has to offer, there is something calming and soothing about the place. It's a fact Mr. Elias, the arboretum's fifth director in 75 years, acknowledges with wonder.
"Maybe it's going back to the natural world from the artificial one," the botanist speculates. "Maybe it's because the plants are living things just like us, and people can identify with them."
Contrasting the arboretum's natural niceties with the hard realities of the concrete jungle, Mr. Elias says the place is "a green oasis here in the city."
The arboretum attracts more than 500,00 visitors a year along its 9.5 miles of winding roads, and its officials are planning improvements to encourage even more visitors, including wider roads, consistent tram service within the grounds and another entrance from Bladensburg Road. But Mr. Elias stresses that the arboretum has never existed primarily as a place for people it's all about the trees.
"In a park, trees are often secondary to recreation. Here, the trees and other plant materials are of primary importance," he says.
An act of Congress established the arboretum in 1927 with a big push from Mrs. Frank B. Noyes, wife of The Washington Star's publisher, Mr. Elias says.
Mrs. Noyes knew President Coolidge and his budget director, General Lord. When she first heard the idea for the arboretum, she beseeched Coolidge to approve it, telling the president "she would not take no for an answer," says Mr. Elias.
"They didn't view it so much as a sanctuary as a place for research and testing," says Mr. Elias, adding that in 1927, it was "out on the fringes of the city."
Through the years the arboretum has remained an odd amalgam of natural reserve, park and museum, with a historic brickyard and the original columns of the U.S. Capitol on its grounds.
"The columns don't really relate to our mission," says Mr. Elias. "But they're a great attraction for visitors."


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