- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Donna Tramutola supervises heaven. Because if there is a paradise on Capitol Hill, it must be the recently renovated U.S. Botanic Garden.
The structure is a castle built of glass and metal, with rooms awash in sunlight, warm and misty from constantly running sprinklers. The temperature and humidity are adjusted from room to room to match the comfort zones of desert-dwelling cactuses, garden orchids and lush jungle vegetation.
Ms. Tramutola loves the atmosphere at her job. She tours the garden often during her workday, talking with gardeners and making sure the plants are doing well.
On a recent inspection, she points to several sunbathing lizards that have crawled up vines that make their way up toward the ceiling. She smiles, glancing at a visitor clutching a camera and zooming in on one green critter. An older man is leaning over the railing nearby and it's hard to gauge what he is fascinated by a plant, the mist, the sun, or the atmosphere altogether.
When her work gets under her skin, Ms. Tramutola says, "You can always come in a room like this and say 'OK, it's OK.'"
Even the group of small children clad in matching red T-shirts being guided by their teachers are enchanted by the birds and water sounds, the freshness of the garden and the orchids' honeyed aroma.
The U.S. Botanic Garden reopened in December, after four years of renovation, and a month later than scheduled, because it was used by federal law agencies as an anthrax command center during the bioterrorism threat late last year. One of the oldest botanic gardens in North America, it was established by Congress in 1820.
Ms. Tramutola took a job as the garden's supervising horticulturist last summer, after several years of working at the greenhouse at the National Cathedral. Until the garden opened in December, she was based out of the Anacostia greenhouse, moving plants back into the renovated Botanic Garden.
As senior horticulturist, Ms. Tramutola starts her day at 7:30 a.m. She meets with the gardeners and directs each of them to an area or assignment for the day. She starts a tour of the garden, picking up leftover wine glasses from a party held there the previous night. She inspects plants that may look weak, dry or otherwise unwell.
Mornings, while the silence is soothing and the lizards sunbathe, are Ms. Tramutola's favorite moments at work. But evenings, after the garden closes at 5 p.m. and before parties held by congressmen start, are even lovelier in the warm building as it ends a long day.
"It gets very crowded during the day, almost all the time," says the horticulturist. "And when it gets crowded you can't even hear the water."
Once the garden opens at 10 a.m., Ms. Tramutola tries to retreat to the back offices where she deals with some administrative work, but mostly figures out how best to raise plants, tests soil samples and talks to fellow horticulturists from the garden's large greenhouse facility in Anacostia, where all of the plants are grown.
Paying attention to detail is second nature to Ms. Tramutola and an important part of her job. Her tours around the garden are punctuated with breaks to consult with gardeners about how to trim a certain plant, or how much water it needs.
Visitors often stop her, asking everything from directions to the restroom to how to make their orchids bloom.
Sometimes she stops to comment on a fruit that is ripe and agrees to a co-worker's suggestion to harvest. A tomato is cut and eaten. Some passion fruit is picked and will be left cut open later in the day for the garden's lone iguana to find as an evening meal.
A frequent stop during Ms. Tramutola's tours through the garden is the main control room, where through a computer she can check and adjust the temperature, humidity and shade in the garden's various areas.
The horticulturist doesn't typically take lunch but instead uses the time to walk through Bartholdi Park across the street, which she also supervises.
"I was raised on a farm and grew up surrounded by plants and the cycle of seasons," says Ms. Tramutola, who didn't go to school to study plants but instead left her upstate New York home for New York City, where she studied art history.
Upon graduation, she took an unrelated job on Wall Street; she was also married for some time. But eventually Ms. Tramutola went back to upstate New York to earn a bachelor's degree in horticulture at Cornell University.
"When you walk in my house," says Ms. Tramutola, who lives in Silver Spring with a dog, cat and more than 200 orchids, "you know you're dealing with an obsessed gardener."
She marvels at how peaceful visitors find her place of work, which she tends to think of as chaotic when it's open.
She muses: "I'm always amazed at the people that come here with a book and just sit and read."


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