- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

Do your children a favor during the next several months. Log off the Internet, turn off the TV, stop the video games. Step outside and savor spring at the U.S. National Arboretum.

Springtime offers visitors a strong visual impact at the 446-acre site because the landscape changes relatively quickly, says Elizabeth Ley, head of the gardens unit.

"There's a promise of more all the time," Ms. Ley says. "It's quite spectacular, and you can come every week or every other week and see something different every time."

Visitors during the months of April, May and June can expect to see dozens and dozens of blooming plants, including daffodils, crocus, forsythia, magnolias, woodland wildflowers, dogwoods, mountain laurel, irises, peonies, lilies, old garden roses and rhododendrons.

Families can walk or bike the nine miles of roads and have a picnic lunch. In short, they can get away from it all.

"What the arboretum has to offer is a lot more subtle than some of the Smithsonian museums with their lights and moving parts," Ms. Ley says. "What moves for us are the plants and the wind. It's a place to take the family where it's a little calmer."

A favorite first stop for families, especially in the spring, is the Aquatic Garden, home to the arboretum's collection of 250 Japanese koi. A dispenser is filled with fish munchies from mid-April to mid-October, and a quarter buys a handful. At the approach of a person holding some fish food, the fish rush to the surface of the water like a litter of puppies.

Just across the road is another family favorite, the National Herb Garden. This 2.5-acre site includes 900 kinds of herbs from around the world. They grow in 10 theme gardens. For example, the Dye Garden includes plants used in the past and present to color fibers, and the Early American Garden contains plants brought from the Old World by the Colonists. A cottage garden is filled with 200 varieties of roses.

Visitors to the herb garden are encouraged to touch and smell the plants, says curator Jim Adams. He says the way to smell an herb is to "rub it in your fingers and then put your nose into the plant and smell what you just rubbed. … The best thing about this garden is to touch. It's very sensual because you take in not only the sights, but the smells. Another good thing is that we grow the plants right up to the paths so kids can see the insect life."

The garden is not stagnant, Mr. Adams says, "so in the spring, people can expect to get the feeling of things coming up and coming to life and the sense of change."

Another springtime treat for families lies in the Azalea Collections, a short walk from the National Herb Garden. The landscaped trails dusted with blooming azalea shrubs climb to the top of Mount Hamilton and its view of the U.S. Capitol.

"The Azalea Collections are a fantastic place for families to go," says curator Barbara Bullock. "The trails are wide enough but still intimate."

The Azalea Collections number 10,000 to 15,000 plants, and "I keep a record of every one," she says. Members of the collection range from dwarves to 6- or 7-foot bushes, with tiny starlike blossoms to large flowers of pink, salmon, white, purple and bicolor.

The azaleas begin to bloom around April 1 and peak at the end of April. Each plant blooms for just two weeks, and it's all over by the end of June.

The Azalea Collections include several special gardens. The Lee Garden which is sure to charm children is a little green oasis containing benches and a tiny stone pond of goldfish and frogs. The formal Morrison Garden showcases a group of Glenn Dale azaleas developed and named by B.Y. Morrison, the first director of the National Arboretum.

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