- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003

Longing for warm temperatures and the sights and sounds of the tropics? There’s no need to book an expensive flight to the Caribbean or Latin America. Just head to the Mall, where the U.S. Botanic Garden offers all that and more.

This year’s holiday display, which opened Thanksgiving Day and runs through Jan. 4, includes six model trains on winding tracks. Instead of choo-chooing through a snow-covered New England village, however, the trains meander through a tropical landscape, carrying fresh produce from a mountain plantation. On their way to a rural village decorated for the holidays, the trains narrowly avoid the fury of an erupting 10-foot volcano and a cascading waterfall.

The train display is in the conservatory’s West Gallery, which also displays palm trees covered in festive tropical ornaments, including sea horses, parrots, butterflies and colorful fish.

The holiday display continues in the next hall, the Garden Court, which features an exhibit titled “Rites of Enchantment — When Creatures Come Out to Celebrate.” Here, imitation geckos, frogs and colorful birds sit in trees and on lava rocks, which also are adorned with peacock feathers, glass beads and glitter. It’s a fancy fantasy landscape and a real treat for the eyes.

More traditional holiday staples, such as poinsettias, are scattered throughout the exhibit, and 10 lighted Christmas trees greet the visitor in front of the conservatory.

The U.S. Botanic Garden is not just about holiday merriment, though; it has a strong focus on education, too. In the medicinal plants’ space, visitors can learn about the history and properties of herbs.

Written records about medicinal plants began about 5,000 years ago with the Sumerians. In Western society, medicinal plants were put on the back burner in the late 1800s and most of the 1900s in favor of new, synthetic medicines — “modern medicine.” In the past few decades, however, a new interest in the medicinal properties of plants has emerged, informational plaques say.

Visitors also can learn that papaya fights intestinal parasites, a certain type of periwinkle treats leukemia, garlic stimulates the immune system, and eucalyptus treats colds.

Stressed-out parents might take the opportunity to catch a breather on a bench in the outdoor meditation garden with its tiny, trickling waterfall surrounded by plants native to the United States. Each garden space is equipped with a sound system that emits sounds of nature, including croaking frogs and chirping birds. The meditation garden, appropriately, features the soothing whooo-whoooing sounds of an owl.

Another garden space features huge orchids, desert plants that are water-conservation specialists, and primeval plants. Visitors learn that the earliest plants, which lived some 440 million years ago, likely evolved from green algae that lived along sea and freshwater shores. Ancient plants that have survived to the present include mosses and ferns.

Ferns also are featured in the new permanent exhibit “How Plants Work,” housed in the East Gallery, which has a view of the Capitol. Ferns, it turns out, have filters that remove toxins from the air. Other plants are able to remove toxins from the soil.

The exhibit also shows how plants become organic fodder for the next generation when they die and how plants are behind all the food we eat, whether directly or indirectly. (If we eat beef, for example, that beef comes from a cow that ate plants, such as grass.)

Plants are also food for the mind and soul, not just the body. According to the exhibit, their brilliant colors, alluring fragrances and varied textures and shapes create surroundings that “inspire us to dream, imagine and create.”

When you go:

Location: The U.S. Botanic Garden is at 100 Maryland Ave. SW in the District.

Directions: Take Interstate 395 to the C Street SW exit toward the U.S. Capitol. Keep left at the fork in the ramp. Turn left onto Washington Avenue, then turn right onto Independence Avenue, then left onto First Street SW. (The conservatory sits at corner of Independence Avenue and First Street SW, but the entrance is on the Mall side of the building, 100 Maryland Ave. SW.)

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with extended hours Dec. 19 and 26 and Jan. 2, when the conservatory will be open until 8 p.m.

Admission: Free.

Parking: Limited metered parking is available. The use of Metro is encouraged. Take Metro’s Blue or Orange line to Federal Center SW or Capital South stations.

More information: Call 202/225-8333 or visit www.usbg.gov.

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