- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

Woodruff Price, lobbyist and outgoing chairman of Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA), parked his straw hat atop Laurus nobilis, a bay plant, in the ethereal National Herb Garden before offering a few words of tribute to Special Arboretum Heroes — members of Congress who actively support the work of the 444-acre research and education facility in the District’s Northeast sector. “Bipartisan support for all things bright and beautiful,” as he termed it.

Attending heroes at Wednesday’s outdoor reception were few as well because of a conflict with a congressional picnic held annually on the White House lawn.

Stalwarts who made it to the Department of Agriculture’s botanical preserve included California Rep. Cal Dooley, a member of FONA’s board as well as of the House of Representatives’ Agriculture Committee — the authorizing, not the appropriating, side, he pointed out.

“It’s one of the most underutilized assets we have,” Mr. Dooley volunteered even before Mr. Price had hailed him among 18 other congressional facilitators. A $10 million request Mr. Dooley has introduced for improvements to the arboretum’s physical plant remains more wish than fact, however. “In this tight budget …,” he began, his voice trailing off.

Capitol Hill denizens are known to take a break occasionally in the quiet surroundings located just two miles from the frenzy of their offices.

Earlier, some sly joking went on among Agriculture Department officials about how the facility is weathering the region’s rainy spell — and how lucky that Wednesday evening’s event could take place under dry skies. “We watered the whole place [beforehand],” said a smiling Edward Knipling, acting administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

“The plants are doing well in terms of growth and foliage,” Arboretum Director Thomas Elias said protectively. “The conifers and the bonsai collection never looked better.” He wanted his listeners to know that Country Living Gardener magazine had selected the site as “one of the ten best gardens to visit in the country.”

Wine and food offerings were scattered among several terraces, while Rod Tompkins provided musical accompaniment on a keyboard set up near the waterlily ponds outside the Administration Building. The resurrected Capitol columns gleamed in the distance.

“This place sells itself,” Mr. Price observed, adding privately that he thought the arboretum could do more in the way of promotion. (To that end, Friday hours will be extended from 5 to 7:30 p.m. June 27 through Aug. 15, with the exception of July Fourth.)

To make sure the message of thanks and appreciation got through, a special tram tour was scheduled with Nancy Luria, head of the arboretum’s education unit, as wise and winsome narrator. “Welcome to the arboretum’s answers to Busch Gardens’ thrill ride,” she said in greeting.

En route, while spelling out the facility’s history and achievements, she said a new miniature crape myrtle called Pocomoke has been developed recently — just one of many improvements made on-site to various plant species. The tour ended where it began — outside the country’s first bonsai museum, where visitors can view a nearly 400-year-old Japanese white pine that withstood the atomic blast at Hiroshima.

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