Monday, June 21, 2004

“Why do you have the pretty lilacs and my garden doesn’t?” was the plaintive appeal of a guest at the Friends of the National Arboretum garden party Wednesday night.

The woman spoke only half-jokingly — with members of the arboretum staff who were on hand to offer more than 500 patrons food and information about the works and wonders on view at this 446-acre botanical laboratory in Northeast. The scene resembled a stage set, with so many trees and plantings perfectly tended for the occasion. The weather was on its best behavior as well, although a large protective tent had been set up on the meadow, within view of the Capitol columns and not far from the lobster-chicken-mussels-clam-potato-onion-chowder buffet.

The reception in the herb garden featured New York state wines for good reason. The theme of the night was “New York Clambake Dinner” — celebrating the Empire State — and, for once, arboretum Director Tom Elias didn’t mind comparisons with other public gardens up north, including New York’s Central Park, which is nearly twice as big. Both are considered among the 10 best in the United States.

Worthwhile arboretum projects to come, Mr. Elias boasted to the crowd, include construction of a quarter-mile paved Flowering Tree Walk to connect the columns, herb garden and azalea collection — a $650,000 legacy to FONA from an “unknown friend,” according to FONA official Sally Boasberg.

“Once people are out here, they love it,” enthused FONA’s Becky Dye from under her straw hat, a Statue of Liberty pin prominent on her shoulder. She had rallied friends and sponsors from all quarters, including Robert Peck, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, who was the event chairman.

Getting members of Congress to come, and the New York delegation in particular, was a cliffhanger, given congressional voting schedules. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was a no-show (she sent a pleasant few words to be read instead), but Rep. Nita M. Lowey, who once considered running for the same Senate seat, did turn up in time to take a tram ride. (Trams and tours are being offered to the public during late hours, 5 to 7 p.m. Saturdays in June and July.)

U.S. Botanic Garden Executive Director Holly Shimizu had a homecoming of sorts: She was a curator of the arboretum from 1980 to 1988. “My babies,” she exclaimed, looking over the flourishing plants that had been put there under her direction.

Ann Geracimos

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