- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

Every day at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Anacostia, from May to September, is reminiscent of a painting of waterlilies by the French impressionist Claude Monet. It’s as quiet and peaceful as it is pretty. Every day, that is, except one.

This year it’s July 21.

On Saturday, one of Washington’s greatest natural wonders and best-kept secrets will be the gathering place for Korean dancers, chanting Buddhist monks, children with cameras, environmentalists, gardeners and a few thousand others celebrating the annual Waterlily Festival and the Lotus Asian Cultural Festival at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

“The Waterlily Festival began as our Founder’s Day 25 years ago,” says Douglas Rowley, gardener supervisor at Kenilworth. “In 2004 we teamed up with Modern Buddhism for the Lotus Festival.”

That gives the festival even more of distinctively colorful cast. Modern Buddhism of America, an organization based in New York that promotes Buddhist teachings and world peace — and publishes a monthly Korean-language magazine for Koreans in the United States — will sponsor tastings of lotus and green teas, a display of scrolls, a program by dancers from the Cambodian Buddhist Society in Silver Spring, and instruction on the making of lotus lanterns.

“We want to inform the public how useful and versatile the lotus is,” says Hyoung Keum Kim, editor of Modern Buddhism magazine.

Mr. Kim has helped organize lotus festivals in North Carolina and California as well, but he particularly enjoys the festival in Washington.

“America is a melting pot and we’re proud to contribute. Working with the National Park Service and Modern Buddhism is good for America,” he says.

The National Park Service, which has operated the gardens since 1938, will host workshops on water gardening and nature videos, a photography contest, a puppet show, tours of the greenhouses, a photography contest and more.

Although there are technically two festivals on Saturday, it will feel like one big party starring the park’s most famous flowers: waterlilies and lotuses.

A home for the spirit

While visually striking, for Buddhists the lotus, a type of hardy lily, is significant for spiritual reasons.

“When Buddha was born, he took seven steps, and each step became a lotus flower. The lotus is a symbol of enlightenment,” explains Harold Ward, a monk from the Wat Lao Buddhist Temple in Catlett, Va., who will be chanting at the festival.

“The lotus starts in mud and then becomes free.”

Indeed, one way to tell a lotus from a waterlily — apart from the notch in the waterlily’s leaves — is that, while the waterlily’s leaves float on the water, the lotus’ leaves start out floating on the water but eventually rise to about four feet above water.

“The lotus leaves repel water, dirt and dust,” Mr. Rowley says.

And yes, he says, there are researchers trying to see if those same properties may be applied to objects like clothes, cars and umbrellas.

At Kenilworth, more than one-third of the flowers are lotus plants, more than one-half are hardy waterlilies and the remainder are tropical waterlilies.

The hardy lilies and lotuses do require maintenance; volunteers help to thin them out every year. But the tropical plants need what Mr. Rowley calls “tender loving care”; he attends to them in the greenhouses each winter and spring until the water is warm enough for them to survive outdoors.

“The tropical lilies will die if we don’t bring them in,” says Mr. Rowley. “They”re not in their native habitat. They will grow, but we need to do a lot of extra work.”

Exotic and hardy waterlilies and lotuses grow throughout Kenilworth’s 50 ponds, which range in diameter from a few feet to more than 80 feet. Grassy paths wind among the ponds, and a dirt path encircles the ponds. A quarter-mile-long boardwalk leads to the marsh that surrounds the ponds on three sides.

Of the 700-acre Kenilworth Park, the Aquatic Gardens occupy 14 acres, with ponds on seven or eight acres of that land. Kenilworth Marsh, Washington’s last tidal marsh, covers another 77. With the exception of the boardwalk in the marsh, the ponds are similar to the way they were when the Park Service took over the land in 1938.

“Kenilworth was founded by the kind of people you admire, who made lemonade when life gave them lemons,” says Kathleen Bucco, park ranger at Kenilworth.

Lemonade and lilies

They made more than that. They created an oasis that is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and along the way they even developed new varieties of lily.

When Walter B. Shaw (no relation to the general for whom the Shaw neighborhood was named) lost his right arm in the Civil War, he returned home to his native Maine and taught himself to write with his left hand.

In 1882, Shaw purchased 37 acres of property from his mother-in-law along the Anacostia River and imported a few waterlilies from Maine to a pond near his new home in the District of Columbia, where he had gone to work for the U.S. Treasury Department. He gradually created more ponds and added species from all over the world.

But Shaw didn’t labor alone.

When his daughter Helen Fowler lost both her baby and her husband in the same year, she returned to her father’s house and helped him build a business.

“She became the first woman to get a commercial truck driver’s license in D.C. She sold waterlilies from the back of her truck,” Ms. Bucco says.

But more than selling lilies to locals, the father-daughter team built a business that became internationally renowned for its flowers. Check the plant catalogs today; the lily varieties “Pink Opal,” “W.B. Shaw” and “Helen Fowler” are still touted as standouts.

“They turned what was considered worthless land into a large export business,” Ms. Bucco says.

After her father’s death in 1921, Mrs. Fowler opened the gardens to the public on Sunday mornings during the peak blooming season. During the 1920s and ‘30s, as many as 5,000 or 6,000 visitors came to see the ponds on busy days.

About half as many visitors are expected at the combined festivals on Saturday.

A park for all seasons

The park rangers at the National Park Service hope people visiting for the festival will return throughout the year.

Park ranger Debbie Kirkley says one of the most frequently asked questions she hears concerns the best time at Kenilworth to see the lilies and lotuses in bloom.

It’s July and August, but there’s a caveat: The best time to see the flowers is the morning, because when the thermometer hits 89 or 90 degrees the flowers close up and don’t open until the next day.

Each season brings its own delights at Kenilworth. While the flowers on the ponds bloom from May to September, fall, winter and early spring are joyous times to visit as well.

“In the fall, you get the colors,” says Ms. Bucco. “With the sweet gum tree you get five colors — green, yellow, orange, red, and purple, on one leaf.”

Winter is known as the best time to see the wild animals at the park and to hear the dramatic popping sounds of the ice cracking on the ponds.

“It sounds like the shot of a gun,” says Alan Spears, a Kenilworth volunteer who is a lobbyist with the National Parks Conservation Association, a private, non-profit advocacy organization that works to preserve and enhance the national parks.

In the spring, the park’s azaleas bloom along with violets. “We have four different violets,” says Ms. Bucco. “The gardeners know I’m passionate about purple, so they wait to mow.”

The park’s rangers like to tell visitors about how the plants are organized, with the more exotic species close to the visitor center to keep them away from turtles and beavers that like to dine on them.

“We want everyone to feed, but not too much,” Ms. Bucco says. “It’s kind of like when you put stuff in the back of your refrigerator so you don’t eat too much of it at once.”

In fact the park abounds in wildlife — turtles, nonpoisonous snakes like the black rat snake, muskrats, mink, possum and fox. A coyote has been spotted but not confirmed. The one insect you might expect at Kenilworth you probably won’t encounter: mosquitoes. The dragonflies devour them.

Hidden treasures

The seven rangers also like to share their expertise and love of the gardens. Mr. Rowley not only shows visitors the East Indian lotus sprouted from seeds that were 960 years old, he’ll give advice on how to cultivate and grow your own waterlilies and lotuses at home.

Ms. Kirkley enjoys showing visitors the benches on the boardwalk overlooking the marsh. And Ms. Bucco is particularly interested in a 1½-acre strip of marsh.

“This strip hasn’t been touched since 1900 and it looks like the plants are the same as what grew here for thousands of years,” she says.

“It may be the key to our future,” she adds. “These wetlands are important because of their biodiversity.”

She recently met with a group of agronomists from Pakistan, China, Chad, Ethiopia, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Mexico and other countries who are studying how farming is going to be impacted by climate change.

“The agronomists and scientists from all around the world are taking a look at wetlands,” Ms. Bucco says. “In our country, we only settled here recently, so we know what’s indigenous.”

Most days at Kenilworth provide a peaceful place within the noisiness of Washington.

“Come out once a month and you’ll notice differences,” says the gardener, Mr. Rowley. And, he might add, bring your family and friends.

“We really don’t want to be the best kept secret in D.C.,” he says.

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