A Botanic Garden for the Nation: “National benefits to be derived from exploration”

September 20, 2011

Guest blogger Nancy Faget sheds some light on a little-known Federal agency.

It’s always interesting to see what kinds of things I can learn from a Government publication. For example, I just found out that President George Washington asked the city commission to incorporate a botanical garden into the plan for Washington, DC.  He suggested the square next to the President’s House as a possible site. But it was President James Monroe who passed the bill to set aside five acres on the National Mall for a national botanic garden.  Thus, a living museum of plants was created as an oasis on Capitol Hill.

This National Garden is a living laboratory which includes the Rose Garden, the Butterfly Garden, the Lawn Terrace, the First Ladies’ Water Garden, the Regional Garden, and an outdoor amphitheater.

The founders of the country had an understanding of plants and gardens as a national benefit.  In the beautifully produced A Botanic Garden for the Nation, published by the U.S. Botanic Garden, I learned many interesting facts that I didn’t expect to find. For example, Thomas Jefferson emphasized that the Lewis and Clark expedition should look for plants and vegetables.  The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1842 also was charged partly with gathering plants and seeds from around the world.  As the expedition traveled 87,000 nautical miles charting oceans and coastlines, the botanists and naturalist aboard the ships collected plant and seed specimens.Although the color photographs in the book are spectacular, it’s also a fascinating read.  Here are some other bits I discovered:

  • The Botanic Garden houses more rare plants all the time as gifts are received from foreign governments and (incredibly) as a result of law enforcement actions!   When rare or endangered species are confiscated, they often are sent to the Botanic Garden for its collection.  For example, The Vietnamese orchid in the Garden’s collection was seized by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).  It’s now working with FWS and a commercial grower to produce marketable quantities of this orchid for sale and distribution to other public gardens.
  • The Garden also was established as an important plant rescue center for orchids and succulents.  Through a program, present species may be prevented from going extinct.  It has a production facility that works to propagate plants for exchange with other institutions.
  • In the Garden’s Medical Collection, visitors find the saw palmetto, from which fruits are studied to treat prostate cancer.  Turmeric is included in the collection because of the anti-inflammatory benefit.   In cultures where turmeric is used regularly, rates of Alzheimer’s disease are significantly lower.

Best of all, the photos of Bartholdi Park and the National Garden look so inviting, they make me want to grab A Botanic Garden for the Nation, sit in the sun, and just ponder the seasons!

You can buy your own copy for garden reading on the U.S. Government Online Bookstore, or find it in a library.

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