Public gardens are common around the world. Most cities and even small towns have gardens for people to stroll in and enjoy the plants and flowers. The U.S. Botanic Garden is a little different. It is exotic. It has a room just for orchids. Other rooms are for desert plants, medicinal plants, rare and endangered plants, plants from Hawaii, and a jungle. It is rare to see so many different kinds of plants in one place. How did they all get there?
In 1820, US Congress granted the Columbian Institute five acres of land to establish a Botanic Garden. A letter was sent to foreign dignitaries soliciting plant donations. Although they received a good response, and plants were sent from near and far, the finances were never enough to maintain the collection. In 1837 Congress withdrew support and the land reverted to the federal government.
However, that wasn’t the end of it. In 1838, Congress commissioned the US Exploring Expedition to examine and chart remote areas of the globe. Lt. Charles Wilkes set sail on August 18, 1838 with six vessels. Nine civilian scientists joined him including two botanists, William D. Brackenridge and William Rich. The naturalist Charles Pickering was also on board. These men collected pant specimens at every stop.
In four years they logged 87,000 miles, lost two ships and 28 men. They were the last all-sail naval mission to circle the globe. They explored 280 islands and 800 miles of the Oregon coast. One significant discovery they made was Antarctica was a continent and not a series of islands as previously thought. The scientists, with the help of the crew, collected over 60,000 plant and bird specimens including 254 live plants.
Charles Wilkes received a court-martial on his return. He lost one ship on the Columbia River bar, mistreated his officers, and cruelly punished his sailors. The ship’s doctor, Charles Guilou was the major witness against him. He was acquitted except for the illegal punishment of his men. He currently accepts visitors at Arlington Cemetery.
Upon arrival, plants were temporarily housed at the US Patent Office but in late 1842 a greenhouse was added to the building. Congress approved $5,000 to relocate the plants to the greenhouse and soon the Botanic Garden was on its feet again. Over the years other expeditions, such as Commodore Matthew Perry’s trip to Japan in 1852 brought more plants to Washington DC. The US Botanic Garden grew and matured and in the 1920’s was relocated to its current site at the bottom of the US Capitol building.
After a renovation in 2001, the US Botanic Garden has state-of-the-art environmental systems across its eleven gardens. At the center is the Jungle under a central dome that rises 93 feet. Visitors can climb to the top to see the jungle canopy.
The US Botanic Garden continues to receive support from Congress and has more than 60,000 plants in its collection for exhibition, study, conservation, and exchange. Plants from around the world continue to be collected and studied.
It is a lovely place to visit anytime, but especially nice in winter when it is cold outside and tropical inside! You will find it at 100 Maryland Ave SW, Washington DC.