Twenty four sandstone columns with graceful Corinthian capitals once graced the East Portico of the Capitol in Washington DC. They were replaced by marble columns in 1958 after the Capitol underwent an expansion because they were not strong enough to support the added weight. Fortunately they were resurrected and twenty two of them now stand atop a grassy knoll in the National Arboretum.
Opposite the knoll is Mt Hamilton which is wooded with mature oak, hickory and tulip poplar trees and planted with 15,000 azaleas which in spring set the hillside ablaze with every shade of red, pink and orange. Alas, we must return for the show as it was too late in the season for azaleas. Between the two rises are the remaining two capitals, one atop a plinth where one can admire the skill of the masons who carved it, the other on the ground.
The National Arboretum covers 446 acres and in addition to azaleas, has a conifer collection, an Asian collection of plants, vines, shrubs and trees from China, Japan, Korea and Asiatic Russia, as well as a beautifully laid out herb garden, fern valley and the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum. Penjing is the Chinese term for the horticultural art which is known as bonsai in Japanese, a term I had never heard before this visit. The word aptly means ‘miniature trees and landscapes’ because the Chinese version is often set within a miniature woodland scene of rocks, tiny gravel paths and tree roots.
The museum has a beautiful collection including a white pine that has been trained since 1625 by one family. It is the oldest tree in the museum which, amazingly, survived the nuclear attack on Hiroshima in 1945. Other miniature trees include azalea, juniper, cedar and maple.
We wandered through the fern valley which is shaded with American beech trees, more tulip poplars, hemlock and pine, where the plantings are all native to the East Coast, from the northern forest to the southern lowlands and coastal plains.
The herb garden has several themes including a patch dedicated to medicinal herbs used by Dioscorides, such as milk thistle, sage and rosemary. Other planting themes include Native American herbs and plants and shrubs used for their flavor, fragrance or medicinal value as well as those used for dye.
A stroll around these gardens produced an interesting piece of intelligence for me as a Scot. Galium Verum, more commonly known as Lady’s Bedstraw belongs to the madder family, which has long been used as a red dye in carpets and textiles throughout Europe, Turkey, Iran and Central Asia. But who knew that the roots of Lady’s bedstraw were used in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland as a source of red dye for tartan, while its flowers were used to color cheese. Not me.