Japanese cherry trees are the stars of spring in Washington, DC, when thousands of visitors flock to the Tidal Basin to stroll beneath billowy branches of pink and white blooms. But it’s not all about the cherries. Washingtonians have long prided themselves on their spring gardens, a tradition that stems back to colonial days, when homegrown fruits and vegetables – and a handful of decorative blooms for your windowsill – were a necessity of life. For those looking to soak in natural beauty without the crowds, here are some of Washington’s most inviting spring gardens.
Famous landscape architect Beatrix Farrand designed this botanical panorama in northern Georgetown. At Dumbarton Oaks, each sweet-smelling garden is more beautiful than the next. Be sure to check the website (www.doaks.org) before your visit to see what’s in bloom, but must-sees include the Orangery, where the climbing ficus dates from the 1860s; the rose garden, arranged by color; the Prunus Walk with its flowering plums; and the Pebble Garden, best viewed from the terrace above to take in the intricate, swirling neo-baroque designs of grey and white stones. It’s a shame that picnicking isn’t permitted on the grounds.
Did George Washington ever wander past the centuries-old Osage orange tree that dominates River Farm’s Garden Calm? It’s possible. The first president owned these 25 park-like acres along the Potomac River just south of DC, and the story goes that the tree was a gift from Thomas Jefferson to the Washington family. Among the pocket gardens here, you’ll find a grove of Franklin trees (extinct in the wild), an orchard of pear, apple and plum trees, and an azalea garden with a rainbow of different species. The American Horticultural Society (www.ahsgardening.org) now resides in the restored estate house and hosts such popular events as the Spring Garden Market in April.
Hillwood Estate and Gardens
The 13 acres of magnificent floral gardens surrounding cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s gracious manse give visitors a taste of how the one percent might live. Each formal garden is designed as an outdoor “room,” with a progression leading from the rose garden, to the French parterre, to the Friendship Walk and so on. The gardens put on a spectacular, ever-changing show throughout the year, though spring is naturally the most breathtaking. Join a seasonal tour, or take in the blooms from the café terrace.
US National Arboretum
Some of the best cherry trees beyond the Tidal Basin reside at the US National Arboretum, where 446 acres of gardens offer a full dose of spring and very few tourists. Pick up a brochure at the arboretum and go on a self-guided tour to discover such diverse varieties as the early flowering “Dream Catcher,” the mid-season flowering “Pendula” (aka the weeping cherry), and the Yoshino, cultivated from cuttings from the original Tidal Basin beauties. Take the 40-minute tram tour for an overview.
One of the city’s best-kept secrets, this botanical gem on the grounds of a neo-Byzantine church in northeast DC offers the ultimate meditative escape. Pathways wind through a cloistered, fountain-graced rose garden, with benches promising quiet contemplation. Nearby, a woodsy hillside harbors stations of the cross along with replicas of Holy Land monuments, including the Grotto of Gethsemane, Chapel of the Ascension and Tomb of the Virgin Mary – as well as the Lourdes grotto. Check the website (www.myfranciscan.org) for a blooming calendar.
Most Washingtonians don’t even know that every year, 10,000 tulip bulbs are expressly flown in from Holland and planted by hand in the Floral Library, a plot of land near the Tidal Basin. They explode in a vibrant blaze of primary color, a powerful juxtaposition to the Tidal Basin’s soft pastels. The rest of the year, annuals provide a sweet break from city bustle. Established in 1969, the library was part of Lady Bird Johnson’s efforts to beautify the capital city.
Capitol Hill Neighborhood Gardens
Even urban DC provides a dose of spring beauty: the tiny private gardens fronting Capitol Hill’s historic row houses overflow with blooms, making a stroll along its streets a flower-lover’s delight. There’s no single home that stands out, but together they create a glorious floral pastiche, each patchwork garden lovelier than the next. Stroll the streets east of the Capitol – A Street SE, A Street NE, 6th and 7th Streets NE – and finish up at Eastern Market at 7th and North Carolina Avenue SE for a bite at Market Lunch’s busy counter. Tip: Stanton Park, at C and 5th Streets NE, has cherry trees and benches.
George Washington Memorial Parkway
Not a garden, per se, but one of the prettiest drives around can be found on this flower-bedecked, National-Park-maintained roadway, especially the stretch between Alexandria and Georgetown, on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. The ornamental show begins with blankets of daffodils in early spring, seguing to dogwoods, redbuds and tulips later in the season, with peerless views year-round of the sparkling blue Potomac and Washington’s dazzling marble-white monuments rising beyond. Pride of place is Lady Bird Johnson Park, the handiwork of the garden-loving First Lady, which showcases a springtime spectacle of daffodils, red tulips and dogwoods.
Enid A. Haupt Garden
You’ll want to stake out a cast-iron bench beneath a blooming tulip magnolia and stay a while in this quiet four-acre garden in the heart of the Smithsonian complex (the National Museum of African Art, the Freer-Sackler Museums of Asian Art and the S. Dillon Ripley Center are under your feet). A changing palette of blooms edge brick pathways, with the Smithsonian Castle serving as a picturesque backdrop. Wander a bit to find the Fountain Garden, designed after an ancient Moorish palace in Granada, Spain, and the Moongate Garden, inspired by Beijing’s Temple of Heaven.
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
True fact: The father of our nation was also a master gardener, and oversaw the landscaping of his Virginia home at Mount Vernon, just south of Washington, DC. Of course, the most important role of the gardens was to provide food for the table. But there were plenty of flowering blooms to dazzle colonists on their after-dinner walks, just as there are today. Some of the most stunning springtime blooms include the roses, which the Washingtons used for garnishing food and making rosewater, and tulips, with several blooms dating back to the 18th century, including the chocolate and gold Absalon tulip.