Spring is stunning at Washington's Arboretum

The District of Columbia has more than one springtime natural beauty pageant: The Japanese cherry trees at the tidal basin are matched by a spectacle of flowering trees and shrubs at the National Arboretum. An advantage at the arboretum is that, however compellingly lovely it is in the spring, year-round it offers visitors the best of nature.

Starting with the beginning of the blooming season, spring at the National Arboretum is stunning. From the third week in March through the third week in April, red-flowered Japanese camellias bloom both predictably and prodigiously. The collection, begun in 1949, now has over 125 varieties of the species Camellia japonicam alone.

The arboretum's most magnificent spring floral display is its azaleas, which begin blooming about the third week in April, usually lasting until the third week in May. During this period 70,000 azaleas in more than 1,000 varieties cover the hillsides and fill the valleys with a splendid splash of color: red, pink, white, orange, and yellow. The large- flowered Japanese hybrid azaleas are features in a formal garden setting as part of the Glenn Dale Collection.

In mid-April more than 250 crab apple varieties add their luster to the landscape, as do the rhododendrons. During the last week of April, over 65 varieties of dogwood come delightfully to bloom. Magnolias, mountain laurel, and tree peonies flower in the month of May.

Spring travelers restricted as to when they can travel because of school or Easter vacations will appreciate both the early arrival and the length of the camellia blooming season, which is considerably longer than that of Washington's Japanese cherry trees. For visitors specifically wishing to avoid the vacation crowds, the azaleas begin blooming just when many travelers must return home. Although the flowering dates may vary somewhat from year to year, spring from Washington southward is a more dependable season than residents elsewhere in the United States might expect.

The National Arboretum was established by the United States secretary of agriculture in 1927 on 415 acres in northeast Washington. Lying in an intermediate climatic zone, it can support a wide range of trees and shrubs. Early development of the arboretum, which also serves as a research institution for plant breeding and cultivation, was impeded by the depression and wars. Now , however, though one of the younger large arboretums in the country, the National has achieved maturity of growth in most of its plant groupings.

On hills that afford visitors a view of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument, nine miles of paved roads allow visitors to the arboretum access by automobile to the plantings. One most effectively seen from a distance is the Gotelli Collection of natural dwarf and slow-growing conifer trees from around the world. The five-acre hillside site of 1,500 trees, ranging in height from a few inches to six feet, offers viewers a fascinating variety of shapes and colors.

for those who wish to walk, many trails cover the streambound woodlands, where plant displays are carefully labeled. One leads through Fern Valley, a natural area of wildflowers that bloom from spring to fall; ferns; and native trees and shrubs.

Each season has its own features: from June through August, hibiscus, crape myrtle, and daylilies bloom; from mid-September there is unusual fall foliage of rare species; October and November bring fall-blooming camellias; and in December one of the world's largest collections of holly is brightened by brilliant berries.There is also an herb garden to explore.

For the Bicentennial in 1976, the arboretum received an exceptional gift from Japan to the citizens of the United States. Americans were presented with 53 bonsai plants, ranging in age from 30 to 350 years. The collection inclues specimens that were among the most treasured and valuable in Japan, and reflect enormous personal generosity on the part of the Japanese people. Over half the bonsai were contributed by priva Japanese citizens whose families had cultivated these individual priceless plants for generations. The Imperial Household contributed a 180-year- old Japanese red pine, the first item from the Imperial collection ever to leave Japan.

The Arboretum's National Bonsai Collection, the largest in the US and outstanding for its variety and maturity internationally, is a unique gift of Japanese culture, in both the horticulture and civilization senses. Bonsai represents one of Japan's oldest and most revered art forms. The technique -- careful branch and root pruning and shaping to retain in a miniature tree all the elements of a large tree in a natural setting -- was brought to Japan from China in the 13th century. Over the centuries the Japanese devised standards of shape and form that have become the classic styles for these living works of art , which take decades to create.

Within the delightful bamboo-bordered, pebble-pathed Japanese garden comples specially constructed for the year-round display of the collection, full-grown trees and attractively potted bonsai, each in many varieties of azaleas, camellias, and the rhododendrons, create unusual contrasts in size. The Pavilion is only partly roofed, to give an impression of openness, while the overall dimensions of the exhibit convey closeness. Other bonsai species on display include yew, cypress, juniper, spruce, beech, wisteria, and varieties of pine and maple. Some have been artistically potted together to re-create miniature landscapes.

Inside the nearby admnistration building are six objects for practicing the art of "suiseki," or stone viewing. The stones, which show nothing of the hand of man, achieve the desire of the Japanese to possess miniature representations of their country's rugged scenery. Eroded quartz veins in the mountain stream stone look like cascading water, and the chrysanthemum stone has three unbelievably realistic large blossoms in white inlaid in its sides. A treasured stone is often displayed in a Japanese house next to a favorite bonsai.

The National Arboretum is open daily -- except Christmas -- free of charge, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The bonsai collection is open from 10 a.m. to (c):30 p.m. , also year-round, although from Nov. 1 to April 1 the plants are somewhat crowded together under the covered portions of the Pavilion. The arboretum is accessible by public transportation; take the Metro to Stadium/Armory, and then the B2/Rainier bus to Rand Street (near R Street), abouth three blocks from the entry gate. The bonsai collection is easy to reach by foot, but a car is probably preferable for seeing the rest of the arboretum. Further information, including a pamphlet that tells what blooms when, is available from the United States National Arboretum, Washington, D.C. 20002 (202) 399-5400.

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