The United States Botanic Garden (USBG), run by Congress and located adjacent to the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., on the National Mall, is an artistic showcase for a wide variety of plants from all over the world. The USBG complex includes Bartholdi Park, a Conservatory, and the National Garden, and offers exhibits, classes, tours, and other educational experiences, including larger-than-life-models and interactive displays, that highlight and interpret the impact of plants in aesthetic, cultural, economic, environmental, and therapeutic ways.
The origin of the United States Botanic Garden (USBG) goes back to 1816, when the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, which was made up of many distinguished citizens, proposed the creation of a garden with a staff who would collect, grow, and distribute plants from countries all across the globe. In 1820 their idea became a reality when Congress approved a bill, signed by President James Monroe, establishing that garden, to be located to the west of the Capitol grounds, where it functioned until shortly after the Institute stopped holding meetings in 1837.
Five years later the subject of a national botanic garden re-emerged when members of the Wilkes Expedition, the U.S. Exploring Expedition to the South Seas, commissioned by Congress, brought into Washington a collection of eclectic plants they’d discovered around the world. Initially those plants were put in a specially constructed greenhouse behind the Old Patent Office Building; then in late 1850 they were moved into a new structure on the land previously occupied by the Columbian Institute’s original garden. In 1856 Congress officially named the United States Botanic Garden and placed it under the specific jurisdiction of its Joint Committee on the Library, and in 1863 William R. Smith was appointed the first superintendent of the garden. It was a role in which he would remain until his death in 1912, and during his tenure, the USBG gained national prominence, and significantly expanded.
The Conservatory rotunda was built in 1867, and began housing hundreds of unusual and exotic plants. In 1876 Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi sculpted a fountain, in the Greek tradition, that weighed around 40 tons and stood 30 feet high, its large basin seemingly held up by sea nymphs with arched backs, wearing headdresses of leaves, designed fish and scattered sea shells and corals beneath their feet. Bartholdi created the fountain for the 1876 International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and in 1877 it was purchased by the U.S. government and placed within the Botanic Garden. Two years later Bartholdi received a patent for what would become his most famous work: the Statue of Liberty.
In 1913 George Wesley Hess succeeded Smith in overseeing the USBG, bringing with him a keen interest in adding an educational focus to the Garden experience, at times even conducting tours of the grounds himself. In 1932, Bartholdi’s fountain was moved to the location where it stands today. A year later, Hess retired, and administration of the Garden was officially transferred to the Architect of the Capitol, giving whoever holds that position the title and responsibilities of Acting Director of USBG. Also in 1933, the entire Garden was moved to the land where it has remained ever since. In 1985 the area for which the fountain sculpted by Bartholdi is the centerpiece was renamed Bartholdi Park. In 1993, the USBG opened a plant production support facility containing greenhouse bays and maintenance shops, in the historic D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia. In September 1997 the Conservatory closed for renovations. It reopened in December 2001, with its superstructure, limestone facade, fountains, radiator, glazing system, and all exterior windows and doors restored or refabricated. Five years later, The National Garden was added to the USBG complex. It is a $10 million public-private venture that was built with funds raised by corporations, individual citizens, and garden clubs from around the nation, with a non-profit fund also assisting the Architect of the Capitol in raising part of the money, a portion of which came from the sale of the 1997 USBG silver dollar issued by the U.S. Mint.
The United States Botanic Garden (USBG), which has over 185 years collected plants from military and exploring missions, foreign governments, states, and government agencies, hosts more than 750,000 visitors every year. One of the oldest botanic gardens in the world, it cultivates, displays, and houses countless varieties of plants, from pineapple-scented sage to plants that smell like rotting corpses. It also fosters plant preservation by serving as a repository for endangered species. The Botanic Garden also offers a variety of educational programs, on the importance of plants to the earth and its population, for the part they play in balancing the environment through photosynthesis, erosion control, pollination, and air, soil, and water purification. USBG programs also address the significance of plants as sources of food, beverages, sugar, spices, starch, oils, waxes, fibers, dyes, cosmetics, and industrial products. In addition, the USBG courses explore plants in light of their medicinal, therapeutic, and aesthetic value.
Comprised of a Conservatory, Bartholdi Park, and the National Garden, all open daily and are free to the public. The USBG currently maintains about 26,000 plants, used for study and exchange with other institutions, as well as exhibition. In addition, it contains a Production Facility that is the largest greenhouse complex supporting a public garden in the United States, covering 85,000 square feet and divided into 34 greenhouse bays and 16 environmental zones.
The Conservatory displays 4,000 living species, in permanent and seasonal exhibits, and varying climates, and includes a palm, fern and vine section, called “The Jungle,” complete with a catwalk; an Orchid House; a meditation garden; a garden filled with Jurassic plants; and gardens geared toward kids.
Bartholdi Park features the world-renowned Bartholdi Fountain, and an outdoor home garden landscape demonstration, with each of the displays sized and scaled for suitability in an urban or suburban setting.
The National Garden, located on three acres west of the Conservatory, houses, with environmental, horticultural, and botanical education as its objective, an eclectic collection of unusual, useful, and ornamental plants native to the Mid-Atlantic region, as well as a Butterfly Garden (pdf), Rose Garden (pdf), and the First Ladies Water Garden (pdf), a square with a frame of surrounding pavement, designed to leave visitors with an image of the role water plays in the world of plants as well as all other living beings.
Each year from Memorial Day through Columbus Day, the USBG presents temporary exhibits in the outdoor gardens and on terraces around the Conservatory, and it has become a spring and summer tradition for Capitol Hill staff members to picnic or just relax amidst the varying displays.
Exhibits, classes, and lectures at the USBG can run the gamut from “Herbs for Your Pets,” “How Plants Work: A Guide to Being Green,” and “Creating Gourd Art,” to “Cooking with the Sun,” “Botany from a Bee’s Eye View,” “Wicked Bugs,” and “Landscape for Life.” All of the Garden’s programs for the public are listed in a quarterly calendar of events, and also on their website; group tours are available by appointment and for walk-in visitors daily; and a horticultural hotline is set up to answer questions from the public.
There are also many activities for children at the USBG, including a Jr. Botanist Program that includes giving out an explorer’s lens and field journal.
In addition, the USBG offers a Certificate Program in Botanical Art and Illustration, in conjunction with Corcoran College of Art + Design, which takes an in-depth focus on the traditions, techniques, and history of botanical art and illustration, and includes classes from Photographing Flowers to Painting Bugs and Birds.
The USBG is also one of 62 botanical gardens, arboretums, zoos, and research institutions that take part in the Plant Rescue Center Program, whereby hundreds of threatened plants, mostly orchids and cacti, are accepted into the collections, to be used for conservation and education programs. Then through CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the Garden aims to help prevent species from being forced toward extinction by uncontrolled exploitation. When plants are shipped illegally and confiscated, they are often sent to the USBG for safekeeping, and at times then also go to the Conservatory for exhibition.
From the Web Site of USBG
The Architect of the Capitol would not provide AllGov with information about contractor spending because it “may contain security or procurement sensitive information.”
Alan M. Hantman
George M. White
J. George Stewart
Thomas U. Walter
Upon the retirement of Alan Hantman in February 2007, Stephen Ayers was named Acting Architect of the Capitol. Congress also recommended Ayers to President George W. Bush as one of their choices of candidates to serve a ten-year term, but Bush left office without making a decision. On February 24, 2010, President Barack Obama nominated Ayers to the position and on May 12, 2010, he was confirmed by the Senate.