Today, the USBG welcomes over a million visitors annually. Two hundred years after its creation, the Garden is alive year-round with exhibits and programs that focus on education, accessibility, conservation, collaborative partnerships, and world-class horticulture and sustainable gardening.
“As we celebrate 200 years of history at the U.S. Botanic Garden, I am excited to explore new ways of helping people make meaningful connections to plants.”
“As we celebrate 200 years of history at the U.S. Botanic Garden, I am excited to explore new ways of helping people make meaningful connections to plants,” said Saharah Moon Chapotin, executive director. “Whether it’s to spend a quiet moment in our beautiful Conservatory and gardens, to discover the tastes and textures of new food plants, or to learn about how plants contribute to a more sustainable planet, I want every visitor to the Garden to feel welcome here and to come away with a greater appreciation for the natural world.”
Deeply Rooted History
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson weren’t just political leaders, they were also farmers. They understood that a botanic garden could serve as both an educational resource and a source of national pride. On May 8, 1820, over 20 years after George Washington suggested a location for the botanic garden within Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plans for the fledging capital city, President James Madison signed a bill granting the garden 5 acres of land at the base of the U.S. Capitol.
Run by the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, the USBG grew ornamental and useful (food and medicinal) plants for 17 years. Funding ran out, but the idea of a national garden didn’t stay dormant long. In 1842, Congress revitalized the USBG to care for hundreds of plants gathered by the U.S. Exploring Expedition on its four-year, round-the-world journey. A Victorian Conservatory opened to the public in 1850; the USBG has been publicly accessible since then.
Growing in Size and Popularity
The USBG continued to grow during the latter half of the 19th century. The Victorian Conservatory was expanded in 1867 — adding a five-part, 300-foot long conservatory with a central dome and two wings and 14 greenhouses, one of which was used as a botanical classroom. And, on Frederick Law Olmsted’s recommendation, Congress purchased the 30-foot high, cast-iron sculptural Fountain of Light and Water created by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi for America’s 1876 centennial exposition. The fountain, installed at the USBG in 1877 was a popular gathering spot late in the century.
An early 20th-century decision to enact L’Enfant’s original vision of a National Mall west of the U.S. Capitol meant the USBG had to move. A new Conservatory, built across the street to the south, opened in 1933. The new 30,000-square-foot facility, still in use today, was the largest aluminum building in the United States at the time of construction. Since 1934, the USBG has been administered through the Architect of the Capitol.
The 1980s and 1990s saw further expansions to the USBG. After congressional spouses spearheaded an effort to create a rose garden on Capitol Hill in the 1980s, a nonprofit National Fund for the U.S. Botanic Garden was formed. Their national design competition yielded a vision that grew beyond roses, leading to the new National Garden with its amphitheater; regional, rose and pollinator gardens; and the First Ladies Water Garden.
In 1997, the year the U.S. Mint issued a commemorative U.S. Botanic Garden silver dollar, the Conservatory underwent a renovation that necessitated the relocation of the 3,000 plants. Large palms were transported to Florida and plants deemed too large to move, like the historic 1842 cycads in the Garden Court, had cuttings taken for propagation.
On December 11, 2001, after four years, the Conservatory, renovated with modernized systems, reopened to welcome visitors.
Expanding Science and Sustainability
“One of my goals is to increase the amount of scientific research at the Garden,” Chapotin said. “Over the last few decades, the Garden has supported several national and international science and conservation projects, but there is room for more direct research and conservation work to be done by visiting scientists and our own employees.”
The USBG cofounded the North American Orchid Conservation Center along with the Smithsonian Institution in 2011. Today, the Garden is involved in research on the interconnection between orchids and mycorrhizal fungi and will soon grow research plants as part of its orchid collection.
“The goal is to increase representation of wild-collected plants at the Garden to improve the conservation value of our collection.”
A 2017 trip to the Philippines restarted USBG plant exploration, which continues domestically and internationally. “The goal is to increase representation of wild-collected plants at the Garden to improve the conservation value of our collection,” said Jim Adams, horticulture manager. “The Garden’s major collections of orchids, American native plants, desert plants and economic plants will all receive a boost from such work.”
In 2019, the USBG installed more than 29,000 plants to create a 5,000-square-foot green roof atop the stone portion of the Conservatory. The green roof, a research project planted with traditional sedum and native plants (mostly grasses), compares stormwater retention by the different plantings.
Finally, the USBG fosters plant sciences by making its collections and facilities available to visiting scholars and by helping to train horticulturalists, botanists and educators. The USBG plans to expand its internship program and facilitate collaborative research on its collections.
Given its metropolitan location and national presence, the USBG has an important role in evaluating, demonstrating and disseminating information on urban sustainability. In addition to the green roof, the USBG plans to establish a demonstration urban farm and showcase rain gardens, native plants and pollinator-friendly horticulture.
Education and Accessibility
“We want to continue the Garden’s legacy of showcasing a wide variety of useful plants and to expand our work in keeping the planet healthy for the next generation,” said Susan Pell, deputy executive director. “We look forward to welcoming visitors from diverse communities across the United States and around the world as we begin the next 200 years of plant exploration and discovery.”
The USBG offered over 2,600 broad, inclusive and educational programs in 2019, engaging more than 102,300 participants. Events included dance performances, community art workshops and interactive programs on cultural use of plants for food, beauty products and medicine. The USBG’s inclusive programming includes expedited entry, early morning and evening visits for individuals with cognitive or sensory processing disabilities, monthly programs that highlight plant connections for individuals with dementia, and tactile tours designed for individuals who are blind or have low vision. Other on-site resources include sensory bags with fidgets, noise-reducing headphones and weighted lap blankets. As part of this work, the USBG is conducting a visitor study to learn who visits the Garden and who does not. The results will support programs designed to serve broader community needs.
The USBG continues to expand its training and exhibitions. Over the past two years, the USBG has offered urban agriculture career training programs for veterans in partnership with the National Center for Appropriate Technology and train-the-trainer programs for professionals with the Chicago Botanic Garden. A new USBG 2020 exhibit in the Kitchen Garden is a collaboration with George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. This yearlong display celebrates the historic connection between the USBG and these Founding Fathers by showcasing plants and interpretive stories from the two estates.
Deeply Rooted, Branching Outward
Building from an idea proposed by George Washington, the USBG has grown to impact the public garden, education and conservation communities through initiatives and partnerships like the Sustainable SITES Initiative™, the North American Orchid Conservation Center, Morning at the Garden, Project BudBurst, the Mid-Atlantic Regional seed bank, and multiple conservation assessments through Botanic Gardens Conservation International. The USBG continues a legacy two centuries strong to fulfill its original mission of connecting people and plants.