Washington DC

Pink Blooming Saucer Magnolia Trees in DC

Rooftop Garden to visit at Smithsonian

Each spring before the cherry blossoms peak, Washingtonians race to see the giant cup-shaped pink blooming saucer magnolia trees at the Smithsonian.

There are two rows of pink blooming saucer magnolia trees (also known as tulip magnolia trees) that line the main brick walkway around the manicured gardens at the Paterre at the Enid A. Haupt (EP) Garden. When in full bloom, the saucer magnolia trees provide a pink canopy above your head. Dart down before you walk into a fragrant tree branch.

Smithsonian Blooming Saucer Magnolia Trees

This is Washingtonians’ secret garden, a 4-acre botanical retreat that features formal gardens and numerous specimens from the Smithsonian Gardens’ Tree Collection. Since the EP Garden opened to the public on May 21, 1987, it has been a destination for gardeners and the flowering loving public.

Pink Flowering Trees

In case you are confused about the difference between a Japanese cherry tree and a saucer magnolia tree, study the two trees’ blooms. While they are both pink and bloom in the spring, “don’t mistake saucer magnolias (Magnolia x soulangeana) for cherry trees,” according to the Smithsonian Magazine. They are decidedly different.  A Japanese cherry blossom is smaller. There are three to six blossoms. It is tightly clenched. In contrast, the sauce magnolia looks like a large pink cup (saucer) when it opens up.

The saucer magnolia petal is cup-shaped.

I like to stroke the magnolia before its delicate leaves unfurl. The petal is silky. You can see the pink veins tracing the tightly wrapped “tulip” before it emerges from its caterpillar state. But then like the freed butterfly, it raises its petal wings to fly out into world — whether for a short day or longer.

Warm Up Act

I think of Smithsonian’s magnolias as the warm up act for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. But honestly if I couldn’t get to see the graceful Yoshino and Kwanzan cherry trees, I could still get my “flower fix” obsessing on the pink blooming saucer magnolia trees.

Pink blooming saucer magnolia tree at Smithsonian
Branches laden with pink magnolia petals droop

Picture if you will a sky filled with pink flowers bowing and rising and twirling on their branches. Like a ballerina, the branch bows to her audience, stretching but never falling to the floor.

Or to use another analogy, the huge pink saucer blossoms resemble pale pink clouds billowing in the sky when in full bloom. And then like a surprise spring shower, the trees “rain” down a flurry of flowers. A carpet of pink petals covers the sidewalk. Sitting on a bench during a flower storm, you will laugh in delight. Don’t be surprise to find petals land in your purse and cover your sneakers.

Difference in Blossoms

I am sure there are cherry blossom snobs who only want to come to DC to walk the Tidal Basin. (And don’t get me wrong: I am obsessed with spending as much time searching for the blooming Japanese cherry trees as the next Washingtonian or tourist.)

Pantere Garden at Smithsonian
Pantere Garden

But the pink blooming saucer magnolia trees planted at the Smithsonian are in the Top Three gardens to visit in Washington DC in March. These flowering trees run the color spectrum from pale pink to rose to purplish pink. Before the flowers bloom, they resemble tightly-closed pink tulips. But the first hint of temperatures in the high 60s-low 70s can cause full blossoming.

I like to walk straight into the flower wall and breathe deeply.

“The flowers cover the trees and have an incredibly fragrant smell. For many, this smell has an almost Proust-eating-a-Madeleine effect of conjuring memories of warm springs past.”—Georgetownmetropolitan.com

The magnolia’s floral scent perfumes the air around me. I close my eyes and stroke the silvery tree bark. Hidden momentarily among the branches in my tree cave, I can linger long.

Pandemic Peak

Last year the trees peaked as the Smithsonian shut down its complex of museums and outdoor venues. I walked through at daybreak to view the pink blooming saucer magnolia trees on March 13. This final video before the shutdown will always be special to me. At 5 pm, the garden gates slammed shut for the entire covid spring shutdown in Washington DC. But the Haupt Garden reopened in the summer. City residents sighed in collective relief to get back access to “our” garden.

So it is with great joy that I make my pilgrimage in mid-March 2021 to see if there are in fact pink blooming saucer magnolia trees have reached their peak. But it looks like it will take at least one more week due to the abnormally cold temperatures this winter.

Benches are available at Enid Haupt Garden.
A lovely bench for meditation

I like to visit the EH Garden at sunrise, which occurs around 7:12 am EST with the time change. Often I have the garden entirely to myself. So I roam among the trees, talking to the birds that nest high above me and (occasionally) stopping to sit on a bench to meditate.

Connecting Smithsonian Museums

The EH Garden connects to three different museums through the grid of sidewalks. Approaching through the Renwick Gates on Independence Avenue, you can see the African Art Museum on the right and the Sackler Gallery on the left.

Sackler Museum

Exiting the garden on Jefferson Drive SW, you pass the Freer Gallery on the left side and the Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden on the right exit. (Follow the roses to enter the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, which is “a quiet oasis with a distinctive sense of intimacy and informality.”) The Smithsonian gardens are a “museum without walls.”

“All have been designed to complement the museums they border and to enhance the overall museum experience of learning, appreciation, and enjoyment.”

The EH Garden also connects to the Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle) and the Arts and Industries Building.

Rooftop Garden

Since you enter the EH garden at street level, it is shocking to learn that you are strolling in a rooftop garden. But you are actually standing on the roofs of the National Museum of African Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and the S. Dillon Ripley Center (International Gallery).

The EH Garden comprises three different types of gardens that spotlight different cultures and architecture—the Parterre, the Moongate Garden, and the Fountain Garden. When the fountains are turned on, you will feel transported to the Court of the Lions at Alhambra, a 13th-century Moorish palace and fortress in Granada, Spain.

Moorish garden at Enid A. Haupt Garden
Fountain Garden at Enid A. Haupt Garden

Each of the three gardens-within-a-garden carries its own special charm. But my favorite place to roam or meditate is among the dragonflies at the Moongate Garden. It is inspired by the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China. You can sit on a bench and just stare at these turquoise metal art objects set against an azure sky. Or all your senses can bathe in nature’s wonders. Even in the midst of a bustling city, you can find a place for forest bathing—as I learned at one of the Smithsonian’s forest bathing classes led by author and naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley.

Dragonfly sculpture at Moongate Garden

Spending time in nature is how I have survived the last 12 months. When the walls of my DC condo seemed to close in around me, I raced outside to wander. And no where do I feel more of a sense of wonder than exploring the constantly changing environment at my not-so-secret Smithsonian garden. Thank you dear Enid!

Smithsonian Benefactor

The Enid A. Haupt Garden is named after the publishing heiress who died at age 99. She bankrolled the four-acre Smithsonian garden. “Her numerous gifts to build, restore, and maintain gardens (known as ‘Enid’s Edens’) around the country and the world made Enid A. Haupt America’s foremost horticultural philanthropist, earning her the American Horticultural Society’s Liberty Hyde Bailey award in 1994,” according to the Smithsonian.

Enid Haupt bankrolled the rooftop Smithsonian garden.

Haupt also financed the Haupt Fountains at the Ellipse (between the Washington Monument and the White House).

If you enjoyed this article, you can subscribe to my weekly email:

Saucer magnolia trees bloom in March in DC.

You Might Also Like

  • Runaway Ann
    March 20, 2021 at 7:42 am

    Beautiful colours! I love such places. That is a peacefull heaven in cities!

  • carla
    March 20, 2021 at 10:56 am

    Great photos!

  • Linnea
    March 20, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    Such a great post! I used to live in DC, but I didn’t know the history around the magnolia trees! Great photos!

  • Tracy @ sunshineandvine.com
    March 20, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    Oh wow! Love the detail about the cherry trees. I so hope to visit DC while the trees are blooming!

    • Tracy @ sunshineandvine.com
      March 20, 2021 at 1:19 pm

      …meant to say magnolia trees. 🙂

      • Terri Markle
        March 20, 2021 at 1:38 pm

        HAHAHA Good catch. The magnolias are magnificent!

    • Terri Markle
      March 20, 2021 at 1:39 pm

      Hope you can visit DC to see the trees in the spring too.

  • Tish
    March 20, 2021 at 3:44 pm

    I love the magnolia trees and their wonderful fragrance!
    Beautiful pics to help me enjoy the 1st day of spring!
    The gardens a so pretty
    I love the cherry blossoms as well
    Thanks again

  • Val
    March 21, 2021 at 2:03 am

    Lovely post Terri ! We have some gorg cherry blossoms here in WA state at the Univ of Wa – reminds me to get my post up about them !

    Thx for sharing my SFO post ! Did the same for you


    • Terri Markle
      March 21, 2021 at 7:42 am

      Your SF post brought back so many fond memories.

  • Sharyn
    March 21, 2021 at 3:21 am

    The magnolia trees look so beautiful. I wish I could smell them!

  • Denise
    March 21, 2021 at 1:16 pm

    I have been to D.C. many times in every season, and somehow have missed these beautiful trees! Can’t wait to go back!

  • Courtney
    March 22, 2021 at 6:22 pm

    These look amazing! I’ve never been to D.C. but its high on my list of places to visit in the future. Hopefully I’ll get to see the Saucer Magnolias for myself in the future!