To celebrate the U.S. Botanic Gardens’ anniversary in 2020, it commissioned a North Carolina artist to create a gigantic wooden “stickwork” sculpture—“O Say Can You See” —in Washington DC. The USBG is located next to the U.S. Capitol and under its purview.
On October 25, 2019, the USBG revealed its Patrick Doherty custom wooden sculpture in the National Garden. (It is located on the West Lawn of the gated garden.) The finished sculpture is 15 feet tall by 42 feet long and 24 feet wide. This sculpture visually demonstrates the anniversary slogan—“U.S. Botanic Garden at 200: Deeply Rooted, Branching Outward (1820-2020) for the U.S. Botanic Gardens’ anniversary.
“We hope visitors will explore the installation, think about the many ways we interact with plants throughout each day, and be inspired by both the beauty and function plants give to us.”Saharah Moon Chapotin
On his website, Doherty described his inspiration for this interactive installation: “Thinking of English knot gardens and trying to imagine a work for the city congestion of Washington DC, I produced a wild scribble and characterized it as ‘urban scrawl.’ I transferred this ‘chicken scratch’ drawing to graph paper and plotted the sketch in the grassy lawn on the right side of the Garden’s glass conservatory.”
“From this footprint, I hoped to conjure a zany three-dimensional object that viewers could explore.”Patrick Doherty
Dougherty “weaves” his sculptures from plant materials. The sculpture features willow and invasive plants removed by USBG employees from two sites in the area—U.S. National Arboretum and American Horticultural Society River Farm. The invasive plants harvested include Norway maple, Siberian elm, and hybrids of non-native cherry.
Volunteers and USBG employees worked 800 hours with Dougherty and his team over three weeks (October 9-25, 2019) to create the unique installation. You can watch a timelapse of the creation of the sculpture on USBG’s YouTube channel.
The sculptor set out to create a fanciful installation that summons up past memories. “We’ve tried to make a sculpture that really excites people’s imagination,” said Doherty. “Visitors might think of fond memories in nature like playing with sticks as a child, a first kiss under a lilac bush or a nice walk in the woods, or maybe think of other items they’ve seen in nature like a bird nest they’ve just seen somewhere in the Garden.”
Doherty was featured on an episode of Craft in America: Nature Episode. He describes how he bends, interweaves, and fastens together sticks to create (in my mind Tolkien-like) plant installations for this installation celebrating the U.S. Botanic Gardens’ anniversary.
“I always say that I am a sculptor. I like that moniker.”Patrick Doherty
Visitors are encouraged to touch but don’t manhandle this nature-inspired plant sculpture on the Lawn immediately west of the Conservatory. “Please touch and walk through the sculpture, but do not climb or pull on sticks.”
Unlike most outdoor sculptures which I can only look at, I am invited to touch the nature-inspired plant artwork created for the U.S. Botanic Gardens’ anniversary.
Entering this willow cave sculpture involves turning, twisting, and leaning down to follow its serpentine structure. I come across windows periodically that frame a view of the rose garden or trellis. Pure escapism, I marvel at the wooden cave that reminds me of the dark forest. This sculpture has stood empty during 18 months of the pandemic as the Botanic Garden prohibited visits in the walled garden outside the Conservatory.
Imagine my surprise on an ordinary Thursday in August, as the residents of Washington DC baked in a heatwave, to see the metal gates of the Botanic Garden pushed wide open. I entered with trepidation, certain an employee would come rushing out to stop my entry. Instead, I met one fellow walker at 7 am who casually strolled through the premises.
I think of the USBG’s National Garden as the “secret garden,” walled away by gates and concrete walls. It is a place of seclusion and solitude. I walk the curving paths like a labyrinth, gliding past billowing summer flowers, deadhead roses, and willowly white blossoms.
If time was of no object, I would spend at least three hours silently walking the paths and sitting in silent reverence. No matter the season, the walled garden offers greenery, blooms, and tranquility.
According to the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) website, “all parts of the National Garden were completed in September 2006 – Rose Garden, Butterfly Garden, Lawn Terrace, Hornbeam Court, Regional Garden (a garden of Mid-Atlantic native plants), Amphitheater (created with salvaged marble steps from the East Front of the Capitol), and the First Ladies Water Garden, which is the only memorial recognizing First Ladies.”
Many years ago, before the pandemic, I took a free USBG forest bathing class near sunset. We stopped at junctures throughout the park to commune with nature. I heard the trees talk to me and felt in rhythm with nature. These experiences always remind me of the exhortation in a Mary Oliver poem:
“You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”Mary Oliver
This poem from Wild Geese perfectly highlights the role of astonishment in viewing nature. Be amazed. Marvel at the big and small. Take time to breathe… deeply. Feel your heart expand through forest bathing, whether in a formal class or solo.
On this summer visit—punctuated by an 18-month pandemic lockdown that prohibited entry to the walled (and silent) garden—I cherish the huge white lilies that bloom in profusion. All the while that I have been locked out of my place of reverie, these gardens have bloomed, died back, and then slept through the winter months. Workers have toiled but no one else had seen the walled garden from March 2020 until its reopening in July 2021.
So like a fairy or elf let loose after a long winter slumber, I fly around this walled garden. Plants beg to be stroked. Trees gather together as a family. Silence beckons.
Until closing at 7 pm, the walled garden now invites visitors. No dogs are permitted to walk in this enclosure. Every variety of distractions—flowers, trees, water, and wildlife—can be enjoyed.
First Ladies’ Water Garden
One of the most enriching areas is the “First Ladies’ Water Garden.” Landscaped in a forest area, it features the fountain and pool. The large patio permits silent contemplation. It honors the contribution of our nation’s First Ladies.
Perfume pervades this section of the walled garden in late spring when different varietals of tea roses begin to bloom An ongoing experiment, this garden showcases roses that thrive in the Mid-Atlantic when grown using organic methods.
Nearing the border of the walled garden, the visitor discovers educational posters on 10 native large trees, 10 native wildflowers, and 10 native wetland plants. It is extremely informative for adults as well as kids. My favorite is the poster dedicated to 10 native plants for critters. It shows how plants, trees, and flowers can be a “ safe house” for different insects, birds, and animals.
Currently, there are no in-person walking tours organized by the US Botanic Gardens. But the Amphitheatre has been a popular place to stop for talks. According to the AOC, it serves as an outdoor gathering place for educational programs and also provides a spectacular view of the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory and the U.S. Capitol Dome.
Sadly, dogs (and puppies) are not permitted inside the National Garden. But you can bring Fido to roam the gardens outside the conservatory. I brought my puppy Parker when he was only 8 weeks old. It is a wonderful oasis for a puppy to walk among the flowers and of course, take a photo!
All outdoor gardens are currently open. The Conservatory and public restrooms remain closed, due to the closure of the U.S. Capitol campus buildings. Please monitor www.USBG.gov for updates on operating status.