Nestled by the Anacostia River in the northeast corner of DC lies a jewel that many Washingtonians (and visitors) don’t know exists.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens’ exotic waterborne flowers shine like gems—amethyst, morganite (fuchsia), and topaz—in the small ponds. In July, the weeklong Lotus & Water Lily Festival is held. It celebrates these exotic flowers that grow in water instead of dirt.
“Deep within Kenilworth lies an oasis, hidden behind trees and cattails. It’s a place where beavers build their homes and turtles sleep on logs. Lotus blooms rise from the muck and lilies sit on the water.”Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
The best time to see the lotus flowers in bloom is the morning during late June-July. They close up during the mid-day heat.
But I completely missed this summer spectacle in 2021 (and every year since I moved to Washington DC in 2015). Whether from lack of familiarity or inertia, I failed to explore a National Park located just four miles from my condo. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is notable as it sits on the banks of the Anacostia River and features swamp, marsh, and woodland habitats within sight of DC’s urban sprawl.
Luckily I noticed that the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS) had scheduled a 4-hour “Fall in the Parks” walk at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on October 23. ANS describes these year-round nature classes and outings as an opportunity for nature novices and experienced naturalists to explore and learn about our area’s natural history.
Knowing how quickly ANS’ guided walks sell out, I immediately registered.
On a cool Saturday in late October, our intrepid band of birders met at 9 am in front of the visitors center. Our ANS guide Senior Naturalist Stephanie Mason explained that the trees are slow in changing colors in the DMV this year. We saw a few maples that had changed to red leaves.
Still, the bright red Adirondack chairs sitting near the pond made it feel like the park was transitioning to “harvest time.”
Civil War veteran and U.S. Treasury clerk Walter Shaw purchased the land in the northeast quadrant of Washington DC and began growing water lilies in 1882, first as a hobby. But eventually, Shaw transformed it into a commercial farm, according to an article entitled “A Washington Man Who Farms the Water.”
“He developed the puddle to a pool, and enlarged the pool to a pond, and one year he took an account of stock and learned that his lily pond had brought him as great an income as his position.”Washington Post
According to the National Park Service (NPS), Shaw experimented with growing hardy water lilies which he brought from New England. He traveled to other regions to purchase plants and experimented with hybridization. In landscaping his gardens, he aimed to leave the property in as natural a state as possible.
Helen Shaw Fowler
Shaw’s daughter Helen Shaw Fowler worked closely with her father. (He even named one of his flowers after his daughter) In 1912, she took over running the private water lily nursery (W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds).
“She traveled looking for plants from Asia, Egypt and South America. Her pastel studies of lilies are displayed at the visitor’s center.”National Park Service
The popularity of the Shaw family’s enterprise grew when President Calvin Coolidge began visiting in the 1920s. In its heyday, the nursery had 42 pools.
Fowler received notification that her property might be condemned as federal land, due to work on the Anacostia River by the Army Corps of Engineers. But she successfully rallied political support to save the nursery from demolition. The U.S. Congress purchased the property for $50,000 in 1938.
Today Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is part of the U.S. National Park system. In addition, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. “The site has a distinguishable character as a once nationally-recognized aquatic water garden that was one of the first of its kind in the United States.” (NPS)
Within the NPS system, there are venues designated as cultural landscapes due to their history, significance, features, and preservation of each landscape. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is described as a “serene natural landscape.”
“Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is the only National Park Service site devoted to the propagation and display of aquatic plants.”NPS
Visitors say it is hard to believe you’re anywhere near the city when inside Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. This is a place to escape if you need your nature fix. But if you don’t have a car, it is difficult to reach through mass transportation.
There are so many things to do here year-round: birding, wildlife viewing, running, practicing yoga, and dog walking. It’s also an ideal place to set up an easel to create your own Monet-inspired painting of “Water Lilies.”
I felt like I might be standing at Monet’s home in Giverny when I looked at the bridge straddling the pond. Imagine in summer when the water lilies burst into bloom. It would be like gazing at Monet’s Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge.
Meandering through the 700-acre Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens reminds me of past hikes at Theodore Roosevelt Island, a national park located off of the George Washington Parkway, and Rock Creek Park. It also offers a place for Washingtonians to escape into nature.
These exotic flowers stand as tall as a human (up to six feet in height). With their floral faces turned to the sun, they seem almost mythological. The ancient Chinese poets rhapsodized about their exquisite beauty.
“Green lotus leaves outspread as far as the boundless sky; pink lotus flowers take from sunshine a new dye.”Yang Wanli
But the lotus plant’s personality can even be glimpsed in the off-season when the colorful flowers disappear. Now in October, only the giant green leaves and leggy stalks remain in the murky pond water. Awaiting winter, the plants hunker down to suffer the cold winds of late autumn followed by the lash of winter storms.
But today in late October, the park is a tranquil spot to explore with children or walk with a dog. The sun burnishes the green leaves that hang their heads. Occasionally animals will dig a dirt path between two ponds.
While lotus lovers gather at the park in the summer, birders flock to Kenilworth year-round. The Kenilworth Marsh is an important stop for migratory birds.
Our ANS guide is quite the musician. She repeats every bird trill she hears as a song. Sometimes it is a sad and wistful tune for the bird homesick from its home up north. Other times, it is a gay ballad.
We walk slowly (defined as a “naturalist’s shuffle”), pausing frequently to examine a tree, plant, or bird. Mason stops to point at the giant ironweed plant. While it produces spectacular purple flowers in the summer, the plant has now turned iron-grey since it has dried out.
We also revel in the cattails that sit in big clumps in the marsh. The dense cylindrical spike looks like brown suede. Situated in the marsh, the cattails are not close enough to stroke.
Near the pond sits the crimson-eyed rosemallow. This perennial plant produces showy pink and red flowers. But the most exquisite is the white petal flower tinged hot pink in the middle. The dried plant now holds a withered blossom head.
Mason pointed to the “knobby knees” sprouting in the dirt near the giant cypress tree. Growing vertically, they sprout above water level. The cypress is a deciduous conifer native to swamps, creeks, and rivers; it offers nesting and food for wild birds.
Boardwalk To Tidal Marsh
We leave the pond area to walk across the wooden boardwalk. It is a half-mile round trip. There are two seating areas where park rangers and guides can assemble visitors for talks.
The boardwalk crosses over the Kenilworth Marsh. It is lauded as one of the greatest environmental restorations in the region. During the 1990s, the marsh habitat was destroyed during the dredging and filling of the Anacostia River. This meant that plants that previously absorbed pollution were destroyed. After intense civic lobbying, the Metropolitan Council of Local Governments began the Kenilworth Marsh Project.
Visiting Kenilworth Gardens reveals 32 acres of marsh, ponds, and native plants. The distant views reveal blue sky and dense vegetation. A giant white egret can be seen in the distance, a solitary figure in a sea of green.
I envy his solitude. He is unaware of the group of humans staring at him from our perch on the boardwalk. We cannot stop staring at him. Eventually, we continue our walk until we reach the end of the boardwalk. At the far end of the boardwalk is a second observation deck. There are seats for rest, contemplation, or even yoga. But like the egret, I can imagine balancing on one foot in the yoga “tree pose” and quietly surveying all around me.
Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
If you visit in the high season, your best bet is to examine the calendar of events for Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. In 2021, the organization created Wellderness. Running June through October, it featured a wide range of activities, including dog pack walks, forest bathing, tai chi, adult art therapy, and live music.
The organization is always recruiting members to help take care of the park. During our Oct. 27 visit, there was a cleanup in progress. Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens invites volunteers “to get involved in our efforts to help the NPS maintain, share, and improve the park. With nearly 700 acres to manage, rangers appreciate and value a few hours of your time to keep this extraordinary park healthy and ready for visitors.”
Like a gem, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens reveals its properties in different times of day as well as seasons. It sparkles in the summer in a blaze of floral exuberance. But I found just as much beauty in its quiet autumn “green season” when I glimpsed only the occasional flash of crimson and rust. Now I can’t wait to return in winter to see the park painted white in a new blanket of snow. I might even see a beaver, muskrat, deer, or red fox.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is open its normal hours of 8 am to 4 pm daily. It is closed three days a year. No reservations are required. It is located at 1550 Anacostia Ave NE, Washington, DC. Mass transportation is difficult as there is no nearby Metro. But the park is easy to reach by bicycle via the Anacostia River Trail, which stretches from Bladensburg, Maryland to SE Washington (home of Nationals Park). There is a bike rack to lock your bike.