Thoughts of the Lotus and Water Lily Festival pulled me out of my bed and out the door by 7:30 a.m. last Saturday morning. I needed to get a parking spot at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, located in N.E. Washington DC, before the lot filled up.
Experiencing the blooming lotus and water-borne flowers in the early morning is a transcendental experience at the Lotus and Water Lily Festival. . . in my opinion.
“The summer lotus and lily blossoms are a ‘must-see’ during their peak blooming period in July, not unlike viewing the cherry blossoms in the spring.”National Park Service
There is a Sanskrit phrase— “Om mani padme hum”— which perfectly describes the lotus blossom’s beauty: “Praise the jewel in the lotus.”
Many Washingtonians (and visitors) have never participated in the Lotus and Water Lily Festival because they don’t know the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens even exists! But among those in the know, this park is an oasis . . . year-round.
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens sits on the banks of the Anacostia River and features swamp, marsh, and woodland habitats within sight of DC’s urban sprawl. There are acres of marsh, ponds, and native plants to explore.
Lotus and Water Lily Festival
In 2022, the Lotus & Water Lily Festival was split into four weekends each with a specific focus and events (July 9-31). The National Park Service (NPS) partnered with Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens to offer “Wellness,” an outdoor wellness series of classes.
But the star of the festival is the waterborne flowers. They shine like gems—amethyst, morganite (fuchsia), and topaz—in the small ponds. The festival celebrates these exotic flowers that grow in water instead of dirt.
“The stunning sea of pink lotus flowers peaks in late June and lasts until mid-August . . .”Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
The lotus blooms “rise from the muck and lilies sit on the water.” There were bright pink, pale pink, creamy yellow, and white lotus flowers in bloom in mid-July during my visit. I wandered around the ponds, sniffing the blooms wherever I wasn’t at risk of falling into the water. The grassy paths can be quite muddy. I saw one woman slip and fall down.
Set in a shallow green pond, draped in big drooping leaves, the exotic flowers bend and dip like floral ballerinas. The best time to see the lotus flowers in bloom is the morning during late June-July. The flowers’ blossoms close up during the mid-day heat.
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
The optimum time to visit Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is in the summer, so you can see the flowers in bloom. But the lotus plant’s personality can also be glimpsed in the off-season when the colorful flowers disappear.
In the autumn, 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.
Experiencing the Lotus and Water Lily Festival reminds me of a haiku written by Basho in 1668. One of the Japanese Buddhist customs was to bring cut lotus flowers. They were a gift to the spirits and displayed on the “tama dana” (spirit shelf).
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The beauty of reading a haiku is the poet distills the truly essential element of the scene, which often focuses on nature. The more you read the 17 syllables, typically written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, the easier it is to evoke the physical experience.
While the haiku is of Japanese origin, many famous modern poets practice writing in this form. In fact, Ezra Pound’s “In A Station of the Metro” is believed to be the first haiku written in English. He did not follow the traditional 5/7/5 form but his imagery is a stunning example in how to strip a poem of unnecessary verbiage.
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.”Ezra Pound
A lotus blossom unfurls like the 17 syllables in a haiku. Each unrhymed line leads down a path toward understanding.
A Monet Scene
I felt like I might be standing at Monet’s famous Japanese Bridge in Giverny, France when I looked at the bridge straddling a pond at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.
I took this photo in the autumn when it was easy to see the bridge. But in the summer, the stalks of the lotus flower crowd out all views. You’ll need a good zoom lens to stay a photograph.
BTW if you love to paint, draw, or take photos, you should definitely visit Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Inspiration is everywhere.
The Lotus and Water Lily Festival also features art classes. In 2022, there were three types of art classes offered for free—acrylic painting, mixed media, and watercolor painting. In the watercolor painting class, the instructor taught watercolor painting techniques to paint a picture of water lilies from the garden. Attendees painted flowers from the garden at the acrylic painting class and mixed media art class.
Finally, the festival also featured a photography lesson class. I tried to register for the “Smartphonography with Jordana” class, but there was no space. (Note: It is not a misspelling but refers to taking photos on your smartphone.)
Rest & Relax
The heat already climbed past 85 degrees F at 8 am last Saturday. I brought my Golden Retriever Parker, so I needed to find shade. We alternated between walking around the different ponds and resting in the shade.
Our favorite “rest stop” is relaxing in the shade on the bright red Adirondack chairs. They are conveniently located near the pond, so Parker could lay down on the grass. A dragonfly darted around the flowers, providing an insect show for my curious pup.
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.”
According to the National Park Service (NPS), Shaw experimented with growing hardy water lilies that 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.
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).
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.
National Park Site
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 the only NPS site devoted to the propagation and display of aquatic plants.
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.”
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.
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. Their slogan is: “Rediscover Your Backyard Oasis.”
Running June through October, Wellderness features a wide range of activities, including dog pack walks, forest bathing, tai chi, adult art therapy, and live music.
Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens sponsors summer and fall concerts, offering the opportunity to experience the park while enjoying unique local music.
Monthly Photography Contest
The organization offers an annual photography contest. “Our urban oasis filled with artistic inspiration draws photographers from all around the Washington, D.C. metro area each year.” Here is the link to enter the 2022 contest.
Friends of Kenilworth Gardens are always recruiting members to help take care of the park. The organization 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.”
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is open during its normal hours of 8 am to 4 pm daily. (During the Lotus and Water Lily Festival, the park stays open until 8 p.m. on Saturdays.) It is closed three days a year. No reservations are required. It is located at 1550 Anacostia Ave NE, Washington, DC. The park offers free parking at the dedicated parking lot but it fills up quickly on busy weekends.
Mass transportation is difficult. This summer, due to metro construction near the park, visitors won’t be able to ride the rails directly to these stations to walk to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Instead, there will be WMATA shuttles from nearby metro stations.
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. It is a 20-minute bike ride along the scenic Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, starting from the Anacostia Skating Festival to the festival site.
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