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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.)
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.
In 2020, the trees blossomed 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 2020. City residents sighed in collective relief to get back access to “our” garden.
The saucer magnolias always bloom before the Yoshino cherry trees at the Tidal Basin. Due to unusually warm weather in 2023, the trees reached their peak in early March.
I like to visit the EH Garden at sunrise. Often I have the garden entirely to myself. So my dog Parker and I roam among the trees, talking to the birds that nest high above us 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.
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.”
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.
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.
Spending time in nature is how I have survived the pandemic. When the walls of my DC condo seemed to close in around me, I raced outside to wander. And no where did 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!
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.
Haupt also financed the Haupt Fountains at the Ellipse (between the Washington Monument and the White House).
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