What do you do when a friend invites you to accompany her to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a place you have been wanted to visit for years? And you have your whole day scheduled with an appointment and work?
The offer was made more tempting by a great weather forecast for the next day, with temps in the 70s, low humidity and sunny. Yep, I was going!
So off I went. I expected to see gardens, but instead saw what looked like fields of lilies, lotus flowers and others.
And these were not fields, but ponds. I was rather puzzled until I found the explanation in the visitor’s center. The gardens had been a commercial enterprise started by Walter Shaw, a businessman who bought the land in 1930s. His daughter, Helen Shaw Fowler, took over when he retired, and it was she who put the business on the map. She shipped roots and tubers to Asia where the lotus blossom is highly prized and delivered cut flowers up and down the eastern seaboard. She became the first woman in the District to get a truck driver’s license in order to deliver her lilies.
The blossoms are beautiful.
The lilies vary in color from pond to pond – white, light pink, to dark pink. I find intriguing what is left behind after the lotus sheds its blossom – the yellow center, the multi-chambered ovary, turns to green – looking somewhat like a shower head intermingling with those lilies still in bloom. These are also used in flower arrangements.
I also found a button bush, a rather odd sort of flower that looked like a small round white pin cushion with pins sticking out of it. And did it attract the insects, mostly bees and butterflies.
Speaking of insects, one pest was largely absent: mosquitoes. My friends plied themselves with bug repellent, but I did not – and did not get a bite. That’s because this is marshland buffeted by tides. This means the water is moving, and mosquitoes don’t lay eggs in moving water. Also, there are many other insects, such as dragonflies, that eat mosquitoes. A carnivorous plant, the bladder weed, takes care of the rest.
We came upon a wooden walkway that took us beyond the footpaths between the ponds into a natural marsh. Back in the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers was dredging the Anacostia and this property was in the way. They condemned it, and Fowler fought. She had to give up eight acres of marshland for $15,000. When in the 1990s the Anacostia needed dredging again, the National Park Service, with other agencies, spearheaded an effort to rebuild the marshlands. Once the marshes were reestablished, they built a wooden walkway so visitors could better view the natural life of the area.
At the end the walkway are plenty of places to sit and watch the herons and ducks. I wish had brought binoculars since most of the action was a good distance away.
The walkway did not venture to the river, but there was another path, part of the Anacostia River trail network, which we did not have time to take. The Kenilworth Gardens segment of this trail is still under construction but will, by this time next year, connect the gardens to the National Arboretum via pedestrian bridge. That will make the gardens easier to reach by car from our neighborhood. And it’s well worth the trip.
Getting there: The address is 1550 Anacostia Avenue, NE. The gardens’ National Park Service web site has directions for those arriving by car, by Metro – even by canoe!
When to visit: The gardens are open year-round, but if you want to see blooms, go now! Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens’ flowering plans bloom from early May through early October, but are at their peak in July and August. Enjoy the lilies from early May until mid-September; the pink lotus flowers peak from late June and until mid August; tropical lilies, from mid-June through early October; and the Victoria water lily blooms for a brief period in August. The park’s annual Water Lily & Lotus Festival is Saturday, July 11th. (View photos and information on past festivals here.)
Summer park hours: 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the visitors center opens at 9 a.m. Enjoy daily guided garden walks from 2 to 3 p.m. or explore on your own. If you’re there to see blooms, visit on cooler days or early in the morning because most of the blooms close in the heat of day.