By Punch Pulse Correspondent Niki ClarkÂ
I have lived in the Washington area for the better part of 12 years, and although I had heard of the National Arboretum, I had never visited. That changed when I was invited to the Great National Cookout Under the Stars, the annual fundraiser of the Friends of the National Arboretum (FONA). On the drive there, I looked at my GPS more than onceâ€”itâ€™s located in area off New York Avenue where youâ€™re more likely to find unoccupied buildings and dilapidated gas stations. But once you arrive, a literal oasis is there to greet you.
Upon parking, my eyes first landed on a series of statuesque Corinthian columns, which in 1825 had called the U.S. Capitol its home. They served as the backdrop for some two dozen presidential inaugurations, from Andrew Jackson to Dwight Eisenhower and stood witness to Lincolnâ€™s famous second inaugural address. After determining in 1958 to be too fragile to support the building, the columns were housed on the banks of the Anacostia River, finding their permanent home in a meadow of the Arboretum in 1990. Itâ€™s a spectacular sight to behold.
Each year, the Cookout celebrates an individual state with strong agricultural ties Â as the Arboretum serves as a research and education facility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Â Iowa was this yearâ€™s honoree, with some ten Senators and Representatives in attendance, including Iowaâ€™s own Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin. Senator Harkin, soon to be retiring, was the nightâ€™s guest of honor, receiving an appropriate gift: an apple tree cultivated from an ancestor of the Hawkeye, the original strain of todayâ€™s Red Delicious.
More than six hundred guests celebrated, enjoying Iowan-sourced cuisine such as honey apple pork loin, Iowa corn souffle, barley salad, corn muffins, and apple dumplings and ice cream. Â A tram was available for tours of the grounds, taking visitors past the Azalea Collection (a flower the Arboretum played a major role in introducing), the Asian Collection, National Herb Garden and Fern Valley and the famed Bonsai Museum.
I had the pleasure of sitting next to Paul Sweet, who serves as the board secretary for FONA. He told me of some of the fascinating programs the Arboretum has. The Washington Youth Garden introduces area youngsters to horticulture, where they learn about nutrition, environmental issues, and agriculture and opens up opportunities for a depressed area of the city.
Sweet said funding was a challenge, as with many other government programs. They recently closed grounds to the general public three days a week and although the Chinese government has donated a complete Chinese Garden to the Arboretum, they lack the funding for infrastructure. He hoped that events like the Cookout would raise awareness of this national treasure.
The National Arboretum is definitely a place worth exploring. Just check TripAdvisor; itâ€™s ranked as #3 in DC outdoor attractions and #24 in overall DC attractions. For information for hours and features, visit http://www.usna.usda.gov.