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An Urban Oasis on the Anacostia

This article launches Under Your Nose, a new feature highlighting destinations just a short drive, bus or Metro ride from the Capitol.

Imagine serenity. Imagine taking a deep breath of fresh air as a red-shouldered hawk calls in the distance. Imagine being surrounded by trees and sidestepping Canada geese as the sunlight illuminates 14 acres of aquatic gardens. Now imagine all of this just a short drive away in Northeast Washington along the east bank of the Anacostia River.

Described as a “jewel within itself” by one of its gardeners, the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is the only National Park Service site in the U.S. dedicated to the propagation and display of aquatic plants. Perhaps most well known for its waterlilies, the gardens also feature lotus and tropicals, all of which are best viewed from late May to September.

While it might be hard to imagine such a place so close to the hustle and bustle of the nation’s capital, the aquatic gardens have been around for quite a while. Started in 1882 as a hobby of Civil War veteran W.B. Shaw, he and his daughter, L. Helen Fowler, operated the land as a commercial water garden for 26 years. Fowler sold the gardens to the government for $17,000 in 1938, when the land became part of the National Park Service. Still on the grounds today are operational greenhouses dating back to 1913.

Surrounding the aquatic gardens on three sides is the 77-acre Kenilworth Marsh, which is the last tidal marsh in D.C. It has suffered from pollution, dredging and filling activities throughout the years, but portions of the marsh were reconstructed in the early 1990s and it still supports a variety of wetland plant and wildlife species that one would not expect to find in the District, such as wild rice, beaver, spotted salamanders and long-billed marsh wrens.

The marsh is best viewed along the 0.7-mile river trail, which ends at the channel that connects the marsh to the Anacostia River. The river trail is accessible from the aquatic gardens, as is the boardwalk that grants visitors a view of the marsh from the opposite side of the trail. The expansive boardwalk is a great place for birdwatching (see related chart) and is dotted with benches, allowing onlookers to sit and take in their surroundings.

This hidden gem along the Anacostia River is open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Gregory Dodson, gardener work leader at the aquatic gardens, said the most popular time of the year for visitors is the annual waterlily festival, scheduled this year for July 16. For more information, contact a park ranger at (202) 426-6905.

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