Smithsonian Gardens: An Oasis in the Heart of the City

“Beauty surrounds us, but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it.” ― Rumi

During the District’s hot summer days, we often seek shade and escape in nature. This has been especially true in 2020, as COVID-19 shutdowns have meant closed doors at museums and other attractions downtown. The Smithsonian Gardens, which include 13 horticultural delights sprinkled around the Mall, are perfect places to get away from it all in the heart of the city. Currently, a few of the gated gardens are closed, but there is still so much to explore. Here’s a rundown of some of our favorite spots.

Common Ground: Our American Garden

Common Grounds. ©Miki Jourdan

Located on the Mall side of the National Museum of American History, Common Ground features plants and herbs “selected for their importance to Americans.”

Per the Smithsonian, “The colorful landscape features flowers, herbs, and other plants selected for their importance to Americans as ways of honoring Memory, providing Healing, promoting Discovery, and inspiring Ingenuity.”

Flowers adorning the National Museum of American History. ©Miki Jourdan

Enid A. Haupt Garden

Located in front the the Smithsonian Castle, the Haupt Garden is perhaps the most high-profile space in the Smithsonian Garden collection. [Editor’s note: The Haupt Garden has been closed since the spring, but will reopen on Monday, Aug. 17.] It has three separate sections. Its centerpiece is the Parterre, a manicured lawn with a palette of plantings, colors, and shapes that changes over the course of the year.

The Parterre at the Enid A. Haupt Garden. ©Angela Napili
The Parterre at the Enid A. Haupt Garden. ©Angela Napili
Haupt Garden blooms. ©Angela Napili

Per the Smithsonian, Haupt’s Moongate Garden, which includes two nine-foot-tall pink granite moon gates, “was inspired by the gardens and architecture of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China.”

The Moongate at Haupt Garden. ©Angela Napili

The third section, located next to the entrance to the National Museum of African Art, is the Fountain Garden.

Sparrows playing in the fountain at Haupt Garden. ©Miki Jourdan

In 2014, the the Smithsonian South Mall Campus Master Plan, which proposed radical changes to the Haupt Garden space, was unveiled. After considerable protest, a revised design was offered that was intended retain “the character and feel” of the original Haupt Garden space.

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden sits 14 feet below the surface of the Mall. Its main attraction is, of course, the sculpture, which is enhanced with plantings. [Note: This space has been closed since the spring, but will reopen on Monday, Aug. 17.]

©Angela Napili
Henry Moore’s Reclining Woman, in a less sultry season. ©Victoria Pickering

Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden

Located in front of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building since 1998, this garden features disease-resistant roses as well as other planting to attract pollinators.

Its fountain is popular with the birds.

A starling takes a dip. ©Miki Jourdan

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

If the Haupt Garden’s Parterre has a certain formal flair, the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden serves as its more informal counterpart. Per the Smithsonian, “Its unusual curvilinear design—the work of noted Washington, D.C., architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen—along with a profusion of flowers in raised beds, creates a distinctive sense of intimacy and informality.”

The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. ©Miki Jourdan

Insects also find the Ripley Garden to be a relaxing spot.

National Museum of African American History and Culture Landscape

The Smithsonian explains that “NMAAHC and its surrounding landscape stand as a memorial honoring African American history and culture within the larger story of America as told on the National Mall” and that the garden serves as a space for visitor reflection.

©Miki Jourdan

The garden also provides a pastoral frame for the Washington Monument.

©Miki Jourdan

Native Landscape at the National Museum of the American Indian

The 150 species of plant featured on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian are intended to reflect the landscape that existed prior to European Contact. The Smithsonian explains that the plantings are “ethnobotanical, and can be used for food, fiber, dye, medicine, ceremonies, building materials.”

©Miki Jourdan
©Miki Jourdan

Pollinator Garden

The Smithsonian tells us that nearly 90% of flowering plants count on animal pollinators — including bees, butterflies, beetles, and even bats — for fertilization. The Smithsonian Pollinator Garden showcases the relationship between flowering plants and their pollinators.

Pollinating butterfly. ©Miki Jourdan

The garden tells the story of pollination with artwork and educational signs.

Beehive artwork. ©Miki Jourdan
Signs help tell the story. ©Miki Jourdan
The tiniest pollinator. ©Miki Jourdan

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