February 19, 2010

Native Forest

In November 2009 we went to Washington DC to visit the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.  It was a remarkable visit, for lots of reasons that belong in another blog.  Today I'll just show the gardeners out there what amazed me about the landscaping around the museum.

Indian curators and architects created a native forest around the incredibly evocative sandstone museum building.  The forest is representative of what existed in the northeast / mid atlantic landscape when Europeans first arrived.

What is so amazing is that this forest lives right on the Mall, in a busy, tourist-saturated urban area of DC.  Directly behind this sylvan scene are tour buses idling.  You wouldn't know!  That fluttery yellow tree left center is a paw paw (Asimina triloba), a custard apple, a wonderfully quirky native tree that produces giant banana flavored fruits.  It's just weird:

The waterfall on the entrance terrace adds a rushing splashy noisy patter that helps mask the sounds of traffic just feet away, so you really do feel isolated from the urban setting:

Only a few yards separate me here from busy streets, cars, buses and traffic.  Third Street SW is just beyond the far edge of the water behind me, then it's just a block and a half to the Capitol:

It was eye opening how this forest created such a sense of calmness, wonder and peace in such a small space.  This is not an urban botanical garden or public park.  It was literally a buffer strip of just a few yards between the entrance plaza of the museum and the street. Jim was concerned that the "evergreen" trees were brown and dying but I assured him those were Baldcypresses (Taxodium distichum) and they're supposed to look like that in the Fall.  They turn reddish brown and drop their needles for winter, and they love standing in water:

The museum just opened in 2004, so the plantings are new, barely 5 years old. It looks so very full and mature because many young plants were set very close to each other.  There are red maples and tuliptrees and oaks planted closely among the laurels and fothergillas and viburnums in what is really just a very big raised planter at the front.  These huge forest trees will quickly outgrow the narrow strip they inhabit here.  It will be interesting to see how the museum copes with that as the trees grow.

It's the same dilemma I have: how to "forest" my little space with trees and shrubs, making a woodland screen that instantly pleases and looks natural but won't completely overpower my yard in a few years.  I know it can't be done.  If planted too closely, like the trees are at the museum, they will soon be too crowded.  If planted to allow for space, I end up with strands of mulchbeds and isolated blobs of shrubs and saplings, not the effect you see here.

With perennials you can overplant and thin in subsequent years.  With trees and shrubs it's harder.  I will come back to DC to see what the Indians do with their marvelous, magical, dense urban forest in a few years.

For much more:


  1. I love the idea of an urban forest, and that water feature is beautiful.

  2. Cyndy: it really is amazing how an urban forest changes your experience of a city.

  3. Hi Laurrie - what a great post! I was there with my family in the spring of 2009, and we sat in that courtyard after visiting the museum and let our kiddos run and run and run. I was loving the garden / forest - I remember it was one of the first warm days of the spring. I just looked through my pics and found a great shot of a red winged blackbird who was hanging out with us. It was a great day of enjoying the city and the forest. Thanks for visiting and leaving a memory on my blog! Kelly

  4. Kelly: I'm glad you had a chance to visit the museum and it sounds like you had the perfect day for it. And I hope you got to see a lot of DC -- a great place to take kids!

  5. Fascinating building. Landscaping makes all the difference. I think trees can create such an oasis in the middle of anything.

    P.S. I am trying to decide on trees and shrubs in my yard - it's hard!

  6. Garden Ms. S - it is hard to select trees and shrubs, but I am having a ball doing the research and designing what will go where in my yard. I've already planted so many, and have plans for more -- wishing I had more acreage :) I'll be interested to see what you select over time for your northern "forest"!


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