Where Nature Writes the Laws: A Visit to the National Arboretum in Washington
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This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Bob Doughty. On our program this week: we tell about the United States National Arboretum. The National Arboretum is a peaceful natural area in Washington, D.C. Yet it also is an active center for both scientific research and public education.
Many people who come to Washington are surprised when they first visit the United States National Arboretum. The Arboretum is only a short drive from the center of the city. However, visitors often feel like they are far from the busy American capital.
The National Arboretum covers one-hundred-eighty hectares of green space in the northeast part of Washington. The area is famous for its beautiful flowers, tall trees and other plants. About nine thousand different kinds of plants and trees grow there.
An arboretum is a place where trees and plants are grown for scientific and educational purposes. The National Arboretum was established by an act of Congress in nineteen twenty-seven. Today, the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service operates the Arboretum.
The goal of the Arboretum is to carry out studies and provide education in an effort to improve the environment. The goal includes protecting trees, flowers and other plants and showing them to the public.
The National Arboretum is a popular stop for visitors to Washington. The grounds are open every day of the year except December twenty-fifth, the Christmas holiday. It does not cost money to visit the Arboretum.
As many as six hundred thousand people visit the Arboretum grounds each year. Hundreds of thousands also visit with the help of computers. They use the Arboretum's Internet web site to learn about how to care for plants and current research programs.
Director Thomas Elias says Arboretum officials would like to see even more visitors. He says they believe that many people do not know it exists.
Part of the problem may result from the fact that the Arboretum is about five kilometers from the closest train station. Many famous places in Washington are a short walk from Metrorail, the city's local train system.
The Arboretum is easy to reach by automobile or bus, however. About fifteen kilometers of roads have been built on the property. The roads connect to major collections and seasonal flowers.
The Arboretum also welcomes people on bicycles. Disabled people or those who want to walk only short distances may visit four beautiful areas that are close to each other. People who like longer walks will enjoy the many pathways on the property.
The Arboretum has a small gift store that sells books and other things. Currently, there is no place where you can buy food to eat on the grounds. But, visitors often bring food and enjoy a meal there.
Last year, the Department of Agriculture announced plans for an addition to the Arboretum. American and Chinese officials have agreed to build a traditional Chinese garden on the property. It will cover an area of almost five hectares.
Former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the project would increase the American people's understanding of Chinese garden culture. She said it also would give American scientists a new way to study plants and flowers from China.
A joint team from the two countries is designing the project. Part of the garden will include a small area of fresh water and traditional Chinese buildings. The buildings will have wooden objects similar to those from the Ching and Ming periods of China's history. Examples of traditional handwriting and artwork will be shown there.
Chinese officials say the garden is a gift from the Chinese people to the American people.
Scientists at the Arboretum have developed many of the trees and flowers now found in the United States and other countries. Over the years, the Arboretum and the Agricultural Research Service have released almost seven-hundred different plants. Each year, they offer several new plants.
Scientists there also have developed virus-resistant plants with processes of genetic engineering.
The Sun Valley red maple is one such example. It was developed as part of a project to study the genetic qualities of leaf color and insect resistance. The tree produces leaves that remain bright red late into autumn. It was tested in the state of Maryland. The Sun Valley maple kept its colorful leaves for about two weeks before they fell to the ground. The tree also resisted the potato leafhopper, an insect that feeds on the leaves of trees.
Arboretum scientists have another important goal: to develop cleaner and safer methods to protect and support plant growth. Environmental laws and public opinion against the use of chemical products for killing insects has increased. Arboretum scientists have worked with chemical companies to create products that use natural substances to deal with insects. They call such substances, biopesticides.
The Agricultural Research Service operates a number of centers and laboratories across the United States. The National Arboretum is best known for its beauty. Visitors can always find flowering plants. You can start looking for flowers in the Arboretum's Asian Collections, Friendship Garden and National Boxwood Collection.
There also are some very useful plants at the Arboretum. Next month, the Arboretum will celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of its Herb Garden. Officials say it is the largest designed herb garden in the world.
Herbs can be used in many kinds of food and drinks, but others are medicinal. Herbs also can change the way things smell or add color to cloth. Every plant in the Herb Garden, even the trees, is an herb. The garden contains one hundred different kinds of peppers alone.
The Arboretum has another big event at the end of May. The fifth World Bonsai Convention will be held there.
Bonsai is the art of growing small plants or trees in a container. It is an ancient Asian tradition. The National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the Arboretum has one of the largest collections of these plants in North America. Bonsai is a Japanese word. Penjing is Chinese.
Arboretum employees have been preparing for the Bonsai meeting for the past three years. Events include talks by Bonsai experts, examples of bonsai and penjing trees and educational programs.
Each year, the Arboretum offers a number of educational programs and special events. This Saturday, for example, it will present a talk by a woman who wrote a book about the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington. The yearly event celebrates the flowering of cherry trees.
The Arboretum also has a show of botanical art that will continue through the end of June. The show is presenting beautiful and scientifically correct paintings of endangered Japanese plants.
Officials say it would be difficult for the Arboretum to operate as well as it does without the support of private organizations. The Arboretum has about one-hundred employees. Yet it depends on many other people who offer their time and effort without payment.
For example, the Friends of the National Arboretum is a non-profit group that provides financial support. The money is used for Arboretum training programs, the gardens and collections and special projects. The group also reports to Congress about the Arboretum's special needs.
Another support organization is the National Capital Area Foundation of Garden Clubs. The group has its headquarters at the Arboretum. Its members offer their time to help with the Arboretum's plant collection. They also serve as guides for visitors. They help thousands of people enjoy the National Arboretum, this beautiful natural area in the nation's capital.
This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by George Grow and Caty Weaver, who also was our producer. This is Bob Doughty. And this is Barbara Klein. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.