US National Arboretum


So Close–Yet So Far Away

picture of part of the asian collection
Asian plants are fascinating, not only for their diversity, but also because they bear a close resemblance to our native Eastern United States flora.  This close kinship is a result of the Bering Sea land bridge that once connected our native flora with that of Eastern Asia.  Until the seas and climate change cut the temperate forest into two distinct pieces, the two areas shared a common flora.  Many of the plants in the Asian Collections bear a striking similarity to our native trees and shrubs.

The Asian Collections are some of  the Arboretum’s most dramatic.  The terrain slopes steeply from the heights of Hickey Hill to the placid Anacostia River, and a dazzling array of plants adorns the slopes; in this collection, something is blooming in every month of the year.  The south facing slopes also impart one of the warmest microclimates available at the Arboretum; Taiwania, Daphniphyllum, and other plants that are tender north of Washington, DC are grown here.

Each part of the Asian Collections evokes a different mood.  The Camellia Collection is in full splendor in mid-Autumn with the blooming of cold hardy camellias.  Witchhazels and Japanese apricots bloom on the open vistas on the north side of Hickey Hill in late winter.  The Japanese Woodland is a place of subdued shade that invites you to explore the details of bark, leaves, texture, and flowers of woodland plants.  Asian Valley offers dramatic views, bog primulas that bloom in spring, and the rare dove tree.  China Valley is more open; the winding path passes through a paradise of plants.  The Korean Hillside located near the top of Hickey Hill is set against a backdrop of white pines.  There is always something new to discover no matter how often you visit.

Some of the Asian Collections are very old, while others are new additions.  The earliest plantings took place in 1949.  The Garden Club of America donated the funds to construct a plaza at the top of Asian Valley and develop extensive plantings of representative Asian flora in 1963.  The red pagoda, which is styled after a Chinese pagoda, was also constructed with funds donated by the Garden Club of America.  The present structure, reconstructed in 1996, sits atop a knoll on the ridge that separates China Valley and Asian Valley and provides a panoramic view of Asian Valley, China Valley, and the Anacostia River.

Hard winters in the late 1970s all but eliminated the original Camellia Collection.  A few hardy individuals survived.  One notable tea-oil camellia survived without injury and went on to become a parent for Dr. William Ackerman's hardy camellia hybrids.  The Winter Series resulted from this work, and the surviving plant also became an Arboretum introduction called 'Lu Shan Snow'.

In the early 1980's, the U.S. National Arboretum took the lead in working in cooperation with other botanical gardens and arboreta to further explore and collect plants from various parts of China.   The North American China Plant Exploration Consortium (NACPEC) was born in the early 1990's to formalize this working relationship.  Its main mission is to broaden the genetic diversity of Asian plants in our gardens.  Many plants native to China and other East Asian countries were first introduced to the United States in the late 1800's, but the original collections did not represent the full range of natural genetic diversity found within a given species.  There is a need to collect new specimens of these plants if improved ornamental characteristics, enhanced tolerance of heat, cold, and drought, and better resistance to pests and diseases are to be realized.  Burgeoning development and habitat loss in Asia has made the need for this exploration even more urgent.

The Asian Collections cloaks 13 acres of slopes from the top of Hickey Hill to the Anacostia River.  None of the trails are handicapped accessible in this collection, and good walking shoes are must.  Most visitors drive to the collection and park in the small parking lot near the top of Hickey Hill.  From here, visitors can easily explore the Japanese Woodland, wend their way through the top of Asian Valley, and end up in China Valley.

Most visitors spend a minimum of one hour in the Asian Collections.  Be sure to budget some time for resting and admiring the view.  Other collections are easily accessed from this area, and many visitors continue their visit in the Conifer Collections, the Dogwood Collection, and the Holly Magnolia Collection.

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Last Updated   December 2, 2005 12:09 PM
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