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Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Washington, DC

Hidden deep in a northeast DC neighborhood is one of the city’s best kept secrets, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Every summer from late July into early August this series of murky ponds on the edge of the Anacostia River erupt with hundreds of colossal lotus flowers and numerous varieties of water lilies. The sight of the aquatic gardens in full bloom is something that will take your breath away and have you coming back year after year. The magic of this place is enhanced by its strange location and how it has managed to preserve and expand upon a section of original tide marsh of the Anacostia River.

The most unique thing about the aquatic garden is the layout of various-sized ponds interspersed with meandering dirt pathways and the occasional quaint little bridge. You enter the park through an unassuming group of trees that opens up to two large pools dotted with clusters of water lilies. After the initial pleasure and distraction of the lily ponds, you notice the army of lotus flowers rising up in all directions. There are several large ponds filled with lotuses in hues of pure white and deep glowing pink atop stalks that are as tall as a grown person, and taller. In full bloom some flowers reach 8 inches across, and the stalks are surrounded in massive velvety leaves on which small drops of water seem to hover like glass beads. The sheer quantity of these symbolic blossoms is what makes this park such an experience. In all the gardens I have visited, I have never seen such an impressive collection of lotus flowers.

When the flowers or the heat become too much, you can take the boardwalk through the trees into the preserved tidal marsh, apparently the only one left in the city. The park is worth visiting other times of year as well: one spring I found the ponds devoid of lotus flowers but surrounded by beautiful yellow irises. Also make sure to explore the area hidden behind the visitor center where there are several pools of ancient and extremely rare water lilies.

These exotic water lilies and lotuses were originally imported by enthusiast Walter B. Shaw when he moved to the area from Maine in the early 1800s. The marshy land on the edge of the river seemed to be ideal for water gardening. As his plants began to flourish in their new environment, Shaw tried out more varieties, eventually opening a public park to show off the collection he had amassed. Shaw Gardens was run jointly by Shaw and his daughter Helen Shaw Fowler until his death in 1921, when she took over the popular attraction. Helen is famously noted for petitioning the government to save the land from a river-dredging project in the 1930s. Congress later purchased the land, turning it into a national park.

Final Rating: Once I discovered this secret spot, it joined the ranks of places I insist on visiting every year such as the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin or azaleas at the Arboretum. This is a place that is worthy of being visited by throngs of tourists, but luckily it seems they haven’t found it yet. In the extreme sun and temperatures of late summer there is little shade to be found but insiders say to come in the early morning to avoid the heat and to witness the lotuses opening as the sun rises. FOUR BLOOM RATING

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