The National Arboretum – Lucky To Have It Along Our River

View Up Our River from the Arboretum Dogwood Garden

The National Arboretum comprises over four hundred and fifty acres along the west side of the Anacostia River, just below the New York Avenue Bridge and within DC.  It runs for several hundred yards above a small strip of National Park Service land running alongside the river.

Not only is it an area kept largely in open space; it is managed to maximize its benefit to the river with projects and cooperative activities to improve the quality of the waters entering the river. And the public is welcome to come see them and the rest of the plant studies that are carried out as the main purpose of the location. There is even a dock and entrance along the river for those wishing to arrive by boat.

The managers of the Arboretum recognize that it is a very popular area for the public to visit for recreation. But there is also an opportunity for visitors to learn about how to grow and manage plants. And to that the Arboretum management has added how to manage the lands and waters near the river to minimize adverse effects and maximize the benefits to Anacostia water quality.  We need to thank them for that.

In particular, the Arboretum has shown how to take the storm sewers coming under New York Avenue and, where they enter the property, convert them to natural streams that allow the waters to spread out and contribute to the health of plants while slowing down the storm discharges.  The effort has attracted attention from all over the country and even overseas for the results it has already achieved.

The project was originally planned to get under way on Hickey Run, the major discharge into the Anacostia from the Arboretum. But the upstream clean-up of Hickey was moving too slowly, so it was decided to move the project to its largest tributary, Springhouse Run.

Near where that stream emerged as a ditch from a pipe under New York Avenue, an isolated pond was reconnected to it as it passed nearby, and the ditch was expanded to become a stream. It was so convincing as a new natural area that a group of beavers decided that where it passed through a field down below was a perfect place to build a dam! That just made it seem more natural than ever.

View Up Our River from the Arboretum Camellia Garden

You can follow the signs to the new Springhouse Run and walk along it all the way to where it enters Hickey.  And now that the City has taken action to clean up the Hickey Run upstream, plans are under way to use the lessons learned from Springhouse to turn it into a natural system when it enters the Arboretum. It has an even larger disconnected lake downstream to put into the new “natural” stream.

If you are confused about how to find these places, check in at the FONA (Friends of the National Arboretum) office to your right where you enter on R Street NE.  Or park to your left and walk to the reception in the main office building for a map.

This is also a good time of year to take advantage of some of the vistas of the Anacostia from the Arboretum.  Once the leaves have fallen, there is a great view upstream of a very wild area of the Anacostia from the dogwood collection; simply walk toward the woods above the river. There are also good views from parts of the Asia Gardens, which have trails all the way down to the gate on the river. There is a picnic table down there next to the dock.

All these connections are fun to discover in the Arboretum.  What is odd is that absent a boat it is nearly impossible to get there from the east side of the Anacostia. There are no pedestrian bridges above Benning Road. There are proposals to link parts of Kenilworth Park with a new bridge, and the long-shot possibility of extending the trail on the west side above Benning Road through the islands of the golf course to the Arboretum.

The problem with the bridges is the addition of danger to students learning rowing who can now use the river from Bladensburg to Benning with only one set of large bridges at New York Avenue.  One solution might be to add a pedestrian bridge to the ones already at New York Avenue to connect the Arboretum directly to the Aquatic Gardens on the other side.  It would add little or no danger to the bridges already there.

So our Arboretum is a key part of Our River.  Its streams are undergoing changes to benefit the river.  Its lands provide natural cover for hundreds of acres near the river.  And we can learn lessons from the professionals there about plants and water and flowers and food and sun, shade and forests, and soils and runoff—all the things that done right add to the health and life of Our River.

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, and the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.  He also serves on the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on Citizen Advisory Committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.