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Stopping to Smell the Roses, and Lots More, at the Botanic Garden


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VOICE ONE:

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I’m Pat Bodnar.

VOICE TWO:

And I’m Bob Doughty. This week, we tell about the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. It is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the country. Botanical gardens provide a protected area for green plants, flowing plants and trees. They also are place for education and scientific research.

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VOICE ONE:

The thin green leaves of fern plants seem to reach out to welcome visitors as they enter the United States Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden is just a short walk from the United States Capitol building. Plants from around the world grow there. Plants also grow across the street in the Frederic Auguste Bartholdi Park.

People come to the Botanic Garden to see its large collection of flowers, trees and other plants. It is probably one of the most beautiful places to see in Washington.

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From early April through early June, the Botanic Garden is presenting an exhibit that honors its beginnings. The show will recognize the United States Exploring Expedition. The expedition was a navy trip made for scientific research in the nineteenth century. Some educators say it was America’s most important scientific naval exploration before the Civil War.

The trip began on August eighth, eighteen thirty-eight. At the time, a Navy officer named Charles Wilkes led ships from the eastern state of Virginia on scientific travels.

Wilkes commanded the flagship Vincennes. Five other ships started traveling with the Vincennes. Wilkes’s group visited South America and the west coast of North America. It also traveled to Southeast Asia, the southern Pacific Ocean and even South Africa. The one hundred forty thousand-kilometer trip became known as the Wilkes Expedition.

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Artists and scientists joined the crew of the Wilkes Expedition. Crewmembers made fun of the scientists. The sailors called them insect catchers. But these insect catchers did important work. They collected more than sixty-thousand kinds of plants and birds.

Charles Wilkes also explored Antarctica. He described it as not just a big piece of ice, but a continent. Historians remember him as a great sailor and explorer.

After he returned, the Navy brought charges against Wilkes for striking members of his crew. He was accused of using severe beatings as punishment. During his life, Wilkes defended himself two times against charges in a military court. But he did not earn much love from his sailors.

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The Wilkes Expedition brought the start of an international collection of seeds, birds and plants to the United States. They added to the richness of nature in the country.

The living plants and seeds were taken to a specially built greenhouse near the Old Patent Office Building in Washington. A greenhouse is a building with a glass top and sides where plants can grow in cold weather. Later, the plants were given to the newly formed Smithsonian Institution. The seeds became part of its collections.

The new Botanic Garden exhibit honoring Wilkes’s gifts to America opens today [April 4]. A vessel fern in the Garden’s collection will be among the objects shown. The plant with its thin leaves is believed to have developed directly from a fern from the Wilkes expedition.

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About a year ago, the Botanic Garden showed a much older kind of plant -- a Wollemi pine. The plant came from trees that existed in the age of dinosaurs. Until eleven years ago, it was believed that the last similar Wollemi lived ninety million years ago.

A special container protected the three-year-old pine tree while in the Botanic Garden. The loan of the pine was part of a cooperative program with plant and wildlife organizations in Australia. About one hundred Wollemi were found near Sydney in nineteen ninety-five. Only a few people know where the plants were discovered. Experts fear that people might harm them.

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Another unusual plant was shown at the Botanic Garden in July of two thousand three. Many thousands of people stood in line to see a rare flower from Indonesia. The Titan Arum opens every one to three years. Its flower lasts only a few days. While the flower is open, the Titan Arum smells terrible.

The Botanic Garden could have shown the flower longer. But experts decided that its condition was worsening. They thought the flower might have died by the next day. The Botanic Garden wanted to save parts of the flower to let it open again. So a plant expert was called in. He was asked to prepare the Titan Arum so it could be saved.

Workers cut away the parts above ground. But the lower part is in a sleeping condition. Sometime within the next several years, it will send up leafy parts. They will make food for the flower. That process is expected to provide enough energy for Titan Arum to flower again.

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Protecting and restoring plant life is important to the Botanic Garden. In June, the Garden is taking part in presenting a training program toward that goal. The Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado is assisting with the program.

An organization called the Center for Plant Conservation will teach the genetics involved in protecting plants. It also will explore the science of growing flowers, fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants. These plants include flowers like roses and trees like holly trees. Holly is known for its small red fruit, or berries.

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About four thousand plants grow in the Botanic Garden. Experts have placed the plants in different areas designed to meet their special requirements. Each area has different environmental needs for the plants growing in it. Light from the glass covering falls from high above. Modern equipment controls the temperature, water and other needs of each plant group.

The tradition leading to the present Botanic Garden began almost two hundred years ago. In eighteen sixteen, a cultural organization in Washington proposed creating a special garden. This garden was to have plants from the United States and other nations.

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Four years later, Congress established the garden of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences. The plants were grown in an area west of the Capitol building until eighteen thirty-seven. The Columbian Institute stopped meeting that year. People in Washington, however, did not want to be without a garden. So a new greenhouse was built.

In eighteen forty-two, Charles Wilkes and his group gave two hundred fifty four living plants to the new greenhouse. A few years later, workers moved the plants into another structure. They were now on the land where the first garden had been. In nineteen thirty-three, the current greenhouse, called the conservatory, was built.

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The United States Botanic Garden offers a number of services to the public. The Botanic Garden answers requests about plants. It also holds special education programs. Many of these programs are free to anyone who wants to attend.

The Botanic Garden works with local and national garden groups and scientific organizations. It exchanges plants with them and helps them develop educational programs. And it holds special flower shows throughout the year. One show, for example, celebrates the Christmas holiday.

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The Botanic Garden continues to grow and change. A private group is raising money for a National Garden. It is being built just west of the Botanic Garden.

Several areas are planned for the National Garden. An Environmental Learning Center will offer space for teaching science and gardening. Visitors to the National Garden will also see many grasses, flowers and other plants native to the Washington area. One area will be filled with hundreds of historical and modern roses. A butterfly garden will have plants often visited by these colorful insects. Young visitors will be able to play in a children’s garden. And, a water garden will honor the wives of American Presidents.

The United States Botanic Garden has existed for many years. It continues to prove that beauty and science go together.

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VOICE TWO:

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Jerilyn Watson. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. I’m Bob Doughty.

VOICE ONE:

And I’m Pat Bodnar. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

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