Located on a 14 acre parcel along the east bank of the Anacostia River, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is the only National Park that is devoted to the propagation and display of aquatic plants, with a history that is of great significance to the botanical study and development of water plants.
The gardens were initially a hobby for Civil War veteran W.B. Shaw. With a few water lilies from his estate of Maine, and a single pond, he started his hobby venture. As the the plants thrived, he dug more ponds and experimented more in developing hybrid lilies, turning a hobby into a burgeoning business.
In 1921, Helen Shaw Fowler (W.B.’s daughter) agreed to let the public in for a viewing of the lilies one day a week during the blooming season. It’s estimated that up to 6,000 people a day lined up to see lilies growing in their natural state, including many prominent DC residents. Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, and President and Mrs. Wilson were often visitors at the gardens. The gardens ceased commercial operation in 1938.
Today the combined Aquatic Gardens, Kenilworth Marsh, and Kenilworth Park take up 700 acres, and are part of the National Park system. The garden is also included in the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the landmarks of the National Capital. The larger park site also includes ball fields and recreational facilities.
A visit during the summer when the water lilies and lotus are in bloom is a beautiful treat. The vibrant pinks and stark white contrast dramatically against the shades of green. It’s impossible not to be amazed at the wonder of nature. Go early in the day to get the best view of the blooms. As the temperatures near the 90’s, the blooms close up. You can also be able to see some of the other garden denizens, including birds, frogs, turtles, butterflies and dragonflies.
It’s an easy walk around the grounds, but if the temperatures are soaring, you may want to bring some cold water with you. Sunscreen and a hat would also be good to bring along. The gardens cover approximately 12 acres of open ponds, so if you’re bringing children, be sure to keep a close eye on them so they don’t fall into the ponds. Wear sensible walking shoes — these are gardens after all — and if there’s been a recent rainstorm, the ground will be muddy, and the edges of the pond, soft.
Late May through September is the best time for viewing the flowering aquatic plants, so you’re in prime viewing season right now. But if you’re own of season, there’s still a lot to see at the Aquatic Gardens. In the Spring, wildflowers bloom in the surrounding Kenilworth Marsh, Fall brings in spectacular foliage, and Winter is the best time for watching wildlife and birding.
Location: 1550 Anacostia Avenue NE, Washington DC
Hours: 7 am – 4 pm daily
Viewing time: The time needed to see the Gardens will depend on the season, time of day, and temperature. I’d suggest allowing a couple of hours, which will give you time to enjoy the flowers and spend some time relaxing. Be sure to bring your camera with you! You’ll find lots of people there working on their photography skills.
Photo credit: personal collection