Discover Washington DC's Historic Lily and Lotus Flowers


By Julie Dee Suman


ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Travel writer and photographer Julie Dee Suman who gives an overview on what to experience at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Listen here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on PodBean, or SoundCloud.

What famous ancient flower blooms in Washington DC? No, it’s not cherry blossoms. Instead, gigantic lotus flowers blossom at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a National Park Service site. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens’ natural landscape represents what the area looked like when our forefathers founded DC. Nature abounds in this hidden gem, and you’ll almost forget that you’re in a city of over 700,000.

From Family Business to Preservation
In the early 1880s, Walter B. Shaw purchased 30 acres along the Anacostia River. The wetlands were considered useless, but Walter saw an opportunity as an avid nature-lover. He relocated 12 white water lilies from his home state of Maine to ponds he carved out from the District’s marshy land. From there, he began his career cultivating aquatic plants at Shaw Gardens and sharing that love with his daughter, Helen.

Helen Shaw Fowler took over the administration of Shaw Gardens in 1912. In her lifetime, Helen became a world-recognized advocate for water gardening. In the 1920s, Congress wanted to dredge the Anacostia River. Helen and her brother successfully lobbied Congress to protect the 42 ponds covering 9 acres with 500,000 plants. As a result, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens was established in 1938.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is the only national park site dedicated to cultivating aquatic plants. If you’re a flower lover, summertime in the gardens is a must. Visitors wander grassy paths that divide the ponds. Tropical and hardy water lilies thrive in these ponds that look like blankets of green dotted with white, purple, and pink petals. The lilies bloom for 3 to 14 days and open their petals during daylight hours. Therefore, it’s best to arrive early in the morning during warm summer days as the blooms will close in the afternoon heat.

Long seen as a sacred symbol, the pink-tinged East Indian lotus at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens are descendants of seeds estimated to be 640 to 960 years old. You’ll also see native yellow American lotus here. The lotus flowers begin to flourish toward the end of June, some growing five to six feet tall. From the proper perspective, you feel like you’re standing in a forest of flowers. But, like the lilies, the lotus flowers will close in the afternoon heat.

Lotus and Water Lily Festival
The Lotus and Water Lily Festival, held annually when the flowers reach their peak, will occur July 9-31, 2022. It’s a magnificent time of the year to marvel at the fields of aquatic flowers. Each weekend brings family fun and activities such as yoga, tai chi, art classes, wildlife presentations, music, and dance. There will also be ranger lead tours, photography classes, and a 5K walk along the Anacostia River. During the festival, Saturday park hours are extended from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.


Birder’s Paradise
Beyond the marshy fields of lilies and lotuses, a boardwalk trail winds through wetlands to the Anacostia River Tidal Marsh. Viewing platforms with bench seating invite you to spend time observing life in the mud flats and Kenilworth Marsh. Visitors may spot Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Red-wing Blackbirds, beavers, and turtles.

During a recent visit, Yellow-billed Cuckoos were flittering around the greenery. In addition, bald eagles, which nest at the National Arboretum, and Ospreys can be spotted diving for fish. With over 240 species of birds, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens boasts the largest species of birds in the DC area.

The Visitor Center contains educational displays on park history and aquatic gardens. A fun-filled children’s corner with books and a small wildlife diorama provides entertainment for the little ones. In the bookstore, you’ll find books on gardening and history, souvenirs, and bottled water. It’s also a great place to chat with a park ranger.

Community Resource
One of the more endearing aspects of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is that it prides itself on being a community resource. Picnic tables around the property encourage families to spend time in nature. Red Adirondack chairs sporadically placed along the ponds invite you to sit and recharge.

The park also hosts community events. For example, a poetry event was running during a recent visit. Note: the park rangers request to call for group events in advance. A WELLderness: An Outdoor Wellness Series, sponsored by the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, runs this summer and fall. The series includes activities ranging from canoe tours, yoga, and forest bathing to art classes.

Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Besides building community relationships, the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens engages volunteers to help maintain the park and support public programs and youth education. Their calendar of events is full of ideas and activities in the park.

Volunteers assist one weekend a month with clean-up and gardening. While park rangers are available to perform maintenance, additional support is needed. You may see volunteers in hip waders gathering invasive plants such as Hydrilla and Parrot-feather from the ponds.

Anacostia Park
The 0.25-mile River Trail from Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens leads to the 3.5-mile Anacostia River Trail, which bustles with bicycles and pedestrian traffic. One thousand two hundred acres were reclaimed in the early 20th century to form a riverside park known as Anacostia Park. In addition to trails, Anacostia Park is a vibrant destination with playgrounds, ball fields, picnic areas, and shoreline access.

If You Go
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is more than a summer destination. Cherry blossoms and magnolia trees bloom in the spring. You can appreciate the fall foliage and see Victoria lilies’ broad pads in the fall. And migratory birds arrive for the winter months. For more information, please check out:

Julie Dee Suman is a Maryland-based freelance travel writer and photographer. She has traveled extensively including over 45 countries across 5 continents. In addition to featuring the Mid-Atlantic Region, Julie enjoys destination travel with a focus on nature and wildlife excursions. She is a member of the Travel Writers Café, International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA), and TravMedia.  Julie is also a pharmaceutical scientist and co-editor of Respiratory Drug Delivery. Her research has been published in peer-reviewed journals and trade magazines.

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