There’s an amazing oasis right in the heart of Washington DC, nestled near the banks of the Anacostia River. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a series of cultivated ponds filled with waterlilies and lotuses. Adjacent to the ponds is Kenilworth Marsh, the largest remaining tidal marsh in the nation’s capital.
Here you’ll find a variety of plans and animals that once called the region home before progress and urban sprawl destroyed their habitat. In addition to the waterlilies and lotuses, wildflowers and native wetlands plants thrive, allowing amphibians, birds, fish and insects to live in the marshland. Racoons, beaver, deer, fox, muskrats, turtles and frogs, heron, egrets, red-winged blackbirds and more call this place home.
Once Called Shaw Gardens
Civil War veteran Walter B Shaw purchased the land where Kenilworth Gardens is now in the 1880s. A native of Maine, he was homesick for the plants native to his home state. So he did what we tend to do — he planted the plants — native Maine waterlilies — that made him happy. And they thrived. Thrilled with the results, he brought in more plants, and soon founded a business: W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds.
Under Shaw’s tending, the water gardens blended plant sales with aesthetic beauty and the business became the largest aquatic plant business in the nation, with not only local sales but shipping to New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. Shaw’s daughter, Helen Shaw Fowler, took over Shaw Lily Ponds in 1912.
The Original Washington Daytrip
Shaw Lily Ponds was still a prospering business between the two world wars that attracted the attention — and visits — of Washingtonians, including U.S. presidents, among them President Woodrow Wilson. First Ladies Florence Harding and Grace Coolidge also frequented the gardens, as well as visitors from all socio-economic levels, since a good daytrip destination is a good daytrip destination. These visitors picnicked among the ponds — still possible with the numerous picnic tables strategically placed around the park.
Shaw died in 1921. Unfortunately, by this time the nearby Anacostia River had become filled with silt making navigation on the river difficult. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river, nearly destroying the gardens. Fowler fought to save the gardens for nearly two decades. Finally, in 1938, she convinced the U.S. Congress to authorize the purchase of the gardens for $15,000 to create the park.
Today at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Your visit to the aquatic gardens will probably take up to two hours. You’ll stroll among the gardens reading the various information signs, which discuss the flora and fauna and the history of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Top off your visit with a jaunt down the boardwalk, which takes you into the restored marsh, which is a stark yet incredibly beautiful contrast with the more cultivated lily and lotus ponds.
Every year in July, the park holds a Lotus and Lily Festival, with a variety of events, including many geared for children, as well as live music concerts.
Know Before You Go
Late June and July are good times to visit the aquatic gardens. The lotus begin blooming late June, continuing through the first weeks of July. There is limited parking within the park. Bring hats, sunscreen, umbrellas, binoculars, cameras and your kids (if you have them and are so inclined).
Getting there: 1550 Anacostia Avenue, NE, Washington, DC
Hours: Open 8 am to 4 pm daily. Closed January 1, Thanksgiving, and December 25
Website: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens NPS
If you like lily ponds, then you might like Lilypons Water Gardens.
There are numerous botanical gardens in the mid-Atlantic region worth a visit!