I had heard so many wonderful things about the beauty of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens but never had the opportunity to visit before. After today, it will be on my radar every season of the year! While summer is always the busiest time at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – when countless varieties of lotus and water lilies begin their much-awaited display in the ponds – fall, winter and spring also offer an ever-changing showcase for nature’s beauty.
Knowing spots in the adjacent visitor parking lot would be at a premium, Tina O’Connell, executive director of the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens and my personal guide, suggested I meet her in Kenilworth Park. Once a landfill, the park is now home to ball fields and wide-open meadows.
Tina and I walked in the direction of the Anacostia River to pick up a nearly mile-long section of the Anacostia River Walk on our way to the Aquatic Gardens. Safely dodging the steady flow of bikers, joggers, and walkers, we arrived at the park entrance.
As we entered, I was overwhelmed by the mass of visitors toting cameras and the buzz of volunteers helping to muck the invasive seaweed-like parrot feather out of the ponds. The annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival officially held every July, typically sees more than 20,000 visitors during a normal year. This year, while still open for on-site visiting, opening ceremonies and other events have been taking place online.
This breathtakingly unique habitat – nestled into the tidal marshes on the Eastern bank of the Anacostia River – is home to more than 45 ponds filled with a wide variety of native and exotic lotus and water lilies. Surprisingly, it is the only national park site totally devoted to cultivating water-loving plants.
Wetland ponds with water lilies and other wet feet loving plants. Photo by Missy Cassidy
Making our way through the winding pathways surrounding the ponds, we made frequent stops for Tina to point out the many varieties of lotus flowers and describe their various stages of growth – from bulbs, to flowers, to alien-like seed pods – all there for the viewing. Unlike lilies that remain closer to the water, lotus flowers and their leaves rise high above the pond, reaching heights of five to six feet. These exquisite blooms can range in color from white and yellow to dark pink and achieve an average span of eight to twelve inches.
Tina O'Connell with pink sacred lotus, photo by Debra Driscoll
There are more than 36 types of lotus flowers worldwide. In the ponds of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, there are four prevalent varieties, with the yellow American lotus being the only one indigenous to the area. The pink sacred lotus, the empress lotus featuring a little pink on the edge of the flowers, and the Chinese double rose which sports a double bloom, are all exotic and have been imported and nurtured at Kenilworth. Be sure to arrive early enough in the day to enjoy the open lotus blossoms.
Lotus seed pod, photo by Debra Driscoll
Empress lotus, photo by Debra Driscoll
There are two types of water lilies present in the ponds. There are the hardy water lilies that emerge right at water level, and the showy tropical water lilies that rise six to eight inches above the water and have larger blossoms and leaves than the hardy variety. Cold weather has an adverse effect on tropical lilies, so they spend the winter in the on-site greenhouse.
Water lily, photo by Missy Cassidy
Past the man-made ponds, we began our trek along the elevated boardwalk, taking us over three different marsh zones that supply the natural resources to support a very unique and diverse wildlife habitat. It is home to a reported 248 species of birds year-round, with songbirds serenading you in spring and summer and the winter migratory birds and ducks in the winter. As we gaze out over the seemingly-endless acres of marshland, Tina said, “Now, imagine all of this amazing beauty, wildlife, and tranquility being surrounded by the District!” And it’s true! While inside the Aquatic Gardens, you can imagine you’re in the Amazon or some southern delta… and then you hear the rumble of the Amtrak train in the distance… and you remember what a very special place this is to take you away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
A quiet autumn day on the Kenilworth Gardens boardwalk. NPS photo, M. Marquez
Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens also has a very interesting history. In 1879, Civil War veteran Walter Shaw purchased the land and, following a visit to family in Maine, brought back 12 white hardy water lilies he began to grow in a former ice pond he had cleaned out the year before. What started out as a hobby, eventually became a thriving business. His 30 acres, abutting wetlands that most viewed as worthless, was where his lilies would help grow a profitable business. His daughter, Helen Shaw Fowler, became recognized as a world ambassador for water gardening.
In 1938, the gardens were purchased by the Federal government and have been under the management of the National Park Service. Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens was founded to connect people to the park through stewardship, engagement, and education in cooperation with the NPS.
While summer may be peak season, the Aquatic Gardens are enjoyable during all four seasons and take on a special aura with each change in temperature. As the lotuses fade and the leaves change color, the marsh becomes a favorite stop for migratory birds. And the cold of winter is perfect for a nice brisk walk.
Heron takes flight over the marshes. NPS photo, M. Marquez
In the words of Sean McGinty, Public Information Officer with the National Park Service, "Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is a hidden natural oasis just miles east of Capitol Hill. It is home to some of the last remaining untouched wetlands of the Anacostia River and it gives our DC locals a place to escape from the city into beautiful natural surroundings. Our lotus and water lily ponds are the only cultivated aquatic-plant features in the entire National Park system, and their beauty during peak bloom is something everyone in the local area needs to experience."
Following my tour of the Kenilworth Gardens, I returned to Kenilworth Park where I met up with Ariel Trahan, director of river restoration programs for the Anacostia Watershed Society, which was offering river tours in conjunction with the Aquatic Gardens Lotus and Water Lily Festival. We made our way down through the fields to the bank of the Anacostia where we boarded a pontoon boat operated by the Anacostia Watershed Society.
View of the Anacostia River facing south, Debra Driscoll photo
The land on both sides of the Anacostia is under the auspices of the National Park Service and maintained by the Anacostia Watershed Society. Ariel explained that the Watershed Society does a lot of ecosystem restoration work, wetland restoration, freshwater mussel restoration, tree planting, and stormwater management all throughout the watershed. Looking around and having heard what bad condition the Anacostia was in years ago, it’s obvious their game plan is working.
Along the way we observed various varieties of vegetation such as the wild rice that the society has been planting and now grows in abundance. This wild rice is a marvelous food source for the migratory birds and the bald eagles.
As we slowly approached a low Amtrak overpass, I impulsively started to duck and heard Ariel laughing. She explained there is about a three-and-a-half-foot tide right there, which is drastic this far inland and any error in timing high tide could be dicey! It’s all so different being on the water, enjoying the tranquility and taking in the beauty of the wildlife. Prior to this I only fleetingly caught a glimpse of the Anacostia on my way into the District from my home in Annapolis. This will stay with me forever.
Ariel uttered the same sentiment I felt while in Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, “The Anacostia is really an amazing hidden resource! We’re right between Rte. 50/New York Ave and I-295… in the middle of Washington, DC and you don’t see any buildings! Just nature, tons of birds and wildlife! You can’t beat this!”
The Anacostia River facing north, photo by Debra Driscoll
The improvements to the river include many access points for people to rent or launch canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards. And the adjacent Anacostia River Trail, has 20 miles of the intended 28 already completed, providing access to Diamond Teague Park, the historic Navy Yard, RFK Stadium, and Anacostia Park. The trail's most recent section, through Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, connects to the Maryland segment of the trail. The beauty in and around the Anacostia River is something I certainly enjoyed and hope more people will learn about this hidden gem in Washington, DC.
A seasonal guide to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
Anacostia Watershed Society and boat tours
High Tide and Exotic Blooms – Paddling the Anacostia
Paddling the Anacostia – Washington, D.C.’s Forgotten River
Anacostia Park provides open space and recreation along 5 miles of the Anacostia River in the Nation's capital. It includes trails, boat launches, picnic areas, a swimming pool, a pavilion and Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.
The Anacostia River Water Trail covers a nine-mile stretch of the Anacostia River, running from Bladensburg, Maryland, through Washington, DC, to its juncture with the Potomac River about two miles south of Capitol Hill.
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens preserves rare waterlilies and lotuses in the cultivated ponds near the river. The park also contains the Kenilworth Marsh, the only remaining tidal marsh in Washington, D.C.