The U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG), in Washington DC, has just opened a new exhibit: the Mediterranean room. Part of the Conservatory, this room is full of plants native to or commonly cultivated in Mediterranean climates, characterized by hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters with only occasional frost. Five areas have a Mediterranean climate: the Mediterranean Basin, California, Chile, South Africa, and Australia. These areas produce a wide range of foods reflected in Mediterranean cuisines: fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and unsaturated plant-based fats. Eating a Mediterranean diet has been associated with health benefits such as longer life spans, lower average body weights, and reduction of risks of heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain cancers.
“We are thrilled to showcase the amazing flora of Mediterranean regions, which are some of the most diverse habitats in the world,” said Ari Novy, executive director. “Beyond their ecological value, the Mediterranean regions have given us some of nature’s most enjoyable bounty including olives, figs, and wine. The fruits of the Mediterranean have truly enhanced both our health and cuisines.”
This particular conservatory room has not had a new thematic exhibit in 15 years. The idea germinated several years ago when staff horticulturist Adam Pyle suggested that many of our foods and edible plants come from the Mediterranean region. Additionally, this cuisine has the highest number of foods that people recognize today. In an era where the number of people who produce food has reduced dramatically while the number of people who live in urban areas has increased, most people are not connected to food production, agriculture, and gardening. However, there is a high degree of “relatability” with Mediterranean foods–many people recognize citruses, pomegranates, olives, grapes, and figs, and culinary herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
The Mediterranean room is bright but not hot, colored in soft yellows and blues to complement the yellow and blue tiles of the fountain. On one side is an urn modified to be a fountain and a tiled basin of water and on the opposite side is a 53-foot mural painted in hues of blue against a yellow wall. Rolling pastures, fields of grain, tall cypress trees, and ribbons of blue and purple flowers evoke images of a sunny Mediterranean country.
Visitors may recognize common culinary herbs in terracotta pots: rosemary, sage, thyme, fennel, parsley, and cilantro. More unusual herbs include rue, absinthe (Artemisia absinthium), golden feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium aureum), and fern leaf lavender (Lavandula pinnata). Edibles such as lettuce, kale, and spinach are grouped together in shallow containers. In the ground are fava bean plants, pineapple-guava (Acca sellowiana), bay laurel, fig, pomegranate, olives, and several different types of citruses.
To highlight the yellow and blue tiles in the fountain, flowering plants are strategically placed across the room from the purple-flowered pelargoniums, light lavender heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens ‘Marine’), yellow and peach snapdragons, and pendulous yellow blossoms of the tall flowering maples (Abutilon). One arch is covered with bougainvillea not yet in bloom but the other arch is covered by a black coral pea vine (Kennedia nigricans) blooming with slender black flowers. The sweet pea shrub (Polygala x dalmaisiana) has beautiful purple blossoms and the strawberry tree (Arbutus ‘Marina’) has bunches of cream flowers, very similar to a Pieris.
The Mediterranean room is only the beginning of USBG’s next foray into communicating the importance of food production and agriculture. Devin Dotson, public affairs and exhibits specialist, envisions many activities this year from additional signs highlighting specific plants, special tours, food programs, storytelling, and cooking classes. This new exhibit builds upon and continues USBG’s interest in reconnecting the public with food production and agriculture and the pivotal role all botanical gardens can play in educating people about agricultural and the future of food. USBG has had several exhibits in the past communicating the importance of plants through food such as its Food for Thought exhibit, Amber Waves of Grain, and Exposed: The Secret Life of Roots. The USBG is open to the public, free of charge, every day of the year from 10:00 am to 5:00 p.m. The Conservatory is located at 100 Maryland Avenue, SW, on the southwest side of the Capitol. More information is available at http://www.usbg.gov.