Amazing Lotus Flowers and Water Lilies at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

On Saturday, I visited the annual water lily and lotus festival at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. The free festival was from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and billed as a family event.  I arrived early to park nearby but there was a shuttle that ferried people from the metro station and other parking lots. The music had already started. There was a stage with a band, plenty of picnic tables, and paper lotus-shaped lanterns strung from trees. People from several local organizations were setting up tables to either inform the public of their organization, offer crafts for kids, sell or make the paper lanterns, try lotus tea, and other activities. Many families brought coolers to eat lunch; later I spied several food trucks parked on the street. Because this is a national park, there is a small gift shop, plenty of bathrooms, and very informative rangers. There also were volunteer from the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens passing out brochures.

I first saw pools of water lilies (Nymphaea odorata) and then an interesting collection of cannas. I took many photos with only an iPhone — I had no idea this was THE photographic event. Swarms of professional photographers collected on the banks, setting up tripods and taking photos with large equipment.

Down the trail was a field of the sacred Asian lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. There were thousands of blossoms and seed heads with leaves larger than dinner plates. Beyond that were more ponds with water lilies and more lotus. There were many other water loving plants on the paths including buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), swamp mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos),  and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). Frogs, turtles, butterflies, dragonflies, and plenty of birds were in view and I heard there were beavers, ducks, and herons.

Further out was a boardwalk to the Kenilworth Marsh, the last surviving tidal marsh on the Anacostia River. This wild, natural area gives a glimpse of what the river would have looked like 300 years ago when it was inhabited by Nacotchtank American Indians (Jesuit priests later changed the name to Anacostia).

The Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, located within the Anacostia Park, is the only National Park Service unit dedicated to cultivating water loving plants.  It is comprised of more than 45 ponds filled with a variety of tropical and hardy water lilies, lotus, and other aquatic species. This land was originally owned by Walter B. Shaw, a veteran of the Civil War. He had a clerical position with the U.S. Treasury Department and purchased 30 acres in the 1880’s. He planted water lilies from his hometown in Maine in a pond that was used to make ice. As he built more ponds and grew more water lilies, he developed the W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds business. His daughter, Helen, managed the business and traveled the world looking for more varieties of water lilies and lotus. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was ordered to dredge the Anacostia River, threatening to destroy the gardens, Congress purchased 8 acres in 1938 to preserve the area and the plants. The National Park Service received the property and renamed the gardens Kenilworth.

Even though the annual festival is over, the water lilies and lotus are still there in full bloom. Visit in the morning as many flowers will close up in the afternoon or when temperatures are above 90 degrees. The hardy water lilies begin blooming in early May and tropical water lilies bloom from early June through early fall. The lotus bloom from late June through the end of August. I overheard a ranger say that they have the giant Amazonian water lily (Victoria trickeri) but the leaves do not reach mature size until September. If you are interested in volunteering  or learning more about their other events, contact the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

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