Before the pandemic, I visited the annual water lily and lotus festival at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens. The free, family event was all day long in July. 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. There was a small gift shop, plenty of bathrooms, and very informative rangers. There also were volunteer from the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens distributing brochures.
I have not been back though because of the pandemic. This month, July 2022, the festival is back but in a different shape. It is not a one-day event, it will be held on four July weekends, starting with July 9. Each weekend will have a focus or theme and events. In addition, the park will extend hours to 8:00 pm each Saturday. On Wednesday, the park will feature kid’s programs from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm such as art activities, a drumming class, and hands-on nature activities. Check out their website for more detailed information.
When I went in July a few years ago, I was mesmerized by the 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). I saw frogs, turtles, butterflies, dragonflies, and plenty of birds. I overheard the rangers saying 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 gave 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 if you are not interested in the festival, visit in July when the water lilies and lotus are 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. 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.