Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow? Tucked into a narrow space between two Smithsonian museums, the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn Museum, is the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, one of the best hidden secrets on the National Mall and one of my favorite green spaces in DC.
This garden oasis is easy to miss, and tourists focused on the memorials, monuments and museums, and locals commuting to and from work, walk right by it without ever knowing it's there.
Walking into the garden from the entrance just off the National Mall is like entering a land that time forgot. The hustle and bustle from all the tourists gives way to the sound of birds chirping and water dancing in the fountain that anchors the middle of the garden and greets you as you enter. Ornate benches are secreted among nooks and crannies that bisect the curved walking path, providing a sense of intimacy, almost secrecy. It's a great place to eat lunch or just relax.
I love the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden so much because it's not a neat and tidy garden; this is a garden bursting at the seams with a kind of controlled chaos and wild exuberance. The garden displays a huge diversity of plants, including perennials, annuals, hardy and tender bulbs, and tropicals, many of them rare or unusual, with contrasting colors, textures and scents.
So, who was Mary Livingston Ripley and why is a garden named for her?
The garden was the inspiration of Mrs. S. Dillon Ripley, a lifelong plant scholar-collector, active gardener, and wife of the Smithsonian’s eighth Secretary. She came up with the idea for a “fragrant garden” in its current location that had previously been designated to become a parking lot. In 1978, Ripley convinced the Women’s Committee of the Smithsonian Associates, which she founded in 1966, to support the garden idea. The group recognized their founder and friend by naming the garden after her in 1988.
The garden has evolved over the years, with more recent efforts focused on exposing visitors to the widest variety of plants and flowers possible, many of which are grown in the Smithsonian Gardens Greenhouse Complex in Maryland. Currently there are more than 200 varieties of plants in hanging baskets, borders, raised serpentine and circular beds, and even growing vertically on plant walls. For all you plant lovers, the garden offers a tour with a Smithsonian Garden horticulturist every Tuesday at 2pm.
For anyone who hasn’t yet been there, I highly recommend it. And I encourage you to spend some time there and be attentive, unlike the commuters and other pedestrians who simply use the garden as a cut-through between Independence Avenue and the National Mall.
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