People and Plants Flourish at the US Botanic Garden

Melwood residents learning horticultural skills are featured in the US Botanic Garden’s new exhibit, “Flourish.” Photo: Melwood

Ari Novy, Ph.D., executive director of the US Botanic Garden (USBG), asked his staff how early in life they should start exposing people to plants. Their answer: At birth. So was born the infant program “Snugglers,” aimed at caregivers and their youngest children. This free program offers guided quiet time with plants, soft music, and lactation and changing stations. “The babies relax. The parents relax. It’s our most popular program,” says the enthusiastic Novy, who has been at the USBG helm for two years.

People-Plant Mutual Benefits

Novy knows that at the USBG he is offering experiences more than warehousing the national plant collection, itself no small task. This most accessible federal institution supports the interaction of plants and people for all ages and across cultures – for free, every day of the year. And it’s right downhill from the US Capitol, making it walkable for most Hill residents.

The USBG’s newest exhibition, “Flourish: Inside and Out,” is dedicated to showcasing the proven human-health benefits of interacting with nature. On display through Oct. 2, the exhibit begins outdoors on the East Terrace with plants to stimulate the five senses. Horticultural therapy programs such as those at nearby Melwood and St. Coletta are featured, as well as examples of accessible gardening beds of various heights and designs, plus examples of adaptive and ergonomic garden tools.

Inside the East Gallery of the Conservatory the exhibit continues with examples of indoor plant installations suitable for offices, schools, and homes. Organizations using horticulture therapeutically are featured, including those serving veterans and folks with learning disabilities. Check the exhibit webpage for more information about “Flourish,” including workshops, lectures, and cooking demonstrations:

Introducing Ari Novy

I caught up with Novy by phone, when he was in Miami at the annual American Public Gardens Association (APGA) conference. Asked if he was presenting, he laughed and said, “Yes, in four sessions!” He proceeded to spend over half an hour chatting as if he had all the time in the world.

Before becoming USBG executive director, Novy was deputy director, and before that USBG’s public programs manager. He maintains an active hand in research even now, as a research associate of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in the Botany Department, regularly publishing on topics including honeybee colony collapse, invasive Japanese stilt grass evolution, and the expanding role of botanic gardens in the future of food production. Pretty good for a guy with a bachelor of arts in Italian, classics, and mathematics. Novy’s liberal arts background shines through as he discusses the cultural implications of people-plant relationships and their interdependence. He seems to be a perfect fit for the USBG post.

At the APGA conference Novy is talking about the importance of agriculture in the public garden setting. “Though our population is soaring, less than 2 percent are now farmers,” he explains. “Urban agriculture is a key tool to engage the public. Growing even a small amount of food is an intimate way of doing horticulture.” He goes on to say that growing food in cities “is not a solitary act. You have food banks, farmers’ markets, community gardens. You make friends and build a closer knit community. You become aware of natural processes. And all this provides entree into more complex topics in plant science, such as food security, land use, and biodiversity loss.”

Novy Plants Farmland Issues on the Hill

Novy believes that urban agriculture becomes a bridge to rural, or what he calls “extensive,” agriculture. Today, 51 percent of US land is devoted to agriculture. “The conversion of natural lands to farmland is the number-one driver of biodiversity loss, and without awareness of the natural world we become disconnected from the facts of life,” he explains. This is not to say that farms are bad, or that largescale monocultural farming is the only way to do things. One need only read any of the 40 books by Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry to get a sense of the many social, ecological, and economic inputs that go into how food travels to our table, and how, on some level, that affects us all.

To raise awareness of extensive agriculture within the city, the USBG recently mounted an exhibition, “Amber Waves of Grain,” a celebration of wheat. On the outdoor terrace seven kinds of wheat were grown, revealing to urban dwellers a plant that is ubiquitous as an ingredient yet normally invisible in the urban context. The exhibition also celebrated the centennial of the Iowa birth of plant scientist Norman Borlaug, who by breeding a high-yield, semi-dwarf wheat is credited with saving a billion people from starvation. A statue of Nobel Laureate Borlaug was unveiled in the National Statuary Hall in the US Capitol in conjunction with the 2014 exhibit. Iowa natives living on the Hill can connect with their agrarian roots by paying a visit.

What’s Happening at Bartholdi Park?

Today’s USBG is the result of two hundred years of federal planning, and of buildings and grounds being moved from place to place, resulting in the arrangement we now have of Conservatory, East Terrace, National Garden, and, across the street to the south, Bartholdi Park. The park, named for its centerpiece “Fountain of Water and Light,” site dedicated to home gardener interests, and its most recent renovation is well underway. Curious visitors can look over the fence from the Conservatory’s elevated canopy walk. When complete, the park will be a Sustainable Sites Initiative ( pilot project, and will include water-smart gardening features, native, pollinator-friendly plants, rain gardens, and other features that can be implemented in small-scale urban gardens. Watch for the big reveal later this summer.

USBG Is for Everyone

Besides the newborn/infant “Snugglers” program, the USBG offers activities for children called “Sprouts and Seedlings” and another option for nine-year-olds and older called the “Junior Botanist” program ( Junior botanist candidates, accompanied by an adult, can pick up a cool backpack at the front desk containing a magnifying glass and other plant science tools, and visit the USBG, completing worksheets after each visit. USBG staff review their work, and when completed it entitles new junior botanists to receive a certificate and a behind-the-scenes USBG tour. What a great group activity! On the other end of the spectrum, says Novy, USBG “would not be the oasis is it without its volunteer corps.” Retired folks and others can volunteer for a number of positions, not all of which require a botanical background. See more information on volunteering.

Playing Favorites

As our interview draws to a close, and for fun, I ask Novy if he has a favorite tree at the USBG. At first the diplomatic director hesitates to name names. Then he confesses that the “chocolate tree,” Theobroma cacao, is his favorite. This tree, whose botanical name means “food of the gods,” is located in the Conservatory just by the door to the “jungle.” Novy leads quarterly director’s tours, and he loves showing visitors where chocolate comes from. “A lightbulb goes on!” he says, “and who doesn’t love chocolate?” The next director’s tour is July 20, 10:30 – noon. It’s free, but register in advance:’s meet there!

Ari Novy enjoying life at Bartholdi Park on Capitol Hill. Photo: US Botanic Garden
Ari Novy’s favorite Botanic Garden tree is Theobroma cacao, the chocolate tree, seen here at the garden. Photo: Cheryl Corson

Cheryl Corson is a landscape architect and writer practicing on the Hill and beyond. Her favorite tropical tree happens to be Theobroma cacao.

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