Dusk has arrived and the restaurant we have been searching for — seemingly for hours — is nowhere in sight. It is our first night walking in Washington, D.C. and my dogs, to put it colloquially, are barking. My family and I have just taken a left turn onto a plaza. Thankfully, I see a group of long benches, with enough spaces for each of my relatives to have their own seat. The benches are set under a line of trees strung with tiny white lights. I lean back to relax my neck and close my eyes for a moment. When I open them, I am startled to notice a latticework of golden yellow linden leaves above me. I smile at the thought I have not missed foliage turning colors. My country’s capital is celebrating autumn.
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- You like exploring cities of national government and political prominence.
- You like shooting photos of architecture and natural plantings.
- Autumn or locations with cooler temperatures is your favorite time to travel.
- You like walking cities that have many parks and big trees.
- It is a city that welcomes families with children of all ages and with a variety of interests.
Following the Shades of Autumn
You’ll see foliage everywhere: Washington, D.C. is not shy about covering her sidewalks with thousands of street trees and sharing its approximately 23 National Park sites with visitors. A walking tour around the main monuments highlights the contrast of architectural monuments against the changing foliage.
We might have come to Washington, D.C. to see historical buildings and memorials, but we found that Washington in autumn offers a double bill: Monuments enhanced by fall foliage color make for colorful sightseeing and interesting photography.
Out the door of our hotel on K Street are ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) trees still green though their pyramidal form will soon become a swath of yellow. The yellow fan-shaped leaves remain intact until ginkgoes drop their foliage all at once, allowing street sweepers to pick up the dry debris in one or two days. Ginkgo biloba are also found northwest of the Capitol building.
In Lafayette Square, north of the White House, mallard ducks are splashing in the fountain sprays as we walk by and garden mums (Chrysanthemum x morifolium) are growing in the rectangular beds. The area sometimes is called Jackson Park for the statue of President Andrew Jackson, which shares the public park with the statues of four Revolutionary War icons.
Across the way, at the wrought iron fence encircling the White House lawn, a European linden (Tilia europaea) is tagged with a marker. The grounds include American elm and white oak. Linden trees are planted in mass in the parks around Washington, D.C. where the American linden (Tilia americana) and the littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata) are more common.
The traditional view from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial displays a panorama of trees in various stages of changing color on the National Mall. Visitors will see trees in the capital city ranging from oaks of burr to willow to northern red, sugar maples and tulip trees. The city’s hardiness zone 7A and swampy landscaped past easily lend itself to growing trees colder regions may not, such as the southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora). The wide open public parks allow trees to grow into huge examples of their species, such as found in the grove of oaks north of the Capitol.
Cherry Trees with Multiple Seasons of Interest
Perhaps no trees in Washington capture the American imagination as much as the cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin: The cherry (Prunus serrulata) trees in Washington, D.C. are as iconic as any statue cast in bronze. Visitors flock to the city just to see them blossom in spring. Not hardy in colder areas of the country, it is a special treat to see the mass of flowers covering the countryside.
But Prunus have multiple seasons of interest: from pendulous flower clusters to bright colored berries to foliage turning bronze, red or orange. The cherry trees in the Capital are no exception.
The Yoshino and Kawanzan varieties of Prunus serrulata, have smooth shiny chestnut brown bark marked with tiny horizontal lines called lenticials. The original number of trees, a gift from Japan, has seen many horticultural challenges since first planted 1912. The National Park Service has worked to restore the number to its original 676 by replacing and developing a propagation program of the surviving trees.
Visitors will find the Yoshino and Kwanzan cherry trees (planted in grouping of prime numbers) around the Tidal Basin and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial grounds. The two varieties create a sequential range of bloom times, which ensures a longer flower show.
By late October, the brilliant autumn foliage has faded in the most northern of the Midwestern states and along the upper East Coast of the United States. However, around Washington, D. C. sunny days and crisp nights still run from late October to early November. The milder weather farther south in the Mid-Atlantic region gives visitors a chance to follow the progression of reds, golds, yellows and oranges until winter white puts it all to bed.
- The National Mall, including the 19 Smithsonian museums and National Zoo, has free admission.
- The United States Botanic Garden is a good indoor choice for days with inclement weather.
- The rides on top of the double-decker bus system at night are an opportunity for splendid views but can get chilly, remember to dress in layers.
- The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is a useful resource for getting an over view and planning what to see. Their main entrance is under the East Front plaza.