Walking through the orchid wing at the U.S. Botanic Garden, Gaylene and Jim Barstow were overwhelmed by the mass of rare tropicals.
Blooming from the sides of rocks, hanging baskets and mossy corners were more than 200 varieties of orchids.
"This place is really incredible," said Gaylene Barstow, 51, of Lincoln, Neb. "I've never seen so many orchids at one time."
One of the oldest botanic gardens in America, the Botanic Garden prides itself on its collection of rare and endangered species.
Recently reopened after an extensive renovation, the facility is now a state-of-the-art sanctuary for horticulture enthusiasts and a tourist attraction for those visiting the nation's capital.
"It's exceeded all our expectations," said Christine Flanagan, public programs manager. "When we reopened, we were getting 5,000-10,000 people a day."
The renovation, which cost more than $33 million, was long overdue, Flanagan said.
"We literally had to shut the conservatory down," she said. "It was a safety hazard. We'd walk in some mornings and there would be glass shattered on the floor," from where the metal frame had deteriorated and dropped glass panes.
Built in 1933, the conservatory is a Victorian-style structure built by Lord & Burnham greenhouse designers of New York.
The renovation -- started in 1998 and finished in 2002--- restored the original design and made improvements to the infrastructure.
Computers can now monitor the outside weather and automatically control misting, shade cloth, fans and air-handling equipment. Heat and window vents achieve a perfect range of day and night temperature and humidity.
And the two galleries used for displaying art, photography and education exhibits are now fully air-conditioned.
"There used to be no air-conditioning," Flanagan said. "It would get so hot some summers, we couldn't even have education exhibits."
According to Bob Hansen, director of the National Fund for the U.S. Botanic Garden, education is the main purpose behind the garden.
Aside from the exhibits, the garden has unique designs, rare plant varieties and flowers steeped in history.
"It's a place for the public to learn about the relationship between plants and people," said Hansen. "The fact is we require oxygen to live and sometimes people take that for granted."
To facilitate the learning aspect, the conservatory is divided into 12 different theme gardens, including a world desert, oasis, primeval garden and medicinal plants.
The desert room boasts a giant agave, an elephant foot tree and an octopus plant.
The meditation garden combines plants native to North America, such as container plants filled with ruffled red petunias, New Guinea impatiens and American marigolds.
Rachel Kraft and Silas Riener of Washington enjoyed the jungle, which resembles a tropical rain forest.
Located under the dome of the conservatory, a mezzanine rises 93 feet for people to climb and view the foliage from elevated heights.
"It's so interesting to look at the leaves of all these different plants," said Rachel Kraft, 18. "It amazes me that we can live among them, yet know so little about them."
As the garden continues to build on its mission of education, plans are under way to build a National Garden adjacent to the conservatory.
Located on the three acres west of the main facility, the National Garden will showcase innovative plant combinations and design themes.
"It's going to be very user friendly," Hansen said. "It's designed so that people can get ideas for what they'd like to do in their own yard. They can look at it and say, 'Oh, I can do that.' "
Scheduled for completion in another three years, the garden will have four major features: an environmental learning center, a rose garden, a water garden and a showcase garden.
As people visit Washington, Flanagan encourages them to add the U.S. Botanic Garden to their list of sightseeing tours.
"If you like to go to the zoo, you'll love this place," Flanagan said. "It's like a zoo for plants."
For more information
To learn more about the U.S. Botanic Garden, go to http: / / www.usbg.gov /
To learn more about the National Garden, go to
http: / / www.nationalgarden. org /