Explore the Park

Waterlilies and lotuses sprout from the ponds of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in such multitude that it's hard to believe you're still within the District's borders. During the steamy summer months, the view from the dikes separating each pond resembles a lush, tropical land unknown in these parts.

Leave your urban self at the gates of this 12-acre national park and become immersed in the song and flight of some 40 bird species, including osprey, bald eagles and wrens. Beyond the crazy quilt of waterlilies and grass, you can walk along the River Trail, which follows the northern edge of the marsh to the Anacostia River, less than a mile away. Herons wade and red-wing blackbirds flit through the cattails emerging from the water. A brochure leads visitors on a self-guided trail walk explaining wildlife and how the native Nacotchatank tribe once used the land.

– Margaret Hutton, Washington Post City Guide

Seasonal Visitors Guide

The park provides a refreshing and tranquil retreat any time of year, but it experiences vast seasonal changes in the landscape. Here is a little guide on what you can expect on your next visit.

Spring and Summer are the best times for viewing the flowering aquatic plants. The hardy lilies, plants with strong roots, stay in the ponds year-round, and bloom from early May until mid-September. The stunning sea of pink lotus flowers peaks in late June and lasts until mid August, with the peak bloom in early July around the time of the park's annual Water Lily & Lotus festival. The tropical lilies, whose roots are more deliciate, only bloom from mid-June through early October, but peak in July and August. Lastly, the expansive Victoria water lily blooms for a brief period in August. Be sure to visit on cool days or early in the morning as most of the blooms will close in the mid-day heat.

In addition to the aquatic plants, park features over 40 species of birds, including ospreys, herons, and bald ealges. A variety of turtles, dragonflies, butterflies and snakes can be found, too!  Be sure to bring your binoculars and prepare for muddy trails.

In Fall, both the aquatic plants and the trees change color providing a wonderful autumn retreat.  But perhaps the most unique feature is the shockingly beauitful seed pod heads from the lotus. 

Winter in the park provides trails for rejuvenating and peaceful walks in the wilderness, views of the Anacostia River, and an opportunity to learn about this historic and natural space. 

 

History

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is the only national part devoted to water loving plants. Today, you join the cycle of discovery and rediscovery of this land that began when people started living here over 4,000 years ago. These wetlands sustained their civilization with clean water, abundant food, medicine, and shelter. From the cattail alone, people derived food, medicine, and the raw materials for household goods and summer shelter. They began the cycle of human discovery, loss, and rediscovery.

Remnants of this original wetland edge two sides of the ponds near the boardwalk. The value of local wetlands was lost to the English, accustomed to English bogs. They cleared the high land of protective forests to build farms in the1600s. Later, the Industrial Revolution increased deforestation for fuel, fences, and homes. Unprotected by forest, soil washed into the Anacostia River and deep channels that once harbored sturgeon, filling them with silt instead.

After the Civil War, Mr. Walter Shaw cultivated the marshes with water lilies and other plant life. This floral paradise began as Shaw's hobby. He bought 37 acres along the river in 1880, where he cultivated a few native species of water lilies from his home state of Maine. In 1912, he took his passion commercial, with the W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds. He developed more varieties and sold plants and blooms. Continuing his work, his daughter Mrs. Helen Fowler created a prosperous commercial nursery and a local visitors' attraction.

Value is in the eye of the beholder. Walter Shaw found the wetlands were a good place to build his water garden. It would be many decades before we rediscovered the social value of wetlands. Before then, the Shaw and Fowler families would work to preserve their gardens and a happy accident would save a time portal to those past residents. In 1938 when the gardens faced destructive dredging that would have irrevocably damaged the fresh water hydrology that sustained the commercial gardens, the National Park Service stepped in and bought the land. Today we have Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

Kenilworth -- A Piece of Authentic Chesapeake Bay Country

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is a Chesapeake Bay Gateway.  Get to know Chesapeake Bay Country through Chesapeake Trips and Tips