The Beauty in Water: Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens Landscape

Nestled in the urban core of Washington, D.C., and hidden away along the banks of the Anacostia River is a natural oasis in the heart of the nation’s capital. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the only National Park site devoted to growing aquatic plants, showcases a rare blend of natural and cultural features in a landscape shaped and fed by the Anacostia’s waters.
The bright petals of a water lily are reflected in gently rippling water.
Water lily in bloom

NPS Photo

In 1879, Walter Shaw, a Civil War veteran from Maine, purchased land at the edge of the marsh on the Anacostia River’s eastern shore. By 1882, he had planted his first water lilies in a single pond, adopting a transatlantic garden trend inspired by 19th century English greenhouses and aquatic gardening practices. Shaw and his daughter, L. Helen Shaw Fowler, expanded the overall garden to include 42 ponds of different sizes by 1935, connected by a series of walkways and dykes and defined by weeping willows and other native vegetation. The Anacostia marshland borders the gardens on three sides, providing a window on another aquatic ecosystem.
A woman in a wide-brimmed hat smiles as she touches a water lotus.
Helen Shaw Fowler in 1921. She owned and operated the Shaw Aquatic Gardens with her father Walter Shaw, and on her own after his death, until federal acquisition of the land in 1938.

Shaw Catalog, 1921, p. 15

This carefully designed landscape blended artistic composition with scientific developments. Shaw created an irrigation system to water the plants, while protecting the specimens from the Anacostia River’s tidal flooding. Shaw and his daughter established a thriving business that developed into one of the largest aquatic plant nurseries in the United States. They hybridized many new varieties of their own, eventually cultivating around 75 different types of water lilies and lotus flowers. Helen Shaw Fowler traveled the world, imported water lilies from multiple continents, and illustrated the nursery’s mail order catalogues with her own watercolors. Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens supplied the White House and Lincoln Memorial Rainbow Pool with water lilies until 1968.

The gardens prospered under Helen Shaw Fowler’s management, but planned improvements to the Anacostia River became a threat to the landscape. Urban growth and farming had caused silt to build up in the Anacostia riverbed decades before. In the 1930s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) began a massive project to reclaim the Anacostia mudflats to help control malaria. This project proposed complete dredging of the marsh, including the site of the aquatic gardens.
A park ranger stands in a rowboat near the edge of a pond as he addresses a small crowd.
Under NPS management, public programs like this one in 1952 attracted visitors to tour the ponds. Even before becoming a national park, the Shaw Gardens had become a leading destination for some of Washington's most prominent elected officials including Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson.

NPS Photo/Abbie Rowe (MRCE 1537-B)

Fowler fought to save her business and her father’s legacy. In 1938, the USACE purchased the land. Recognizing the natural and cultural value of the site, the management of the property was given to the National Park Service in 1939. Fowler’s large scale cultivation of flowers for sale ended, and the site became a new attraction for residents and visitors to the nation’s capital.

In the 1960s, the National Park Service recognized the neighboring marsh as a unique spot on the Anacostia that still had natural integrity, protected other areas from tidal flooding, and provided an important habitat for birds and wildlife. Instead of changing the historic landscape and natural marsh area, a policy of preservation and restoration was implemented. Today a boardwalk allows visitors to cross from the cultivated gardens to the wilder marsh landscape of Kenilworth Park.
Visitors are surrounded by a sea of green lotus plants punctuated by bright flowers.
Visitors to the 2016 Water Lily and Lotus Festival enjoyed performances and activities in the peaceful setting of the aquatic gardens NPS educational programs also engage urban youth in environmental stewardship programs with art, demonstrations, and water quality testing.

NPS Photo

Every July, the beauty of the aquatic gardens are celebrated when the lilies and lotus flowers are in peak bloom. The National Park Service hosts the Lotus and Water Lily Festival where crowds come to enjoy both the plants and Asian cultural activities.

A map shows the ponds, berms, and structures of the aquatic gardens.
Ponds and buildings at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens today.

NPS

Last updated: October 27, 2017