Regional Gardens: Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

By Elaine Mills, Certified Master Gardener
Photos by Elaine Mills, Bob Kline & Jennifer Kline


View of lotus pond showing blossoms, leaves, and distinctive seed heads
Photo © 2017 Jenny Kline

Summer is the perfect time to visit Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, the only national park dedicated especially to aquatic plants.  The site, located in the northeastern corner of Washington, DC, boasts 12 acres of shallow ponds which feature hardy and tropical water lilies, lotuses, and other water-loving species. Bordered by 70 acres of fresh-water tidal wetlands, this sanctuary is an ideal location for observing local wildlife.

The gardens were first developed by Walter B. Shaw, a clerk in the U. S. Treasury Department, who purchased land bordering the Anacostia River in the 1880s. Over time, his hobby of growing water lilies in a pond there expanded into a business, which involved the collection of species from around the world, the development of new varieties, and the building of additional ponds. Shaw’s daughter Helen succeeded him as manager of the gardens. Examples of her pastel drawings of water lilies are on display in the visitors’ center.

When planned dredging of the Anacostia River threatened the Shaw Gardens in the 1930s, they were purchased by Congress to preserve them for the enjoyment of the American people. After the property came under the care of the National Park Service, the site was renamed “Kenilworth” for the residential community bordering the park.

The front portion of the park contains over 45 separate ponds. The gardens’ hardy water lilies begin blooming there in late May, followed by the more brightly colored tropical water lilies in late July. These aquatic perennials are members of the family Nelumbonacaea. While their roots are planted in the soil of the ponds, their large leaves and flowers grow several feet above the water. Their distinctive seed heads, which are exposed when flower petals drop, resemble shower heads or the spouts of watering cans. Morning is the best time for viewing the lily and lotus flowers as most of the blooms close on hot days when temperatures near 90 degrees.

The extensive marshland surrounding the ponds can be explored by means of a boardwalk trail. Native moisture-loving plants found in this area include bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), swamp rose-mallow (Hibiscus mocheutos), and sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). The tidal marsh is also home to many animals, including amphibians and reptiles (frogs, toads, salamanders, and turtles), insects (butterflies and dragonflies), and many birds (such as ducks, geese, egrets, herons, sandpipers, hawks, and eagles). Mosquitos are kept at bay by pond beetles, frogs, birds, and a large population of dragonflies.

Visitors to the gardens will be able to enjoy special events this month at the annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival, running from July 15 to 22. Free activities will include gardening workshops, ranger-led strolls, lotus tea tasting, traditional dance performances, children’s activities, and nighttime tours, boating, and music.

Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
1550 Anacostia Avenue, NE
Washington, DC 20019

Grounds open daily, except January 1, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

  • Winter Hours (November 1-March 31):
    8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
  • Summer Hours (April 1-October 31):
    Grounds: 7 a.m. – 5 p.m.
    Visitor Center: 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
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