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Capital Spotlight: Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens

Author: Leila Farrer

Among the many hidden gems in the nation’s capital are the Aquatic Gardens, part of Anacostia Park and under the National Park Service umbrella. The gardens, open almost every day of the year, are an oasis within the city, accessible by car or by bike via the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail.

a group of pink flowers

A visit in the spring or early summer yields acres of water lilies and lotus blossoms stretching up to the sun. Bring your binoculars for bird and wildlife viewing, and don’t forget your camera for the gorgeous contrasts of great green leaves and pink flowers. In a 1996 study, the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center found 650 species of insects, 150 species of land plants, 76 species of birds, 18 species of fish, 9 species of mammals, and 8 species of reptiles within the gardens. The park also includes the Kenilworth Marsh, the only remaining tidal marsh in Washington DC. 

a close up of a flower

The Aquatic Gardens have existed formally and informally since the 1880s, when Civil War veteran Walter Shaw purchased the land for his young family from his parents-in-law. Shaw had brought the original wild water lilies from his home in Maine and planted them in the wetlands near his new house. In 1821, Shaw died and his daughter, Helen, who grew up helping her father with the gardens, took over what by then was a commercial tourist site known as W.B. Shaw Lily Ponds. 

a close up of a flower

Helen became a well-known advocate for water gardening and a member of the International Waterlily Society. With her brother, she lobbied to help save her gardens and home from a river improvement project in the 1930s, with Congress authorizing payment of $15,000 for eight acres. 

a close up of a flower

The Shaw legacy and love for water gardening continues today. In partnership with the National Park Service, Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens maintains the park’s beauty year round and offers programs, volunteer events, and childrens’ activities. Whether you’re a local or in town on vacation, the Aquatic Gardens is the perfect spot to find respite from city bustle and a connection to nature.