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Meadowlark Botanical Gardens




VC fall gardens


A public garden for aesthetics, education, conservation and community service

At the core of Meadowlark is a wonderful public garden; a pleasure garden for strolling and relaxing, a center for environmental and horticultural education, an outdoor classroom for thousands of public school children, a botanical garden with large ornamental and native plant collections, an exceptional open space endowed by the aesthetic magnitude of Virginia's rolling Piedmont. Three lakes provide serene views while neatly tended forest gardens harbor thousands of plants from across the temperate world. Meadowlark is a bold, yet intimate space. Quiet and insulated from urbanity, but replete with nature’s bounty; birds sing, cherry trees bloom, frogs jump, Koi swim intently and dozens of turtles bask in the mid-day sun. Close by, a Great Blue Heron stalks minnows in a bed of emerging waterlillies.  

Each season brings an entirely different effect to the garden. The depths of winter provide a time for walking as the gardens lie under neatly mulched beds. Leafless trees beckon on a remote trail framed in grey bark. The lakes often freeze then thaw creating sinuous textures of ice and water. Spring reveals the profound beauty of temperate landscapes.  Thousands of different bulbs bloom while migrating birds visit on flights north; the journey embedded in their genes from ancestors on the wing.  Large colorful tulips accent the Visitor Center while delicate fern fiddle heads unravel in the distant shade. Within a short walk, an intimate forest hollow fosters native ephemeral wildflowers in the spring's warming sun.  

Summer is riot of color and texture. Koi swim in Lake Caroline as if parading their gem-like scales among the snapping turtles with decades of filamentous algae streaming from arching shells. Peonies scent the air with ancient flowers of immense proportion.  Thousands of tropical species grow with abandon in Virginia’s hot humid air. In July the daylillies provide an elaborate show of unequaled pastel-like color. Late in the season the entire garden embodies the sub-tropical summer in a veil of intimate greenery. Ultimately, fall arrives with celebratory colors and ever-welcome cool temperatures. Hickories and tulip poplars dabbled in yellow standout among the tawny oaks as maples add red to the fall palette. Differing capsules, fruits and gourds mature and remind us of the remarkable architecture in nature. Native persimmons dangle gently, awaiting the first frost.

Meadowlark is a garden for all seasons. An emotive open space carefully tended to enhance and conserve nature. It can only be appreciated fully when one steps into its embrace. It’s a Garden for education, conservation aesthetics and community.


Horticulture tour

Seasonal Highlights

  • March & April- Daffodils, Bulbs, Tulips, Magnolias, Flowering Cherries, Potomac Valley Native Wildflowers, Rock Garden, Conifers Collection, Lenten Rose. Check out the Daffodils near the Woods Gazebo and Lake Carolyn Irises & Cherry Trees.
  • May- Scillas, Azaleas, Rhododendron, Dogwoods, Lilacs, Siberian Irises, Bradford Pears, Flowering Plums, Butterfly Garden, Crab Apples, White Garden, Tulips, Potomac Valley Native Wildflowers, Peonies, Alliums and Flowering shrubs. Don’t miss the White Garden near the Atrium & Peonies behind Lake Carolyn.
  • June- Hosta Garden, Hydrangeas, Herb Garden, Daylilies, Wildflower Meadow, White Garden, Butterfly Garden, Native and Non-Native ferns, Alliums, Perennials. Take a moment to enjoy the lush shade and serenity of the Hosta Garden.
  • July & August- Hosta Garden, Herb Garden, Perennial Garden, Butterfly Garden, White Garden, Bold Garden, Salvia Collection, Hydrangeas, Container Plantings, Crepe Myrtles, Ferns & Fern Allies, Annual Plantings, Aquatic Plants, Grasses. Stroll through the Potomac Valley Collection to see the diversity of native plants and experience the seclusion of a mature hardwood forest.
  • September- Hosta Garden, Herb Garden, Ferns, Butterfly Garden, Container Plantings, Grasses, Chrysanthemums, Annuals, Salvia, Early Fall Color, Cancer Garden. Walk out to the Salvia & Herb Gardens for a real sensory treat.
  • October- Chrysanthemums, Grasses, Conifers, Pansies, Perennials, Virginia Native Trees, Fruits on Native and Ornamental Trees & Shrubs, Salvias, Fall Color Peak. See the Salvia Peak and Hike the mulched nature trails to experience great Fall colors.
  • November thru February- Conifer Garden, Hollies, Grasses, Lenten Roses, Indoor Plantings, Red Twig & Yellow Twig Dogwood, Heaths, Nandinas. Escape the winter chill inside the Atrium Gardens or take brisk a hike and then drop by the Visitor Center fire place to warm up.


Meadowlark pine cone


Reel thing 2018 sculpture

You’ll find different sculptures around the garden and concentrated near the beginning of the Native Tree Trail. Artists from around the country exhibit with Meadowlark as part of our ongoing Art Naturally Exhibit. This is a changing exhibit with various sculptures rotating in and out of the garden. A few permanent donated pieces are on exhibit as well.


Meadowlark has created three distinct native plant collections in support of the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation. The largest of these is the Potomac Valley Collection (PVC). PVC development is based on biogeography and floristic composition within the Potomac River basin. Alternatively, the Virginia Native Tree Collection (VNT) and the Virginia Native Wetland collection (VNW) include species that occur within the state as a political unit.

Virginia is topographically and floristically diverse. The Appalachian Mountains in the southwest region of the state reach elevations of 1600 meters. Many other peaks in the west are more than 1200 meters high.

West to east the state traverses six distinct geographic regions. These include the Appalachian Highlands, Valley and Ridge, Shenandoah Valley, Blue Ridge, Piedmont and Coastal Plain. The Coastal Plain embodies much of the Chesapeake Bay and reaches the Atlantic Ocean further east. The entire state is located between 40’ & 36‘ North and 74’ & 83’ West. In Takhtajan’s Floristic Regions of the World, Virginia occupies the Appalachian Province and the northern tip of the Atlantic and Gulf Coast Plain Province. Virginia is a state where bromeliads reach their most northerly distribution, cacti adorn beach dunes, endemic birches are found and northern spruce forests dominate the highest mountains. It is also a state in need of both in situ and ex situ conservation. A principal goal of these collections is to educate the public about the connection between garden conservation collections and saving plants in the wild.

The Virginia Native Wetland (VNW)

This collection is located in and around a small wetland called Lake Lena at the lowest elevation in the Gardens. The native biota of Lake Lena is an ideal classroom for educational programs focused on Virginia’s native wetlands and the need for conservation. No horticultural selections are used in this collection. Conservation work began in 1999. Several native trees were already established on the site when the boardwalk was installed adjacent to the lake over twenty years ago. Among these are numerous bald cypress trees. These trees have grown well and developed their trademark "knees" on the water’s edge. Sycamore, black gum, river birch, willow and sweet gum also grow in the area. Many of Virginia’s most southerly wetland shrubs and wildflowers are on exhibit here.

Lake Lena is a place of solitude in the garden … a place where native plant horticulture and habitat conservation blend to create a naturalized wetland. Aquatic native plants such as pickerelweed, native fragrant water lilies, arrowhead and sweet flag flourish in summer’s humidity. On the lake shore, pitcher plants, red and blue cardinal flower and blue flag iris, souring rush (Equisetum) mingle with aromatic bayberries. Many wide spread wetland species are naturalizing around the lake, including cattails and numerous native sedges. Cyperus and Carex represent two particularly specious genera.

Lake Lena also provides habitat for aquatic animals and birds. Several species of turtles, northern water snakes and native frogs inhabit the area. Many native fish and aquatic insects coexist with the plants. Wading birds frequent the lake. Great blue herons, green herons and black crowned night herons enjoy secretive hunting on the water’s edge. A full assortment of perching birds enjoys the lake too.

The Virginia Native Tree Collection (VNT)

The Virginia Native Tree collection resides in a far corner of the gardens. Here visitors can see some of the State’s best native trees for use in the home setting. Several smaller native trees make up a good part of this collection. The fringe trees, native members of the olive family, routinely amaze visitors with their fragrant, strap-like white flowers. In the fall, these trees display a dark blue ovoid drupe. This is an ideal tree for the discerning gardener with a small yard.

Growing close by are several paw paws (Asimina). These handsome little trees are familiar to people who spend time along local rivers where it grows in abundance. The long, broad leaf tapers neatly to a "drip tip," a feature that illustrates its tropical origin as a member of the Annonaceae. When crushed, the leaves have a distinctive odor reminiscent of diesel fuel. The fruit is a large oblong berry with a slightly coriacious green or brown rind. The mesocarp is white and creamy, often described as a mix between apple and banana with large black seeds. Paw paw is widely regarded as Virginia’s finest indigenous fruit.

Other trees in this collection include the hop hornbeam, a hazelnut relative with soft shaggy bark. Also from the Corylaceae is the hornbeam or muscle wood. This tree is notable for its extremely hard wood and fine twigs with delicate imbricate buds. Muscle wood is slow growing and, with age, provides a beautiful fluted trunk. Further along the trail, is overcup oak, so named as the imbricate involucre on the acorn covers nearly the entire nut. A tree with highly variable cruciform leaves, it is a good candidate for low, wet sites.

The sweetbay magnolia grows nearby. Found from Massachusetts to Florida, sweetbay magnolia varies in size, attaining much larger stature in the south. In time, sweetbay becomes a handsome yard tree. The early summer flowers are creamy white and very fragrant. Several other native trees are in this collection, which is located below the Hillside gazebo, about a ten-minute walk from the Visitors Center. The VNT is one of the featured collections in our Specimen Tree program.


Potomac Valley Collection

A summary of native plants cultivated in the Potomac Valley Collection between 1999 and 2019 was verified in coordination with the Ted Bradley Herbarium at George Mason University and can be found at: This Project was funded by The Volgenau Foundation.


Collection Based Education for Conservation

In the United States, avocation gardens are consistently encouraged to use horticulture selections in popular literature and at many public gardens. In Meadowlark conservation collections, horticultural selections are used only in the VNT. We intentionally depart from the relatively strict genetic mandate of the PVC and VNW. This is a specific strategy designed to interest ornamental gardeners in native species through initial use of horticultural selections. The vast majority of native plants in the American nursery trade are selections. Thus, most avocation gardeners are using these horticultural creations without realizing the wild ancestor may be in need of conservation.

Ultimately, we hope to encourage use of native plants in the landscape and educate the public about the often-subtle differences between native species that represent wild populations and horticultural selections. Furthermore, we educate the visiting public and avocational gardeners alike about the ecological and conservation value of native plants in public garden collections and in the landscape at large. Through this decidedly didactic approach, we have created a forum based on living collections that fosters an appreciation for conserving plant diversity to a wider audience.

The Potomac Valley Collection

Meadowlark initiated a new regional native plant conservation program in 1998, in its otherwise largely ornamental collections.  Like most native collections, its objective is to foster conservation of native plants and their habitats through public education and display.  The administration of the gardens, however, deemed it important that the new collection be highly regionalized in scope.  Instead of allowing human abstractions, such as political boundaries, to define the flora of this particular region, we developed a criteria based on biogeographic factors, to define the collection.  Regional geology, hydrology, climate and floristics are central to development of the collection.  Within this framework, we identified the Potomac River Valley as geographic province that determines which native plants we accession. This collection plays an increasingly important role at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens as our principal conservation initiative in support of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Biogeographic Features of the Potomac Valley

The Potomac Valley encompasses 37,824 square kilometers between 38’ and 40’ north latitude and 80’ and 76’ longitude.  The watersheds main course flows west to east for 640 kilometers.   Twenty major tributaries add another 1,100 kilometers of waterways.  The largest of these include the Shenandoah, Monocacy, Cacapon, and Conococheague rivers. Smaller tributaries, mainly in the mountains, combine to make-up 4,300 kilometers of stream corridors.  About fifty percent of the watershed is forested.

In global terms, the area falls within Takhtajan’s North American Atlantic Floristic Region.  The Potomac River traverses five physiographic provinces west to east; these include Allegheny Highlands, Ridge and Valley, Blue Ridge, Piedmont and the Coastal Plain.  Each of these regions contains unique plant communities.  In some cases, these communities enjoy broad protection in national and state parks.  In other areas, plant communities are under siege from urban sprawl, grazing and logging.  Takhtajan recognizes almost one hundred taxa as “endemic or nearly endemic” to the North American Atlantic Floristic Region.  Many of these taxa are illustrative of the Potomac Valley flora and comprise an important part of our current accession activity.

The Appalachian highlands of the Potomac Valley reach 1400 meters in several locations.  Red spruce and northern hardwood forest occupy this region.  Several northerly taxa reach their southern limit in the Appalachian Highlands.  Within the Ridge and Valley Province, plant communities called shale-barrens support many unique species.  Among these are the endemic Phlox buckleyi, Trifolium virginicum and Senecio antennariifolius, to name a few.  Further east, in the broad Shenandoah Valley, limestone outcrops support many calcareous cliff-dwelling species.  Ferns are of particular interest in this area.  One of our region’s most unique small shrubs, Cliff Green (Paxistima canbyi), is also at home on these limestone formations.

The eastern portion of the Potomac Valley lies within the foothill-like Piedmont and the alluvial Atlantic Coastal Plain.  Vast deciduous forests of white oak, red oak, red maple, American beech and rock oak embrace a diversity of shade-loving lower-canopy trees, shrubs, wildflowers and ferns.  Bald cypress trees grow here, very near their natural northern limit.  Some areas of the eastern Piedmont and the Coastal Plain are widely developed.  The need for conservation of native plant communities in this area is immediate.

Golden Club


Combining Existing Resources and Developing New Ones

No flora for the Potomac Valley exist, however, all four states of which the Potomac Valley is a part, now have Floras. This includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.  We use these four resources, along with topographic maps, geographic information systems and fieldwork to determine species composition and distribution within the watershed.  In addition, we consult with various private and government agencies working to conserve plant diversity in all four states.  This exchange enables increased communication on both exsitu and insitu conservation projects.  Through this process, we are developing new detailed information on the composition, distribution and conservation status of the Potomac Valley plants. Ultimately we intend to develop a database for this information.

The display and interpretation of native species is a central goal of the collection.  The collection will provide our staff with the ongoing task of understanding conservation needs of native species throughout the Potomac Valley and interpreting that information to the public through education programs.  We will continue to add accessions in accordance with various strategies outlined in International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation and the Darwin Technical Manual both publications of Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

From a programmatic perspective, the Potomac Valley collection is the foundation of our institutional mission centered on aesthetics, conservation, education and community service.  Moreover, this collection’s development supports Meadowlark’s parent agency, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, in conserving and cataloging native species on its own properties, all 4856 hectares of which are in the Potomac Valley.

Objectives for the Potomac Valley Native Plant Collection

  • Strengthen the existing collection within the fiscal, administrative and curatorial practices of the garden.
  • Foster an understanding of the aesthetic and ecological value of native plants within the community.
  • Develop and implement educational programs that focus on native plant horticulture and conservation.
  • Provide conceptual framework for the public to foster awareness for regional plant conservation with issues such as water quality and ecosystem/habitat conservation.
  • Facilitate a temporal understanding about the Potomac Valley plant communities by interpreting their natural history.
  • Raise public awareness about obtaining native plants and discourage wild collecting.
  • Encourage insitu and exsitu conservation projects throughout the Potomac Valley.
  • Work in partnership with local universities, museums and other gardens to encourage systematic, ecologic and biogeographic research on Potomac flora.
  • Establish curatorial and horticultural internship programs working with the Collection.
  • Illustrate the effects of exotic invasive species on native plant communities.
  • Propagate stock plants for reintroduction into the wild when deemed appropriate.
  • Research and assemble criteria to evaluate the collection’s impact as a vehicle for conservation and education.

Publications from Meadowlark Staff

  • Urban Nature Reserves: Stop and Smell the Potential. Parks and Recreation Business Magazine. Summer 2018
  • The Flora of Virginia. The Virginia Sportsman. Summer, 2017
  • The Indigenous Landscape. Parks and Recreation Business Magazine. Spring 2016
  • Solvency Through Diversified Revenue Streams: Lessons from a Small Garden. The Public Garden Vol. 31. 2016
  • Marketing Field Trips to Underserved Public Schools: An Integrated Approach. Roots: Botanic Gardens Conservation International Education Review. Vol.12 #1. 2013
  • Meadowlark Botanical Gardens’ Korean Bell Pavilion: Creating an Extraordinary New Korean Garden in North America. 2012 The Public Garden. Vol. 27.
  • Educating for Sustainable Horticulture. Roots: Botanic Gardens Conservation International Education Review. 2010. Vol. 7 # 2.
  • Fraser’s Sedge: A Native with Potential. The American Gardener, Magazine of the American Horticultural Society. 2009. January/ February
  • Conservation Collections at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, USA: Supporting the International Agenda and Educating the Public. Botanic Gardens Journal, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, 2005 Vol.2 #2.
  • Update from the World Botanic Garden Congress. Newsletter of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta. 2004
  • Garden Portrait: Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. 2003. The Public Garden, Vol. 25 # 1
  • Meadowlark Botanical Gardens: A Biogeographic Native Plant Conservation Project, 2002. Wildflower 18 (3)
  • A Brief Natural History of Potomac Valley Forests. Dirca, the Newsletter of Meadowlark Botanical Gardens. Vol.3 #2. 2002
  • New Conservation Initiative at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens USA. Botanic Gardens Conservation International Magazine. 2001. Vol.3 #7.

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens is a Member of:

  • Botanic Gardens Conservation International
  • American Public Garden Association
  • American Horticulture Society
  • Virginia Native Plant Society


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