The Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian

Several weeks ago, having not picked up my camera seriously in a while, I decided to make a dawn run down to the Mall in search of architecture to photograph for an upcoming themed competition at my camera club. After spending some time outside the National Museum of the American Indian, I headed for the Enid Haupt Garden, the most well-known of the Smithsonian’s garden spaces. On the way, however, a funny thing happened – I discovered the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden.

Tucked into a relatively modest space between the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Ripley Garden is packed full of unusual trees and shrubs as well as annuals and perennials. It was dedicated in 1988 to honor Mary Ripley, who founded the Smithsonian Women’s Committee (she was the wife of the Institution’s eighth secretary).  It was designed by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, FAIA, and the Smithsonian’s Horticulture Services Division.

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, Smithsonian gardens

The entrance area to the Ripley Garden on the Mall side.

The raised garden beds are laid out in a curvilinear pattern that invites the visitor to explore and keeps you from seeing all the garden has to offer at once. They also offer the advantage –  to the plant material – of making it less likely visitors will step into the beds (which of course means the Horticultural Services Division has to climb up carefully to tend to the plants!). I was surprised by the large amount of tropical plants I saw, but presumably the banana plant shown below is one of those that is hardy in our Zone 7 climate here.

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, Smithsonian Gardens

Tropical plants, including Muso and Phormium, in the Ripley beds.

An ornate 19th-century cast-iron fountain is complemented by similar benches, lampposts, and stands for hanging baskets throughout the garden.

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, Smithsonian gardens

A 19th-century cast-iron fountain is at the center of the Ripley Garden.

Mary Livingston Ripley Garden

One of the many ornately designed wrought-iron benches, with varying designs, that offer visitors a place to sit.

My visit was in early July, not a peak time for gardens struggling with the heat of a Washington summer. But in addition to the tropicals and annuals I saw, there were other spots of color along the way in the form of lilies and Echinops, complete with bees.

Echinops, Smithsonian gardens

Echinops with bees in attendance at the Ripley Garden.

If you’re visiting Washington, don’t miss this small gem of a garden just off the Mall. The Enid Haupt garden – to be the subject of another post – is justly famous. The Ripley Garden, however, offers much more in a small space, so put it on your list of sites to visit!

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7 Comments on “The Ripley Garden at the Smithsonian”

  1. Edith Hope Says:

    Dear Melissa, What a fascinating discovery. It is indeed always exciting to come across something entirely new to one. Clearly this garden is both well stocked and well maintained although, personally, I felt that there was possibly rather too much brick on show.

  2. Melissa Says:

    What an excellent design eye you have. The brick paths are interspersed with some concrete details (as around the fountain) but overall I have to agree with you. I did enjoy coming across this garden, which some designer colleagues had told me about before.

  3. John Says:

    Thanks for the reminder about this charming little garden. I’ve been there a couple of times and on each occasion I came away with an appreciation for the design. I recall an almost tropical feeling to the flowers and foliage.

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, there’s definitely a tropical feel to the garden. In addition to the banana plant I saw some succulents and tender perennials. The only sign of possible budget cuts affecting the garden was the relative lack of hanging baskets. But the effect was still quite lovely.

  4. janet draper Says:

    Hi Melissa –glad you found the Ripley Garden– It has been my horticultural playground for the past 13 years, and yes, I do play with lots of tropicals– some common, some newly introduced by Smithsonian’s botanists. My goal is to show people plants that they might not know or possibly use a common plant in a different way. At last count I had shoved nearly 1,000 different taxa into the little third of an acre garden — and that isn’t counting any of the annuals.
    come back and visit foten – Mother Nature is constantly providing something cool to look at!
    cheers – janet draper

    • Melissa Says:

      Janet, were you the watering-duty Ripley Garden horticulturist I met the morning I took these photos? It was quite early on a Saturday and I had a nice chat with a very knowledgeable woman but forgot to introduce myself. If so, thanks for your time – and regardless, thanks for stopping by the blog. It’s such an amazing garden!

  5. Karen O'M Says:

    One fact of note: the garden was nearly trampled to the ground during the inauguration in January 2009. Janet worked very hard to bring it back to its present beauty.


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