Human Flower Project

Inauguration Flattens the Ripley Garden

History-making crowds at the Obama inauguration mean the Smithsonian’s garden must begin again.


Rohdea, crushed in the Ripley Garden, Washington, D.C.

Photo: Courtesy of Janet Draper

Since transparency is a pledge of the incoming Obama administration, we won’t flinch from disclosing a sad outcome of his mobbed inauguration.

In all the exuberance, the Smithsonian’s Ripley Garden was trampled. With a beautiful (and educational) collection of more than 200 plants, some of them extremely rare, the Ripley sits between the Hirschhorn Museum and the Arts and Industries Building, on the south side of the National Mall. It’s a mere mile from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where Obama took the oath of office – before an estimated 2 million supporters. Just consider this, all of you who garden near elementary schools!


Map of the National Mall, Washington, D.C.:

U.S. Capitol at right, Ripley Garden starred in red

Image: Human Flower Project

Thanks to Allen Bush, we received the following correspondence from Janet Draper, the Ripley’s director.

“Wow!  What an event with the phenomenal inauguration of our new President!  Record crowds swarmed our city, and fortunately there were no major injuries…. it could have been horrific considering the recent trampling at Wal-Mart,” Draper writes. 

“I was very thankful to learn before the event that the Ripley Garden would be safe since they had walled it off with 6’ fencing for security reasons (people had to enter the Mall area through designated checkpoints which they were closing down as the areas closest to the capital became full).” Sounds reasonable, but as all of you know who attended the event or have friends who were there, the “checkpoint” plan didn’t work so well.

imageIn the Ripley Garden

Photo: Courtesy of Janet Draper

Draper goes on: “Due to excitement and massive crowds being forced down Independence Ave.  (as early at 6:30 a.m. 7th street was blocked off!),  people were desperate in their excitement to get to the Mall, so the fence protecting Ripley was breached (people first climbed it; then it was just moved out of the way).”

Our inauguration-going friends Jeannie and Jim said the crowds, though sublimely gentle and friendly, were so immense it was frightening. They, and thousands more people, were confused as to where the points of entry were, and none of the police on duty knew or would say how all this human traffic was to flow. Jeannie said that eventually she and Jim climbed a tree and “cut in line, in front of about 80,000 people.”

Janet Draper described the scene at the Smithsonian: “All I can imagine is like the levee break in New Orleans. People started flooding through this confined area determined to get to the Mall. My coworkers tried their best to keep people out of the beds, but it was impossible and I am thankful none of them were injured trying to save the garden.


After the inauguration, January 20, 2009, Washington, D.C.

Photo: Courtesy of Janet Draper

“As far as I can determine, what must have happened is that people were flooding (coworkers describe people nearly running) into the garden and then they were blocked in by the fence at the other end, and until that was removed, the crowds were backing up and people must have been frantically just trying to find someplace to stand and not get trampled. Needless to say, the garden took a major hit.”

Jim and Jeannie said that after the swearing-in ceremony and Obama’s inaugural address there was a similar sense of emergency – to flee from the Mall and the stupendous crowd. You can’t have too many friends, just too many friends all at once in the same place!

Back at the Smithsonian, “The gates remained down through the entire event,” Draper reported, “so the garden was trampled both coming and going.” The Ripley collection includes (or should we say, “included”?) plants that, Janet says with a wink, “no one else has – things like Rohdea japonica ssp roadkillii and the only prostrate Hellebores known….” The damage inauguration day tested her spirit and her abilities at horticultural identification, too. “Plants just disappeared!  It is as if they were freeze dried then they just turned to dust!” she writes.

“The rest of Smithsonian grounds looks pretty ragged, but mainly it was the tons of trash, and some of the annual beds [that] took a beating. Lawns are destroyed, but overall, not too bad for the storm that came through.“

What a pro Janet Draper is, with a true gardener’s capacity for acceptance and faith. Despite all the damage, she exudes optimism, curiosity and pragmatism—even, humor—much like the 44th U.S. President.


Janet Draper, director of the Ripley Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Photo: Allen Bush

“So the Ripley garden has become a trial garden for what exactly can handle being walked on by untold numbers of people in 20 degree weather!” she writes. “It will take time to bring back to life, but it will happen. Right now all I can really do is try to salvage all of the broken labels…. Can’t even put them back in place due to the ground being frozen solid.”

She sent out this message to Allen and other friends to “explain the lack of a garden if you happen to come through! “ with a marvelous post script:

“Although this is a heartbreaker,” she writes, there has been an “outpouring of support from coworkers, fellow people in Horticulture, and just regular ‘Joes’ that enjoy the garden and are asking what they can do to help rebuild it.”  Janet says many people have offered plants, as well as labor, to restore the garden.

“It is very sad what happened to the garden,” she concludes, “however it was not intentional nor malicious—that is what makes it much more bearable to me. Mother nature IS resilient and the garden will come back to life…. Right now it is covered with a 2 inch blanket of snow which is hiding the wounds.”

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/28 at 05:23 PM


I was there and took notice of some of the damage…not specifically to the Smithsonian garden but to lots of other properties around the the mall area. It was a wonderful and generous crowd, but there were just so many people!  All in all, it was a good day, and although our economy cannot easily afford the repairs, at least local landscapers will get some additional work.  So sorry to hear of any plants being lost forever….if you want to read a bit of my own inagural experiences, feel free to visit at studio g.
best- R

Posted by rochelle on 01/28 at 08:12 PM

Janet is remarkably forbearing and upbeat about the garden disaster. I admire that. What a story. Thanks for sharing, Julie.

Posted by Pam Penick on 01/28 at 09:47 PM

“Rohdea japonica roadkillii”  This is a joke, right?

Posted by Capability Bowes on 01/29 at 11:25 AM

Oh heck.  Of course its a joke.  I just read the article properly.  Ever get the feeling you’ve been “had”?

Posted by Capability Bowes on 01/29 at 11:33 AM

If you need help with restoration, I am a willing worker.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/04 at 09:29 AM
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.