WASHINGTON — The United States Botanic Garden’s annual holiday exhibit is now open, spotlighting model trains and D.C. landmarks made from plant materials. Upholding the tradition requires a large undertaking.

“We close the holiday show every year on January 1, and we immediately start having meetings right after that in January where we talk about each year’s show: what went well, what we want to do differently next year, deciding the theme for next year’s show,” said Devin Dotson, public affairs specialist for the USBG. “It’s a year-round endeavor to make the magic happen.” 

This year’s theme is pollinators, which are featured throughout the outdoor train display, ranging from the familiar bird and bee to the less commonly known: a pygmy possum, a lemur, and a bat. 

Applied Imagination designs and creates the train display and new models for the USBG every year. The elements of the exhibit are made ahead of time at its workshop in Alexandria and Kentucky and are shipped and assembled onsite at USBG over a week with staff from Applied Imagination as well.

“Over 30 years, the concept of botanical architecture has evolved through the hands of our artisans, each building taking 100 to 1000 hours to complete, and sometimes much more,” said Laura Busse Dolan, president and CEO of Applied Imagination, in an email interview.

The USBG and Applied Imagination began working together in 2004. One of the first models created for the USBG by Applied Imagination was the U.S. Capitol. 

The D.C. landmarks collection now encompasses 22 models. The newest additions to the collection are the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the National Gallery of Art East Building, and the Summerhouse on Capitol Grounds.

Dotson encourages visitors to explore the plant-based models closely to see how artists have captured the fine details.

“You’ve got the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian Castle, which themselves are very ornate and have a lot of detail in real life,” Dotson said. “Our sculptural models have so many different seeds and cinnamon sticks and wheat and acorn caps, all sorts of stuff. I mean, there’s several hundred different plant parts that are used to create these.”

There will be extended hours for live holiday music in the evenings on three Thursdays in December: Dec. 14, Dec. 21, and Dec. 28. The U.S. Botanic Garden is free and open every day except Christmas.


The U.S. Capitol model took more than 600 hours to build, featuring materials like acorn caps and wheat. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The Lincoln Memorial model is made of seagrape leaves, corn husks, gourd, and more. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The Jefferson Memorial model has a gourd dome and Jefferson’s figure includes lichens for his hair and cinnamon for his coat. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The White House model’s construction materials include palm frond stems, cinnamon curls, and pine cone scales. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial model, one of the newer additions, is made of horse chestnut bark, breadfruit leaf, and more. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The U.S. Supreme Court model includes beech nuts and shelf fungus. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The model of the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson building includes pistachio shell in the façade and bamboo in the columns and windows. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)


The outdoor train display put a spotlight on 10 pollinators, including the pygmy possum. (Khadija Ahmed/MNS)