It just isn’t Christmas until you’ve gone down to the U.S. Botanic Garden to see a bunch of iconic American train stations painstakingly rendered in tree bark. If this is your holiday motto, then this year’s Christmas will truly be a merry one, my odd friend! A new seasonal exhibit at the Botanic Garden features dozens of plant-based miniature train stations for your holiday pleasure. After two visits, I can safely say that Season’s Greenings: All Aboard! is the absolute best bark-centric model railway exhibit that your family will see this year.
The Botanic Garden erects an extensive model train setup each Christmas featuring elaborate sylvan replicas of famous American structures. Season’s Greenings is the name of the recurring exhibit, which is a bit of a misnomer, because most of the structures are brown. In 2017, Season’s Greenings featured trains scooting around plant-based renditions of famed American roadside attractions; in 2016, the exhibit focused on national parks and historic sites. I am not entirely sure how arboreal model-making became such a beloved D.C. holiday tradition, but I suspect the National Twig Council is to blame.
This year the Garden is doing train stations, which seems a bit on-the-nose compared to previous installations, but who cares! Give the people what they want, I say, and what they want is twig-based scale models of Metro-North stations. The exhibit, which runs through New Year’s Day, features over two dozen different models, all of which are testimonials to the artistic versatility of wood. Every design detail on every train station, from the roofs to the façades to the lettering above the doors, was made out of some sort of woodsy plant—a construction process that clearly required great dexterity and imagination.
“How faithful are these models to their inspirations?” you ask. Reader, the answer is “very.”
There is no mistaking these structures for anything except their namesake train stations. “Yep, that’s Grand Central Terminal made out of sticks and bark,” you will say as you pause in front of said exhibit. “Oh, look, it’s some other train station now,” you will say next.
Be forewarned: The construction materials offer a limited color palette that does not always correspond to the true tones and hues of the buildings being modeled. Browns and tans are the dominant shades—though there are some striking reds to be found here and there—and they tend to make the stations look sooty and bleak, the sorts of places where a Victorian orphan might catch tuberculosis. Also, I would have gladly swapped out some of the smaller, more obscure train stations on display, such as the unprepossessing model of the Kirkwood Missouri Pacific Depot, for some stations with more local appeal, such as the New Carrollton Metro stop. Oh well!
That said, there are some truly impressive showpieces on display here. The model of Cincinnati’s impressive Art Deco half dome Union Terminal was particularly striking, with the façade rendered gracefully in cork bark and the roof done in cedar. Likewise, the imposing model of the mammoth Michigan Central Station was faced in cork and elm bark, with columns from honeysuckle branches and other flora, and trim rendered in oak, walnut, and cottonwood bark, among other tree-based things. And I enjoyed the part where you peered into a hollowed-out tree to see a diorama of the interior of the old Penn Station. I am always game to look into a hollow tree to see what’s inside, and usually the answer is nowhere near as entertaining.
Those visitors who are into trains, not terminals, will also find much to like about Season’s Greenings: All Aboard! There are trains tootling around the stations and through the stations; trains chugging overhead on wooden bridgespanning wooden cliffs. Thomas the Tank Engine, of children’s television fame, even makes an appearance, steaming through the “Dino Depot” while baring his famous dopey grin. The “Dino Depot,” in case you were wondering, is an imaginary train station that resembles a large, predatory dinosaur with a roof for a back. It’s the big surprise near the end of the exhibit: a whimsical final touch on this thoroughly delightful installation.
At 100 Maryland Ave. SW to Jan. 1, 2019. Free. (202) 225-8333. usbg.gov.