The botanical garden explores the culture of food and its evolution

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Did you know that crayons, chalk, toothpaste, sneakers, and even diapers contain materials that somehow come from corn? That one-fifth of the land in the contiguous United States is used to grow crops? Or that 1 in 3 American households – whether on farms, in backyards and community gardens, or on balconies and windowsills – grows some of their own food?

A new exhibit at the US Botanic Garden (USBG) covers these topics and more. “Farming: Growing Food in a Changing World” shows how farming is not just an activity that takes place on distant farms, but something that shapes almost every aspect of our existence.

“Farming is part of our daily lives, and it’s in a lot of everyday things that we’ve never thought about,” says Amy Bolton, the museum’s learning and engagement manager.

The exhibition, the largest ever organized by the USBG, is distributed throughout the glazed building of the veranda. The entrance courtyard is filled with once-wild species of plants and trees, many from the tropics or subtropics, which humans have cultivated to make them more suitable for food or other needs. These include coconuts, bananas, coffee, citrus fruits, bamboo, and cocoa (pronounced kuh-KAU), a plant whose seeds are used to make chocolate.

The exhibit highlights some popular dishes to show how even meals that don’t seem to contain many agricultural products can still rely on agriculture. Take sushi, for example: although the seafood and seaweed used to wrap it come from the ocean, not only the rice, but also the flavorings – like soy, wasabi and ginger – come from plants.

A section on the cultural aspects of what we eat features three chefs with local connections, and it appeals to almost all five senses. For example, visitors can listen to a recording by African-American food historian Michael Twitty talk about cooking; see and touch a recreation of his kitchen layout (including jars of pickled okra and hot sauce); and smell a container of chili salt. Elsewhere there are profiles and video interviews with farmers around the world.

Two large maps made with cereals and legumes show which staple foods – such as rice, corn, barley, quinoa or teff – are most common in different parts of the world. Another section examines five plants, including wheat and sugar cane, that have transformed food systems and economies and, in some cases, shaped human migration.

Outside, in Bartholdi Park, a vegetable garden features edible plants that grow in North America. Vegetables like lettuce, chard, peppers and leeks, as well as herbs like cilantro, basil, dill and parsley, are now in season.

In a neat twist, some materials in the exhibit were made through agriculture. Most of the walls and graphics use cardboard produced with wheat straw, while one bench’s linoleum incorporates jute and linseed oil. You can sit on stools covered with sunflower petals and seeds.

Plant-based surfaces and furniture are just another way Bolton hopes the exhibit will broaden people’s ideas about agriculture. “Farming is science, farming is food, farming is people, it’s culture,” she says.

What: “Grow: grow food in a changing world”

Where: United States Botanical Garden, 100 Maryland Avenue in Southwest Washington.

When: Until December 2023. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information: Call 202-225-8333 or visit usbg.gov.

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