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Drought dooms plants at National Arboretum

At the U.S. National Arboretum, a mainstay on the capital's cultural landscape for more than 70 years, the distress signs are everywhere. Leaves are scorched brown, branches have wilted and meadows crunch underfoot. Sensing the end is near, trees sprout pine cones and fruit abundantly in a last desperate attempt to reproduce.

The 446-acre outdoor museum in northeast Washington is in danger of losing a significant portion of some of its plant and tree collections because of this summer's drought, scientists at the arboretum say.

"It's depressing to see, especially when you've put so much work into it," said Scott Aker, a horticulturist at the arboretum, which draws more than 400,000 visitors a year.

Intensive irrigation is expected to preserve the core collections, but several specimens in the crab apple, maple, spruce and other sections have little chance of survival.

"That one won't make it," Aker said repeatedly as he toured the grounds, pointing to a dying dogwood or azalea bush. "That big white oak, probably 100 to 150 years old, won't make it either."

This is the worst drought the arboretum has faced, its scientists say, exacerbated by the fact that the previous two summers were dry as well.

As evidence, they point to specimens that were here when the national garden was founded in 1927 and have weathered everything nature has thrown at them until this summer.

And little relief is in sight.

At this stage, a few isolated rainfalls will not do the trick, the scientists say. A prolonged series of rains is needed to restore moisture to the soil, which is dry to a depth of 12 to 18 inches.

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