These Are America's Most Gorgeous Botanical Gardens
None of us are doing much traveling right now, but one of the few finer things in life that remain (somewhat) accessible and still offer six feet of distance between people are our green spaces. While our country has some awe-inspiring national parks, for the majority of people who dwell in cities, getting out to those parks to commune with nature isn't always easy. And, sure, there are a wealth of great city parks to escape the chaos, but on a nice day, they can be thronged, even now (seriously, stop thronging things).
For a real oasis -- a slice of private forest amid the urban jungle -- find your way to a botanical garden. Or, if they're closed -- and many are... be sure to check before going) -- at the very least you can gaze at some gorgeous photos of them or even take a virtual tour while you plan your next inner-city nature immersion.
St. Louis, Missouri
Imagine you retire at 39, but the year is 1840 so there are no Ferraris or Gulfstreams to blow your money on. What would you do? Create an American botanical garden in the style of the great ones of Europe, of course. That's what Henry Shaw did when he developed the 75 acres that surrounded his country home into one of the most beautiful places in Middle America. The gardens include his historic house and a Victorian-era observatory, one of the largest Japanese gardens on the continent, and a Turkish garden reminiscent of a Mediterranean villa. Its centerpiece is the Climatron, a geodesic dome where you can experience climates from Hawaii, Arizona, and the coast of Italy all in a Midwestern winter's afternoon, before stepping back outside to meet blown-glass sculptures and 6,800 species of plants.
The Bronx, New York
Central Park will forever be the most renowned urban respite for perpetually cramped New Yorkers, but nothing relaxes a city dweller like a trip to the NYBG. The park spans more than 250 acres, including 50 acres of preserved forestland and 50 gardens with more than a million species of plants. It's also home to America's largest Victorian-era glass house at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, where guests walk from desert to tropical landscapes and see the world's largest collection of indoor palm trees. The garden is more than just an exhibition: it educates some 90,000 underserved students a year, and even boasts its own printing company.
This 230-acre piece of parkland between Lake Washington and I-5 is worth visiting even if you don't get out of your car (which, at the moment, is pretty clutch). The main road meandering through the park is lined with blooming trees in the spring, and the rare (in Washington, anyway) deciduous trees in the fall. The scenic drive is just the warm-up, though. Step out of the car and you're surrounded by meticulously landscaped gardens throughout the wetlands and woodlands, leading to the park's crown jewel, the Japanese Garden. It's the largest of its kind outside Japan and home to the most impressive collection of cherry blossoms in the Pacific Northwest every spring.
DC is more than just cherry blossoms. The idea of a garden on the National Mall was first floated by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison in the late 1700s. It was created in 1820, formally established in 1850, and has lived at its current location since 1933. The garden isn't huge -- it occupies only a couple of city blocks -- but is a serene, scenic respite in the shadow of the US Capitol. The conservatory contains desert as well as tropical environments, which make for handy placse to warm up during the winter. In the springtime, the garden opens up its 34-greenhouse, 85,000-square-foot production facility in Anacostia (Southeast DC) so visitors can see the massive operation that supports the national garden. And because the founding fathers would've wanted it this way, the whole thing is free for visitors.
Koloa, Kauai, Hawaii
These may not be urban gardens, but if you happen to be on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, they deserve a long, lingering visit. These gardens in the Lawai Valley, which were prominently in Jurassic Park and the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean flick, are the only tropical gardens established by congressional charter. They make up two-fifths of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a federally established park that stretches throughout the Hawaiian Islands. These two gardens sit on the south shore of Kauai, a former sugar plantation that was once a vacation destination for American royalty (looking good, Jackie O) and is now a tropical paradise accessible to the public. They're home to the largest collection of Hawaiian plants on Earth and offer the only access to Allerton Beach. And in McBryde Garden you can take a hidden trail to a seldom-seen waterfall.
Fort Worth, Texas
Dallas' sometimes overlooked sibling city is not only home to one of the best zoos in the nation, it also rocks this grand botanical garden -- the oldest in Texas. The 110-acre property has 22 gardens and 2,500 species of plants, and admission to the main garden is free. For a few bucks, though, you can wander through the koi pools, stone bridges, and waterfalls of the Japanese garden or the tropical foliage of the conservancy. Next door is the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, where educational programs and rotating exhibits teach visitors about what's in the gardens.
Many of the students at Gainesville's University of Florida don't even know the place exists, and that's a shame. The paths here wind through swamps with live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and through a rose garden, rock garden, and butterfly gardens. The park's two dozen collections include the state's largest collection of bamboos, the biggest herb garden in the Southeast, and ponds full of giant Victorian water lilies. At the park's edge visitors can relax on a bench and enjoy sweeping views of 250-acre Lake Kanapaha.
San Francisco, California
It's no wonder that San Francisco, with weather that shifts quicker than a Game of Thrones plotline, can produce one of the most naturally biodiverse botanical gardens in the world. The 55-acre gardens in Golden Gate Park are home to 8,000 different kinds of plants, native to climates from all parts of the world. High-elevation tropical gardens befitting equatorial mountains? Check. Native California redwoods? Of course. The most diverse collection of Magnolias outside China? Sure! Why not! And beyond the plant diversity there's a garden completely devoted to fragrant flowers and one devoted entirely to moon gazing. Because it still is San Francisco, after all.
Canandaigua, New York
The Gilded Age mansion (named for the German translation of "sunny hill") is really the undercard to the main attraction at this New York State Historic Park. The meticulously landscaped grounds make up one of only two public gardens in the New York State Parks system. Here, you’ll be greeted by striking architecture sprinkled between more than a dozen gardens and greenhouses that offer up the sort of features one would expect in a garden five times the size, including a sublimely diverse rose gardenman Italian garden full of blue and red perennials, and the Sub-Rosa Garden featuring a marble fountain, cherubim statues, and a deep pool. This nonprofit garden relies on donations, so don’t forget to show your appreciation at the door.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
South Carolina's premier botanical garden might be the most educational in America. Not only is this place home to a vast array of Lowcountry vegetation, it boasts one of the most impressive collections of outdoor sculptures in America. These gardens are home to 1,440 works -- 550 of which are displayed at a given time -- by 300 of the best sculptors the country has ever seen. Also, there’s a zoo! The E. Craig Wall, Jr. Lowcountry Center has educational programs on the history of the region, and, as an added bonus, a single admission is good for a week. Meaning, you can make it a daily visit in one of the 25 best beach cities in the US.
That great rock 'n' roll philosopher Dick Valentine once asked, "What's so great about a buckeye?" Clearly, Dick had never been to the Franklin Park Conservatory, where in addition to housing 400 plant species ranging from tropical to Himalayan, there's also an incubator for buckeye trees. Ohio's state tree aside, this park was also the first in America to have a seasonal butterfly exhibition, where for the past 22 years tropical butterflies have fluttered through the Pacific Island Water Garden. Franklin Park is also home to a Hot Shop where visitors can watch artists blow glass. And every night the John F. Wolfe Palm House is lit up by 7,000 LED lights, creating an in-park explosion of color after dark.the John F. Wolfe Palm House is lit up by 7,000 LED lights, creating an in-park explosion of color after dark.
Say this for Texans: they really do go all-out. The DFW Metroplex boasts two of the best botanical gardens in America, the more famous of which is this 66-acre park that opened in 1984. The park and arboretum is home to 19 gardens -- there’s a magnolia glade, a pecan grove, even trial gardens where scientists see how various plants react to the North Texas environment. It's also home to the biggest spring flower festival in the Southwest with 500,000 blooms park-wide. And in the fall? The gardens are saturated with 50,000 pumpkins. Definitely come back here in the fall.
Coral Gables, Florida
Located far down Old Cutler Road from the steel and glass high-rises of Brickell, and across Biscayne Bay from the bright lights of South Beach, this 83-acre tropical oasis sits as a shady escape in Miami's coolest suburb. Here visitors can get a taste for what Miami was like before the swamps were dredged -- mangrove gardens, pine rocklands, and palm savannahs dot the landscape. Flamingos huddle in the shallow lakes under the palms. The collections here are impressive to say the least: 40 species of tropical birds at the Wings of the Tropics conservancy, and another 450 species of rare plants in the 16,500sqft Tropical Plant Conservancy. While communing with nature might not be at the top of everyone's Miami to-do list, a trip here feels more tropical than almost anywhere in the city.
This is a particularly fun one; botanical gardens need not be green to be lush. The folks at the Arizona Native Plant Society, who established this place in 1939, wanted to educate people about the unique plant and animal life of the Sonoran Desert, as well as the people who call it home. The result is this 140-acre garden in Papago Park where five different walking loops take visitors through desert wildflowers, arid herb gardens, and lessons about how people have long lived in the desert. It boasts 50,000 plants throughout the five trails, and -- if you go when it's not 110 degrees outside -- it's a scenic, educational way to enjoy the warm Arizona sunshine.
Though a rose garden isn't technically a botanical garden, PORTLAND DOESN'T NEED TO PLAY BY YOUR RULES, MAN! It's also the Rose City, so logic would dictate it would be home to a place designated to test new varieties of roses, including one of only six gardens to test miniature roses. The place has more quirks: its individual rose plots have names like Neil Diamond, Prima Donna, and Baby Boomer, and the Shakespeare Garden was originally intended to only include plant life mentioned in the Bard's plays. The whole thing sits on only 4.5 terraced acres, most of which have sweeping views of Downtown Portland, the Willamette River, and -- on clear days -- Mount Hood. And if you haven't gotten your fill, the Rose Garden is in Portland's sprawling Washington Park, meaning you can stroll over to the city's lush Japanese Garden or hike through a patch of old-growth forest to the famous Hoyt Arboretum.
San Marino, California
At a sprawling 120 acres, LA County's Huntington is less a singular garden and more a Russian doll of landscape architecture spanning continents and climates. Here, you can stroll through an Alice in Wonderland-style interactive children’s garden outside a complex housing a miniature rainforest; saunter over to a fully realized Chinese garden complete with waterfalls and noodle bar under a pagoda; transition through a bamboo forest and emerge in an ancient-seeming Japanese garden with koi pond, zen gardens, and bonsai; zip down a path into an eucalyptus-spotted Australian garden en route to peaceful lily-ponds that butt up against a sweeping desert garden; and end up taking high tea in an English-style rose garden. Along the way, you’ll find galleries displaying priceless art, ancient artifacts, a massive library, restaurants, wine bars, hidden sculptures, and more. Two years in as members, and we still haven’t seen everything. But we keep trying, every weekend, in one of Southern California’s most serene and impressive garden landscapes.