A bucket list of 11 botanic gardens
to visit during your lifetime, recommended
by the senior curator of Denver Botanic Gardens.
By Panayoti Kelaidis
Savvy travelers—and not just the plant-obsessed—know botanic gardens are some of the best places to visit when traveling. They often give you a first taste of nature in your destination, and help prepare you to properly enjoy the novel countryside you may be visiting.
Botanic gardens are, of course, beautiful places and relatively underappreciated, so you often have them to yourself. I can’t say how many times I’ve found myself in a paradise setting in some garden around the world, with thousands of glorious trees, shrubs and perennials blooming their heads off seemingly just for me!
Botanic gardens invariably provide a respite and antidote to the often hectic pace of traveling. With more than 1,000 such gardens scattered worldwide, you have many to choose from. Here are ones I’ve found rewarding every time I visit, and I suggest you make a point of visiting them, too—assuming they aren’t already on your own favorites list.
Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Md., doesn’t advertise itself as a botanic garden, but few gardens I’ve ever visited contain more interesting or better-labeled collections, or feature such a variety of plant combinations and splendid, artistic gardens. Here you’ll find a children’s fairy garden, a butterfly garden, an aquatic garden, a fragrance garden and many more—all open to the public for free, although donations are welcome.
Brookside’s beauty has made it the site of choice for many brides and grooms. As for me, I believe this modest, 50-acre garden not far from Washington, D.C., is a model of balance and excellence that botanic gardens elsewhere should strive to emulate.
Kew is chief among the world’s botanic gardens, and it’s one of London’s top visitor attractions. Its formal name is Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, but locals just call it Kew Gardens.
The site is a world leader in plant science and conservation, and renowned worldwide for its long history (it celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009) and cutting-edge science. More than a hundred research scientists work at the site, and the herbarium is unquestionably the world’s best—not just in size, but in the number of types of species and in the remarkable way it’s organized and constantly updated and monitored. The herbarium, which contains more than 7 million specimens, is only open to the public on special occasions, but the gardens are open all the time, and they are vast.
The curvaceous Palm House, a Victorian tropical glasshouse built between 1844 and 1848, is not to be missed. But I believe Kew’s alpine section—especially its fantastically arched Alpine House, is its strongest suit. And I like the rose garden by the Palm House a great deal, too. If you adore just about every plant on the planet, you’ll certainly find it somewhere on Kew’s 300 acres.
For horticultural enthusiasts throughout the world, Sweden’s Gothenburg is synonymous with choice plants, incredible selection and cutting-edge gardening. The entire site is about 430 acres, with the garden proper occupying about 100 acres.
No garden I have visited takes more meticulous care of its plants or contains such huge collections of rare bulbs, woodlanders and alpines. Gothenburg’s bulb displays are renowned for their variety and inclusion of rare species. The woodland gardens are likewise especially rich in American and Asian woodlanders, but the alpine garden and greenhouses are bursting with variety and dramatic beauty—a must-see any time you are in Sweden.
The Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, established in 1670 as a physic garden to grow medicinal plants, has an outstanding herbarium that contains 3 million specimens. But if pressed, I would say the RBG, Edinburgh is the most exquisite public garden of its kind in its artistic design and fabulous collections of hardy plants. You’ll also find tropical greenhouses here, along with desert and fern greenhouses.
But the rock garden is the unquestioned gem of this garden, and the finest exemplar of the art in any public garden worldwide, along with the site’s vast complex of alpine houses and frames. The large woodland garden, next to the rock garden, is mostly filled with Asian plants and is every bit as beautiful. RBG recently underwent a major overhaul and is now more dazzling than ever!
Although I’d been to Germany before, this past May I had my first opportunity to visit eight botanical gardens there, and that sizable sampling led me to believe that Germany may be the world’s treasure trove of gardens. Practically any sizable town is apt to have a municipal botanic garden, and often a university botanical garden as well, if there is a university there—and there usually is.
The country’s professional organization recognizes more than 100 botanic gardens, and most are run on strict scientific lines. For example, you can expect most German botanic gardens to contain “order beds”—linear beds where plants are lined out by their family affiliations. Sometimes order beds are very sophisticated, incorporating information from the “new” botany of cladistics and DNA studies. Most contain native plant beds, and there’s almost always a superb rock garden and pond. Although similar, each garden has its specialty, and nowhere is the science of botany honored more or displayed more artistically than in the following three gardens I visited.
Considered one of the more modern German botanic gardens, Botanischer Garten in Hamburg—a very upscale, businesslike town—is a lollapalooza of a garden, with a superb showcase of plants and gardening techniques. There’s something for everyone here—vast woodland gardens of rhododendrons and wildflowers, a fabulous rock garden, and a collection of South American plants that blew my mind. Plus, a whole forest of monkey-puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana), which I never dreamed would be hardy enough to grow there. Hamburg does things in a grand way, so plan lots of time when you visit here.
Sophisticated German botanists assure me that Frankfurt is the gem of German botanical gardens—high praise indeed! There’s no question that if you combine the Palmengarten (the municipal botanic garden) with the vast Goethe University botanic garden next door, this may be the world’s most extraordinary botanic garden.
Frankfurt seems to have everything: lavish tropical collections, the most amazing succulent greenhouses, fantastic indoor forests of palm trees taken outdoors in summer, and many structures with special plants, from western American plants to fabulous Asian collections. The old university section has the most amazing naturalistic gardens that stunningly show the ecosystems of Germany. You can even tour the expansive grounds on a train. Frankfurt’s gardens are not to be missed!
Germany’s ample botanic graces include the Munich Botanical Garden at Nymphenburg, which I’ve heard about all my life. Finally arriving there, I dashed around so anxiously to see the numerous highlights, my legs would not support me to extend the visit to the even vaster Nymphenburg Palace grounds that are full of formal gardens—another visit for another time!
I must say that just the Munich Botanical Garden is about as perfect a public garden as can be imagined, with dozens of gardens including a vast tapestry-like display of annuals and perennials just inside the front gate. The impeccable colors dazzle all who enter. The greenhouses are extensive and superb, and the alpine garden is one of the two or three best in the world. It rules!
The smallest of the botanic gardens included here, this 10-acre gem in Raleigh, N.C., has an enormous ambition—few gardens have had a greater impact on the horticultural industry than this working laboratory of plant studies. And it is beautifully laid out, full of treasures and open to the public without charge.
The arboretum is an official All-American Selections testing site that grows and evaluates more than 700 different annuals and perennials a year. The rose and Japanese gardens are not to be missed, but the whole site is a joy for plant lovers.
If you go anywhere near Raleigh, plan at least half a day to properly explore the incredibly sophisticated and rich collection of plants at this arboretum, named for its first director, a visionary horticulturist who helped revolutionize public gardening in his much too brief lifetime.
I have visited the Huntington practically every month of the year and it never fails to dazzle. The 120-acre site is nestled not far from the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in San Marino, Calif. The collections here, however, are from all over the world.
There are gardens of tropical trees, a wonderful rose garden, an exquisite Japanese garden and a large Chinese garden. The gem of Huntington, however, is undeniably its 10-acre desert garden featuring more than 5,000 species, including forests of aloes, South African plants abloom much of the winter, and fantastic New World cacti, agaves, succulents and all manner of woody lilies ablaze in spring and summer.
Interestingly, Huntington’s founder, railroad magnate Henry Huntington, did not want a desert garden due to unfortunate encounters with prickly pears during railroad construction. But William Hertrich, the site’s first garden curator, eventually won Huntington over and the world’s a pleasantly pricklier place for it!
Kirstenbosch in Cape Town, South Africa, lays claim to many features—any one of which might place it at the top of the list. This garden is surely one of the most artistically placed on earth, situated on the side of a massive mountain. In fact, it comprises the whole south face of Table Mountain, a locale full of rare plants and more wild species than the entire state of Colorado.
Kirstenbosch was founded in 1913 to preserve the country’s unique flora, making it the first botanical garden in the world with this ethos, and only indigenous plants are cultivated. With very few exceptions—such as an avenue of camphor trees that antedate the garden—everything planted here is of wild origin and strictly South African, and considering that the collection comprises more than 10,000 taxa, that’s a tall order indeed.
These plants are displayed in usually naturalistic groupings to highlight South Africa’s special plant families—surely a challenging task. The garden has public restaurants, sculpture exhibits and a huge concert series—providing a model of botanic gardens as a community asset, much like Denver’s. Kirstenbosch celebrates its 100th anniversary this summer.
Würzburg, in southern Germany, doesn’t have the largest collections, nor does it show everything in the plant kingdom. It is, nevertheless, my favorite because it’s the only botanic garden besides Denver’s to focus on plants of the steppes. An extremely large central garden features North American plants, and I was shocked to see dozens of native western wildflowers growing better here than they do in our own Colorado gardens. The alpine collections are the finest in Europe. Indeed, Würzburg showcases the most difficult and challenging plants to grow, using pioneering technologies to do so.
The tour de force is a vast wall full of woodland treasures and shady rock plants opposite an immense dry bluff planted with tens of thousands of prime dryland plants from eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and Central Asia. It’s the most stunning display of its kind on earth. Würzburg is truly a gardener’s garden!
Panayoti Kelaidis is senior curator and director of outreach at Denver Botanic Gardens.