Earthly delights: the world’s best botanical gardens
Are you a plant lover? If not, it might come as a surprise that flower power draws millions of travellers to botanical gardens every year, with the most famous of them attracting more than a million visitors each.
What makes for a truly great garden? According to architect Luis Barragán, it must ‘combine the poetic and the mysterious with a feeling of serenity and joy’. Botanists and gardeners would add accurate labels and spectacular rarities to the list of requirements; for travellers, a sense of place and culture are key; kids, meanwhile, might lobby for stuff to stare at other than plants – and probably snacks.
The botanical gardens that thrive today have found new ways to generate buzz: treetop walkways, outdoor concerts, art installations, restaurants, play areas and more. Here are some of the most spectacular, sure to please confirmed anthophiles and the soon-to-be-converted alike.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Cape Town
Sitting next to South Africa’s Table Mountain National Park, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden enjoys an enviable backdrop. Of the garden’s over 1300 acres, less than 10 per cent is cultivated; the rest is wild. This area protects the indigenous fauna and South Africa’s unique fynbos, a scrubby vegetation typified by members of the heath family, the protea family, as well as shrubs familiar to tea drinkers: rooibos and honeybush. Trails take visitors from the formal garden into the wildland, including two routes up Table Mountain for the more adventurous. The garden is also home to a statue collection, including a bust of Nelson Mandela, a range of African stone sculptures, as well as life-sized dinosaurs skulking among the cycads.
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Gardens by the Bay, Singapore
What does the future of green building look like? It might be something like Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, which is certainly futuristic (and green). Costing a cool USD$1 billion, the gardens include a vast Flower Dome replicating dry Mediterranean climates, a Cloud Forest with a thundering waterfall, and a skyway that curls between the trunks of the architectural ‘Supertrees’, not to mention a water park in the children’s garden and a dazzling evening light show. If your tastes run more traditional, just five miles away is another contender: the historic Singapore Botanic Gardens, home to the National Orchid Garden.
Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro
Look down the slopes of Corcovado Mountain, below the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, and you’ll see Rio de Janeiro’s 345-acre Jardim Botânico, part manicured garden, part wild forest. The 134 towering specimens of the garden’s much-photographed Avenue of Royal Palms all descend from a single tree dating back to near the garden’s founding in 1808. Orchid fanciers should head to the orquidário to see around 600 species, while lovers of air plants and pineapples will have plenty to ogle among the gardens 15,000 specimens of bromeliads in the bromeliário greenhouse and scattered around the grounds.
Kew Gardens, London
Kew Gardens has everything that makes for a great botanical garden: history, diversity, rare plants, glasshouses, clear signage, active scholarship and education, landscaping, and attractions for visitors that don’t know their stamen from their stigma. Just a short train ride from central London, Kew is a peaceful, leafy wonderland that can take days to explore fully. Don’t miss the newly restored Temperate House (the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse), the 200m-long, 18m-high treetop walkway or The Hive, a multisensory sculpture offering an insight into the lives of Kew’s bees. Spring visitors will get the added bonus of bluebells carpeting the woods.
Butchart Gardens, Vancouver Island
Butchart Gardens, a short drive from Victoria, started life as a quarry pit for a cement plant. Once the limestone deposits had run out, owner Jennie Butchart wanted something more scenic for her backyard and started to create what is today the Sunken Garden at one of Vancouver Island’s most popular attractions. The gardens are renowned for their rose collection, the autumn colours from the Japanese maple garden, and as a destination for a fancy afternoon tea. Butchart’s waterfront location gives visitors the option to arrive by boat (or seaplane, if you happen to have one), both a scenic and practical option as it skips the crowds at the main entrance.
Like other gardens throughout Japan, you can expect bright leaves falling from maples in autumn, and tall stands of swaying bamboo, but the gardens at Saihō-ji are famed for something smaller: moss. Over 120 species of moss carpet the grounds (and buildings) at the over 1200-year-old temple and Unesco World Heritage Site, hence its nickname ‘koke-dera’ (Moss Temple). Don’t expect tiny signs with Latin names: unless you bring a hand lens, the way to appreciate this garden is to take in the subtle changes in green, the varied textures, and the way nature and human landscaping have achieved harmony over centuries. Plan ahead: Saihō-ji strictly limits the number of visitors to maintain the religious atmosphere of the temple, and visitors must obtain a reservation by mailing a request by post at least three weeks in advance (a template letter is available online).
National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kaua’i
Headquartered in Kaua’i, the multi-site National Tropical Botanical Garden is working to preserve tropical plant diversity and protect rare species on the verge of extinction. Most visitors head to the Allerton and McBryde Gardens on the South Shore near Po’ipu. The Allerton Gardenis a landscape architect’s tropical dream carved into the Lawaʻi Valley, complete with its own river and beach. The garden and its Moreton Bay fig trees with their undulating buttresses have appeared in numerous movies and TV shows, from South Pacific to Jurassic Park. For a self-guided tour, visitors can ride a shuttle to the McBryde Garden and explore 50 acres with important native Hawaiian ethnobotanical species, tropical spice plants from around the world and canoe plants brought by the early Polynesian settlers. On the North Shore, Limahuli Garden is a near-mystical trip back in time to the settlers’ first gardens.
Isola Madre, Italian Lakes
Sometimes a great garden is all about location. It’s hard to imagine one more romantic than Isola Madre, one of the tiny Borromean Islands in Italy’s Lake Maggiore. Set against a backdrop of snow-capped Alps, this lavish garden surrounds a 16th- to 18th-century palazzo. Inside you can find Countess Borromeo’s doll collection, including a rather frightening collection of hellish puppets. Best to stay outside with the white peacocks, plus a remarkable collection of rhododendrons, camellias and other exotic flowering plants. Nearby Isola Bella, which features more gardens, more peacocks, and one of the most fanciful palazzos in Italy, can be visited on a combined ferry ticket.