My favorite time to visit botanic gardens is the spring, when millions of blossoms appear in a panoply of colors and scents and much of the world begins to turn green again. But these sensuous gardens aren’t the exclusive domain of warm weather. A crisp autumn day elicits sizzling crimsons and golds, and winter presents life in unexpected and fascinating ways. They’re more than just a pretty diversion, too: They can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. These are my favorites.
#1 The Butchart Gardens (Brentwood Bay, British Columbia)
About 15 miles north of Victoria, the internationally renowned Butchart Gardens has been displaying an extraordinary explosion of riotous flowers and plants for more than a century. It’s easy to spend an entire day here, wandering around the meticulously maintained 55 acres and being completely awed by the displays, no matter what season. I was there in the spring, when the grounds burst into an unending spectrum of stimulating hues and shades, when magnolias scent the air and more than 160 varieties of tulips spread pure cheer. Although spring maintains the greatest popularity here, the other seasons boast some pretty impressive charms, too. Summer awakens the Rose Garden, while Japanese maples set fire to the sky in autumn, and pink heather adds splashes of color during the grays of the winter. Within the deep walls of the old quarry that used to operate here, the Sunken Garden—a Canadian treasure—is a beguiling palette of annuals, flowering trees, and unique shrubs, and the Ross Fountain entertains with its shifting spray patterns. A full-color flower guide will help you identify both the familiar and the strange blooms, and by the time you’ve completed your visit, you’ll be eager to scour the gift shop in search of seeds to take home and create your own mini-Butchart.
#2 Christchurch Botanic Gardens (Christchurch, New Zealand)
Botanic gardens are usually all about the flowers for me, but at Christchurch Botanic Gardens, trees rule. Oh, there are plenty of beautiful roses, kōwhais, rhododendrons, and calla lilies to admire and inhale throughout the gardens’ 52 acres as well as water and rock gardens. The wonderfully playful Peacock Fountain brings a smile to your face, and the Avon River that meanders through the gardens and that can be crossed at three separate bridges adds a touch of pastoral tranquility. But these gardens, just a few blocks from Cathedral Square in the heart of Christchurch, also show off a superb collection of majestic and curious trees, which echoes its founding, in 1863, with the planting of an English oak to commemorate the marriage of Prince Albert and Princess Alexandra of Denmark that same year. Monkey puzzle trees, royal purple beech trees, Monterey cypresses, trees with twisting trunks that look like tornadoes, trees with bare, curling branches resting on the ground like elongated limbs, suspiciously waiting to snatch you up as you pass by—you’ll be charmed by all of them and never look at a leafy giant the same way.
#3 Missouri Botanical Garden (St. Louis, Missouri)
Created in 1859, Missouri Botanical Garden is the oldest botanic garden in continuous operation in the United States, declared a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I spent more time here than I had anticipated, as this garden unfolded as the most beautiful in the United States. Its 79 acres are a sensory delight for the eyes and nose, filled with fragrant rose and iris gardens, an herb garden, magnolias and camellias, and orchids and flowering dogwoods. It also offers a wonderful international perspective, with its Ottoman, Chinese, Victorian, English woodland, and German gardens as well as one of the largest Japanese gardens in North America. You can wander around an observatory, the world’s first geodesic dome greenhouse, and both the original estate home and the mausoleum of the garden’s founder. And be on the lookout for special events, like a display of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures or the annual Chinese Culture Days, when even more vibrant colors enliven this already spectacular garden.
#4 Keukenhof (Lisse, Netherlands)
One of Europe’s most famous gardens, Keukenhof occupies the former hunting grounds of a 15th-century castle in the town of Lisse, about 20 miles from Amsterdam. Created in 1949, the garden contains more than seven million flowers—including daffodils, azaleas, hyacinths, roses, chrysanthemums, callas, orchids, bromelias, lilies, and 800 varieties of tulips—spread like vibrant carpets over its 79 acres. Every year, landscapers reveal their artistry by creating new designs throughout the grounds and introducing new thematic gardens. This year, the Golden Age Garden specializes in flowers brought to the Netherlands during the country’s glory era; the Beach Garden recreates a seaside environment; and the Delfts Blauw Garden sports blue and white spring bulb flowers that reflect the country’s obsession with similarly colored Delftware porcelain. Keukenhof is a true spring garden, open only about eight weeks every year. Although it can be crowded (but not oppressively so) with nearly one million visitors per year who come to marvel at the blooms during that short window of opportunity, Keukenhof will charm you like no other place in the Netherlands.
#5 VanDusen Botanical Garden (Vancouver, British Columbia)
Two totem poles welcome you at the entrance to this former golf course. Once you’re on the grounds, you’ll be enchanted by its lakes and ponds, ashes, ferns, rhododendrons, giant redwoods, maples, cedars, waterfalls, fountains, and a collection of flowers and ornamental plants from around the world. Opened in 1975, the 55-acre VanDusen Botanical Garden also features stone sculptures, a Korean pavilion, and a hedge maze. Themed gardens include the seasonal vegetable and fragrances gardens. Ecosystems ranging from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas to Louisiana swamps are represented as well. Robins, swallows, song sparrows, and turtles call the garden home. VanDusen is a truly delightful garden to stroll around in any season; it’s also a terrifically serene spot to enjoy a delicious outdoor brunch of eggs benedict and mimosas at one of its eateries, during which the aroma of Canadian bacon will compete with the bouquet of the flowers all around you for your nose’s attention.
- University of Alberta Botanic Garden (Devon, Alberta)
- Brooklyn Botanic Garden (Brooklyn, New York)
- UBC Botanical Garden (Vancouver, British Columbia)
- Bellevue Botanical Garden (Bellevue, Washington)
- Garvan Woodland Gardens (Hot Springs, Arkansas)