As a nature lover who lives in a big city, I am provided with a lifeline from the steel-and-concrete morass while strolling through the metropolitan gardens in Seattle. I’ve also sojourned far and wide in search of the perfect garden destination. And yet, when I’m traveling for work, I often forget that North America has a stash of green from coast to coast, north to south. That’s because I’m too “on the go” to slow down and disappear among the fronds and too distracted to literally stop and smell the roses (and honeysuckle, and heliotrope). These days, walking through a public garden does more than give me my requisite steps: I reset my psyche while marveling at the genius of its design and placements.
I know I’m not alone. In fact, acclaimed author Andrea Wulf detailed the significant role gardens played in the establishment of the United States. In Founding Gardeners, Wulf depicts George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s shared horticultural obsession. Their gardening passions would produce much more than the verdant landscapes of Mount Vernon and Monticello. Urban leaders would honor this botanical focus by cultivating magnificent public gardens in American cities.
So allow me to highlight several fantastic public gardens across the continent that are known equally for beautiful plantings and extensive paths, where you can stretch your legs, log your daily steps, measure your breathing and take a trip back in time. Included is information and insight gathered from experts describing each garden’s mystique, beginning with Wulf.
A nod to history
I ask the best-selling author, whose newest work, Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self, will be published in September, to identify her favorite North American public gardens. “Oh, that’s a difficult question — too much choice,” Wulf says. “But I think I’ll go for Jefferson’s Monticello and glorious Middleton Place [outside of Charleston], South Carolina. Jefferson created a garden that was an expression of his vision of America. It brings together the sublime vastness of America’s landscape with the productivity of the land. And Middleton Place — what a spectacular space. The grand formal Butterfly Lakes there never fail to blow my mind. But what is even more impressive is that this was one of the first plantations that didn’t shy away from including the stories of the enslaved workers into their history and visitor experience.”
Wulf adds that walking through Monticello provides as much insight into Jefferson as reading his letters. She says that because several of the country’s historical gardens are older than America itself, landscape architecture evokes history better than most buildings and other artifacts.
“Gardens are windows into the world of science, culture and politics,” she says. “The Founding Fathers created gardens as a political statement, planting native species to illustrate America’s independence.”
Unlike the many landmarks we rarely visit unless guests are in town, public gardens and parks draw residents and out-of-town visitors in equal measure. For 20 years, I’ve recommended the same itinerary for the best Seattle day, one that takes you to my hometown garden: Skip the Space Needle, bypass Pike Place Market and head to the Bainbridge Island ferry, which departs every hour from Colman Dock, Pier 52, on the Seattle waterfront.
Bainbridge Island is home to Bloedel Reserve, a 150-acre wooded former estate that exemplifies Pacific Northwest garden design, a seamless blend of native species, natural habitats and Asian influence. Located 6 miles from the Winslow ferry terminal, Bloedel’s paths include a 2-mile loop to Rhododendron Glen, Buxton Bird Marsh & Meadow, and 21 other landscapes.
When I’m here, I save the most time for the Japanese Garden. I can’t get enough of the rock-pine-maple visual drama playing out in beautiful detail above the small pond. The Japanese black, white and red pine candles (leaves) clump delicately together on well-pruned limbs, a visual narrative that makes me want to unfurl parchment, compose and illustrate haiku.
The gardens also energize me and get my adrenaline flowing. Once centered, the idea is to get my heart rate up by speed walking around the ponds, then cool down by strolling through the Moss Garden.
Northwest themes are exemplified in the Moss Garden. Regional gardeners often do battle with moss, but this is a rare intentional planting where mosses and liverworts are encouraged to thrive in the perpetually damp temperate rainforest conditions. The garden was established in the early 1980s when over 275,000 1-inch-square Irish moss starts were planted. Native mosses soon moved in, and colonized the site within five years. The Japanese Garden and the Moss Garden are just two of the reasons visitors here are left speechless, says Etta Lilienthal, a spokesperson for the reserve.
“ ‘I’ve never seen anywhere like this’ is what we hear most often from visitors,” she says. “They often talk about how their visit has changed them, so enthralled are they with the blend of the native, nurtured and natural. This metamorphosis was very much part of founder Prentice Bloedel’s plan. He designed these gardens to elicit particular reactions, a series of rooms that unfold to change how we view the greater world.”
America’s oldest arboretum
Landscape architect Stuart MacKenzie has spent a career studying the brilliance of such designers, including our greatest landscape influencer, Frederick Law Olmsted. In the 1990s, MacKenzie was hired to restore a small section of Highland Park in Rochester, New York, to Olmsted’s original specifications.
“People don’t realize that Highland Park is America’s oldest arboretum,” MacKenzie says. “We went in to assess and map the original tree selections. We then looked to see if these replacement specimens were available on the open market. If they weren’t, we would genetically propagate them at Cornell University. Our early work led to assessing the entire park, an enlightening experience that provided priceless insight into the role of the public garden.”
I walked through Highland Park with MacKenzie several years ago and found it as exciting as touring the Louvre with an art history professor from the Sorbonne. He informed me about how, in his genius, Olmsted believed city planners should prioritize creating several green spaces for the direct health of their community. To illustrate this point, MacKenzie illuminated the gentle curve of an Olmsted path, how the trail, created with the strolling parties in mind, engenders contemplation, enlightenment and relaxation.
“Olmsted draws you into a collection without you knowing it,” MacKenzie says. “Suddenly, you realize you’re standing in the middle of a magnolia grove or looking out upon the horizon. These discoveries can lead to existential changes in perspective.”
Although the Highland Park project is more than 25 years old, MacKenzie recalls the lessons he learned as if he’d surveyed Olmsted’s blueprints this morning.
“Working on Highland Park, I learned that a well-designed park entitles everyone to have a unique user experience, whether they’re commuting to work with her head down, getting an afternoon ride in or, as is often the case here, visiting from far away. Highland is what landscape experts call a destination park. Garden tourists will plan a visit around this park due to its impressive historical and horticultural significance.”
MacKenzie is quick to point out that every park in America has an interesting story to tell, a truth I know firsthand. I love learning a garden’s history, how local leaders possessed the foresight to preserve Central Park in the 1850s, or who won the debate between formal gardens and green gathering space. Like so many parks, Highland Park is traversed by paths that ascend to broad vistas and descend into civic-minded meadows like the Highland Bowl. A pleasant workout also awaits on these undulating trails.
Gardens in the City of Brotherly Love
If America has a single Destination Garden City, it would have to be Philadelphia. Boasting 38 public gardens, arboretums and historic landscapes within a 30-mile radius, Philly recently created America’s Garden Capital Passport to help visitors navigate the diverse options. You can collect your Garden Capital Passport at most individual gardens in the area.
Longwood Gardens is the emerald in this bejeweled landscape, 1,077 acres divided into six diverse districts, with so many paths you can get a weekend’s worth of steps in without thinking about it. The Main Fountain Garden District feels like you’ve stepped onto the terraced grids of Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, but there are also plenty of “wild” spaces, like the Meadow & Forest District, to explore. Famous for its fountain collection, Longwood features illuminated fountain musical performances that appear like swallows in summer on Thursday through Saturday evenings.
Claiming Philadelphia as America’s Garden Capital is a little like declaring dahlias more dazzling than delphiniums. You needn’t know the difference between a succulent and a shrub to establish your botanical aesthetics. One reason I was excited to write up America’s public gardens is that I hoped my garden selections would inspire AARP members to comment about and, yes, debate their favorite green spaces. I look forward to reading statements like “How could you mention our nation’s premier gardens without mentioning the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington or New Orleans’ Audubon Park?”
I admit I have my own biases when it comes to gardens. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I like my gardens lush, where the foliage keeps pace with the flowers. The premier example of the magnificent green screen of vegetative glory is undoubtedly the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia. I adore the Sunken Garden here, set in a former limestone quarry and full of tangled paths that lead nowhere in particular. Created over 100 years ago, Butchart Gardens receives more than 1 million visitors annually, but even among these masses, you can still find yourself alone among the leaves.
A green desert
Lately, I’m determined to tweak my own stubborn aesthetics and open my heart to what has always been a prickly place for me: the desert garden. Fortunately, I’ve had the occasion to visit two magnificent locales in recent years, the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix and Tucson’s Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, home to thousands of aridity-loving species.
Walking the five designated loop trails among flowering cacti, outrageously shaped succulents and brilliantly arrayed agave (the Desert Botanical Garden displays 186 of 212 known species), I experienced the “existential perspective” shift Stuart MacKenzie said a garden visit can produce. Suddenly, I found myself pausing to admire these astounding plants that are so well adapted to their environment.
My appreciation unfurled into a floral frenzy when I returned to one of my favorite landscapes anywhere, the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, California. The Huntington’s curation of literature, art and gardens has few equals in the world. This time I skipped right on by the library, art galleries and Japanese Garden to visit the 2,000-species-rich Desert Garden and, oh, my, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Dozens of spiky specimens were in full bloom with brilliant flowers that looked like pasted-on Mardi Gras crowns. The claret cup cactus runneth over with teacup-sized florets. White flowers topped the outstretched beavertail cacti like Sunday bonnets. The golden barrel cacti, more than 500 of them, wore a halo in spiky gilt, an appearance reminiscent of a sea anemone.
Ruby red flowers sprouted from 8-foot-tall silver torch cacti. Allen’s hummingbirds darted back and forth among them, splitting time between extracting nectar from the deep tubular blooms and defending their feeding territory against all comers.
Well over a century old, this world-renowned desert garden almost didn’t happen. Railroad baron Henry Huntington had come to despise the prickly pear after one too many unpleasant “meetings” along his railroad line. Fortunately, head gardener William Hertrich convinced him to establish this living museum of succulents and cacti.
We spend so much time calculating our steps these days that we often forget our surroundings. Walking among public gardens inverts the step obsession. Here we immerse ourselves in the simple beauty of a daisy, pause to marvel at the spike-trunked boojum tree and, yes, find ourselves contemplating our very essence while gazing upon a 30-foot-tall yucca, freeing the steps to take care of themselves.
It’s like Wulf wrote: “Most of all, gardens and being in nature make us happy. No matter how much scientists have discovered and revealed, there is something emotional, something visceral and perhaps inexplicable about humanity’s connection to nature. However we feel it, nature can soothe, heal or simply fill us with joy.” For me, walking through these public gardens inspires me to live the adage of sound mind, sound body.
Aging Playfully Series
Check out these columns, and stay tuned for more coming soon:
- Series Introduction: The ‘Just Do It’ Lifestyle
- Exploring North Carolina's Research Triangle
- E-Biking Around New York's Finger Lakes
- Walking in England and Ireland
- Paddle Your Way Across Canada
- Four Days on the Central California Coast
Crai S. Bower is a Seattle-based freelancer whose work has appeared in AARP The Magazine, Afar, Alaska Magazine, AAA Journey and more. He is a recipient of a 2022 Lowell Thomas Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for an essay that appeared on AARP Members Only Access.
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