SANBI/Adam Harrower

In cities, seaside towns, and tropical islands around the world, horticultural oases are flourishing.

January 26, 2011

Vera Gordon, a retired educator in Brooklyn, New York, is a garden-variety traveler. Literally. Like more and more botanically minded tourists, she’s traversed the globe to experience its horticultural hot spots—and returned with fresh perspective:

"When you see a garden, you see a culture," Gordon explains. "Through the formality or informality (of the landscaping), or the plants a country has chosen to import and show off, you see how it wants to be seen."

See our slideshow of the world’s great botanical gardens.

Gordon is just one of a growing population of horticulture-minded travelers—for whom garden visits are the equivalent of an art-lover’s gallery crawl. According to Elizabeth Scholtz, director emeritus of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, there’s been a tremendous increase in garden travel in recent years—and given that she’s led tours to 42 countries over the past 43 years, she’s an expert on the trend.

"Gardens are such a wonderful refuge, and more and more, people are looking for a haven from the stress of modern life," says Scholtz. This craving for green, blossoming sanctuaries—both at home and abroad—is what prompted the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to create a travel division (the American Horticultural Society and Horticulture magazine offer similar services).

In Scholtz’s experience, botanical tourists needn’t be lifelong gardenistas—rather, they’re simply people who get hooked on the verdant serenity they find at botanical gardens. Take Mary Bianco, for example, a New York-based investment services veteran who also frequents gardens around the world. "I’m not a botanist, and I have no garden of my own," Bianco says. "Yet there’s such a peacefulness and tranquility in a beautiful garden-in contrast to my professional world. I’ve traveled to three continents on at least seven of these trips."

See our slideshow of the world’s great botanical gardens.

Her most frequent horticultural stomping ground?South Africa, home to the fabled Kirstenbosch. Founded in 1913 by Harold Pearson, the first chair of botany at the South African College, this national botanical garden evolved from overgrown farmland and—in the words of one early 20th century observer—"two small, rat-infested rooms." Since then, Cape Town’s answer to Eden has grown to occupy 89 acres, all of them dedicated to indigenous flora, among them the national flower: the red, vaguely pineappley King Protea.

Kirstenbosch is actually one of the few grand-scale gardens devoted to indigenous species preservation, notes Scholtz. Others are more about evocative, imported elements—such as the Japanese bridge at Giverny or the Chinese pavilions in Kyoto’s Byodoin.

Whether they provide a historical record, a cultural overview, or just aesthetic enjoyment, it’s obvious that gardens matter more than ever these days. Horticultural traveler Gertrude Lange, a physiologist in Skillman, New Jersey, puts it this way: "It’s clearly something people have felt the need of…or we wouldn’t continue to give up valuable land as the population grows and space diminishes.

"Gardens," she sums up, "are a necessary work of art."

See our slideshow of the world’s great botanical gardens.

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