America's Most Beautiful Gardens
Deep in the Bronx, there’s a place where the incessant hum of New York City disappears. A river flows along the edge of an old-growth forest, where songbirds serenade in the canopy of massive maples, oaks, and chestnuts that have stood unmoved since the American Revolution.
Sound like an urban myth? This place does exist, cloistered within the New York Botanical Garden. The allure of this 250-acre tract is undeniable, but for Brian Sullivan, the institution’s vice president of landscape, outdoor collections, and gardens, its beauty is more than skin deep.
“We want to connect people with plants,” Sullivan says. “Public gardens are uniquely poised to be an advocate for the plant kingdom.”
America’s most beautiful gardens share this ability to deepen visitors’ understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix reveals the diversity of wildlife adapted to its harsh, arid climate, from a Technicolor array of Mexican poppies and desert lupine to otherworldly stands of cactus. Hawaii’s lush Limahuli Garden and Preserve protects endangered native flowers like the delicate, scarlet-hued hibiscus, as well as rare varieties of plants (taro, sweet potato) vital to early Hawaiians.
And at institutions like Chicago Botanic Garden and Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, vast collections of bonsai and orchids delight visitors, while researchers make advances in the fields of plant science and conservation.
Still, it’s the innate beauty of these gardens that keeps people coming back season after season—for in any great garden, true discovery requires patience.
“There are so many layers, you don’t see it all right away,” Sullivan says. “A garden reveals itself when you’re ready.”
Biltmore, Asheville, NC
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the mastermind of New York’s Central Park, designed the gardens and grounds cradling this 250-room Vanderbilt estate. His vision perseveres in Biltmore’s miles of forested paths, its 15-acre array of native azaleas—among the largest of its kind in the nation—and its formal plots like the geometric flower beds of the Walled Garden and the Italian Garden’s water-lily-filled reflecting pools.
Best Time to Visit: April and May for riotous azalea blossoms; June through September to see the Rose Garden’s more than 200 varieties in bloom.
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.
When Mildred Barnes Bliss and her husband purchased this Georgetown estate in 1920, she and landscape designer Beatrix Farrand almost immediately set about transforming the 53-acre property’s neglected grounds. Their efforts live on in a series of informal and enclosed gardens inspired by Italian, French, and English traditions. The results include trimmed boxwood topiary, the casual grace of Cherry Hill, and the terraced Rose Garden—a spot so favored by the Blisses that it became their final resting place.
Best Time to Visit: March for an explosion of pale pink along Cherry Hill; April for an array of emerging tulips.
Lotusland, Montecito, CA
This 37-acre property in a residential neighborhood of Santa Barbara matches the eccentricity and whimsy of its founder, Polish-born opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska. Married and divorced six times in her 96 years, Walska’s steadiest love affair was with this botanical garden. She spent more than four decades cultivating an exotic collection that includes more than 170 types of aloe, hundreds of weeping euphorbias, a plot devoted exclusively to silver- and blue-toned plants, and an extensive compilation of cycads (cone-bearing plants). She funded the cycad garden in the 1970s by auctioning off her million-dollar jewelry trove.
Best Time to Visit: Summer to see the garden’s namesake lotus flowers in bloom; April, May, and June for a display of roses. lotusland.org
Limahuli Garden and Preserve, Kauai, HI
On the ethereal north shore of the aptly nicknamed Garden Isle, this tropical expanse counts nearly 1,000 acres of pristine forest and riparian habitat. Visitors tour the gardens at the base of the 2,000-foot-deep valley—named the best natural botanical garden by the American Horticultural Society—to see rare native ferns, herbs, and palms. Culturally significant plants include taro, frangipani, and papaya.
Best Time to Visit: Go in spring when native herb ko’oko’olau displays yellow, daisy-like flowers. ntbg.org
Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, PA
As the longtime home of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont (of DuPont Company fame), this public garden west of Philadelphia reflects the tastes of its founder. More than 1,000 acres of outdoor gardens include the centuries-old trees that inspired du Pont to conserve the land and an Italian Water Garden he designed himself. A historic, four-acre conservatory also sustains many of his favorite flowers, ferns, and fruits. Longwood hosts a summer concert series and houses a massive concert organ with more than 10,000 pipes in a grand ballroom—music being another passion cultivated by du Pont.
Best Time to Visit: Fall to see the Norway maples that surround the 130-foot-tall Main Fountain emblazoned in gold; April for crocus and trillium carpeting the forest floor. longwoodgardens.org
The Topiary Park, Columbus, OH
Molded from yew shrubs, dozens of topiaries reaching 12 feet tall transform this seven-acre downtown park into a living sculpture garden. It was the brainchild of local artist James T. Mason, who debuted the display in 1992. The centerpiece is an interpretation of French Post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat’s 1884 work A Sunday on La Grand Jatte, a collection of men, women, children, and animals believed to be the only topiary version of a painting.
Best Time to Visit: Topiaries are most robust in the summer, but a fresh dusting of snow lends added drama. topiarygarden.org
Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, OR
Borrowing from Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist philosophies, the late landscape architect Takuma Tono created a garden true to the traditions of his native Japan. Stone, water, and plants harmonize in the five distinct gardens of this 5.5-acre oasis near the Rose Gardens in Washington Park. Bridges, pagodas, and an authentic teahouse punctuate the landscape of native plants and Japanese imports.
Best Time to Visit: Spring to see the Flat Garden’s weeping cherry erupt into pink blossoms; fall for a colorful canopy in the Natural Garden.
The New York Botanical Garden, New York City
Spanning 250 acres in the Bronx, this National Historic Landmark (est. 1891) is home to more than one million plants and a host of historic buildings, including a 1902-era conservatory. Its 50 distinct areas include a 4,000-plant rose garden, a century-old collection of conifers, and a 50-acre old-growth deciduous forest—the largest such tract remaining within New York’s gridded maze of streets and buildings.
Best Time to Visit: November for dramatic red, gold, and orange hues in the Thain Family Forest; mid-to-late April to see fields of blooming daffodils. nybg.org
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens, Charleston, SC
Some sections of this family-owned garden have remained unchanged for more than 300 years, bearing witness to the property’s transition from a slave-holding plantation to a Lowcountry tourist attraction. The gardens’ Romantic-style design invites an escape from the everyday, into a world of azalea-lined pathways, sprawling live oaks, and cypress-tupelo swamps patrolled by alligators and egrets.
Best Time to Visit: Mid-January to mid-March for profuse camellia displays; late March to early April for hundreds of thousands of blooming azaleas.
Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO
You’ll find one of the country’s largest orchid collections at the Missouri Botanical Garden, which welcomed its first specimens of the delicate flowering plants in 1876. The garden now nurtures more than 3,000 orchid species, ranging from bright pink showstoppers to dainty, spotted varieties. Other notable displays include more than 700 types of daffodils, a dazzling selection of daylilies, and a tropical paradise inside the iconic Climatron conservatory, a 175-foot-wide, climate-controlled geodesic dome built in 1960.
Best Time to Visit: February and March yield the only opportunity to see the full orchid display; flowering trees reach their peak from March through May.
Asticou Azalea Garden, Mount Desert Island, ME
Modeled in the Japanese garden style, this serene enclave just outside the entrance to Acadia National Park captures a happy marriage of East and West. Native azaleas grow alongside related species hailing from the mountainous regions of Japan, while an area of raked sand and stones—reminiscent of a traditional Zen garden—mimics the flow of a stream winding through the property to placid Asticou Pond. Created by local Charles K. Savage, the garden has been a fixture on the island for more than half a century.
Best Time to Visit: Late May through July for flowering azaleas and rhododendron; August to catch the water lilies in bloom. gardenpreserve.org
Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix
Abandon any notion of a lifeless desert landscape amid the sandstone buttes of this 140-acre refuge (only 55 acres are cultivated). Here, among paved paths, plants suited to the arid climate of the Sonoran and other deserts thrive, including a large sampling of agave, cacti, and other succulents. A two-acre wildflower exhibit erupts each spring into a bounty of color—especially if there’s been a bit of rain—and butterflies take flight in a covered pavilion. Classes range from illustration for adults to planting for kids.
Best Time to Visit: March and April to catch peak bloom for wildflowers such as Mexican poppies and desert lupine.
Chicago Botanic Garden
Nearly 200 miniaturized evergreens, maples, magnolias, and other trees—including priceless specimens cultivated by bonsai master Susumu Nakamura—add up to one of the best public displays of this ancient Japanese horticultural art. The garden’s 385 acres, which span nine islands and six miles of lakeshore, also encompass a local-centric fruit and vegetable garden, a 100-acre native oak woodland, and a classic English walled garden.
Best Time to Visit: Late April through early November to view the bonsai display before the trees return to the greenhouse for winter. chicagobotanic.org
The Bloedel Reserve, Bainbridge Island, WA
Established in the 1950s by a timber magnate and his wife, this island sanctuary (35 minutes by ferry from Seattle) captures the moody beauty of the Pacific Northwest. The self-guided network of trails passes from the lush, carpeted floor of the Moss Garden to the heights of a Douglas fir, western red cedar, and hemlock forest. Keep an eye out for trumpeter swans, great blue herons, and kingfishers; a flower-strewn glen; and an overlook across Puget Sound to the Cascades beyond.
Best Time to Visit: Spring for boisterous birds and frogs, plus blooming rhododendron, camellia, and plum trees.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, FL
This oasis less than 10 miles from downtown Miami showcases more than 3,400 tropical species, many of them gathered by founder David Fairchild in his worldwide pursuit of useful plants from mangoes to bamboo. Employing the design expertise of influential landscape architect William Lyman Phillips, Fairchild opened the 83-acre garden in 1938. It now has one of the world’s premier collections of palms and cycads, plus an extensive tropical fruit program supporting mangosteen, durian, and other far-flung flavors.
Best Time to Visit: Winter and spring for cooler weather and fewer bugs. fairchildgarden.org