Last Updated on March 12, 2022 by Jim Ferri
By Dave G. Houser
If poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was right when he said “the earth laughs in flowers,” then get ready for a chorus of laughter as some of the best botanical gardens in the USA burst forth in blossom this spring.
The cultivation of ornamental gardens goes back a long time. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for example, are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. On the other hand, it’s the enchanting Gardens of Versailles, laid out by French King Louis XIII in the 1630s, that are seen by many experts as having set the world stage for formal gardens.
However, here in the U.S., we can thank three early presidents for the establishment of the country’s first public botanical gardens in 1820. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all were instrumental in creating what would become the United States Botanic Garden on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
You may notice that some gardens are named botanic and others botanical. No worries, because the two words are synonymous. Botanical, however, is the more common usage.
In addition to public botanical gardens — found in nearly every USA state — there are formerly private gardens at the estates of some of America’s business and industrial pioneers that are now open for all to enjoy. We’ll visit a couple of them in the article to follow, along with a roster of other top gardens across the country — starting in the nation’s capital.
United States Botanic Garden, Washington, D.C.
Washington, Jefferson, and Madison first floated the idea of a garden on the National Mall in the late 1700s. It was created in 1820, formally established in 1850, and eventually moved to its current location in 1933.
The United States Botanic Garden has remained a relatively small garden, occupying just a few square blocks, but it is a serene and scenic green space in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol.
Even so, it provides a home to more than 10,000 plant specimens and there’s a conservatory containing desert and tropical environments and laboratories devoted to environmental, horticultural, and botanical education.
United States Botanic Garden
100 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20001
Tel: (202) 225-8333
Open: The gated outdoor garden (“National Garden”) is open 7:30am to 5pm daily (until 7pm from April 1 to September 15), including weekends, closed only on Christmas Day, Dec. 25. This gated outdoor garden has extended evening hours staying open each year.
Note: The Conservatory is temporarily closed. Usual hours are 10am to 5pm daily, including all weekends and holidays.
New York Botanical Garden, The Bronx, New York
One of the foremost botanical gardens in the USA and the world, the New York Botanical Garden spans more than 250 acres, including some 50 acres of old-growth forestland and 50 acres of gardens. Collectively, it serves as a museum of more than a million species of living plants.
A National Historic Landmark, NYBG is home to America’s largest Victorian-era conservatory — the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory — where guests can explore both desert and tropical landscapes. In addition, the garden’s education programs in horticulture and plant science serve nearly a million people annually.
New York Botanical Garden
2900 Southern Blvd.
Bronx, NY 10458
Tel: (718) 817-8700
Open: Tuesday – Sunday. Hours are typically 10am–6pm (5pm in winter)
Admission: adults $30 / 65+ and students (with valid ID) $28 / Children (2-12) $15 / under two: free
Note: advanced purchase of tickets recommended
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Boothbay, Maine
Founded in 2007 on 300 waterfront acres skirting Boothbay Harbor, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is the USA’s newest significant botanical garden. However, its colorful array of pocket-theme gardens and brilliantly landscaped network of walking paths appear so mature that they seem much older.
A busy schedule of special events is aimed at achieving this Maine garden’s mission to “inspire meaningful connections among people, plants, and nature through horticulture, education, and research.”
Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
132 Botanical Gardens Drive
Boothbay, ME, 04537
Tel: (207) 633-8000
Open: May 1-October 17, daily 9am-5pm “rain or shine”
Admission: Admission: adults $22 / seniors and veterans: $18 / children (3-17): $10; under 3 free / Family (2 adults, 2 children): $55. For additional ways to save on admission click here.
Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee
Cheekwood Botanical Gardens originally served as the private residence of Nashville’s Cheek family, founders of the Maxwell House coffee brand. Family descendants offered the house and grounds to local civic groups as a site for a botanical garden and art museum and opened it to the public in 1960.
Set on 55 acres, Cheekwood features 11 separate gardens, plus the Carell Woodland Sculpture Trail, a combination art and nature trail that can be enjoyed any time of year.
Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art
1200 Forrest Park Drive
Nashville, TN 37205
Tel: (615) 356-8000
Open: 9am – 5pm Tuesday – Sunday (through March 11, 2022) / 9am – 5pm (March 12 – April 10, 2022). Check here for other dates.
Admission: for the gardens only – adult $20 / 65+ $18 / student (with ID) $16 / children 3-17 years $13 / children 2 years and younger free. Add $5 per ticket to tour the mansion gardens in addition to the gardens.
Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
Lovingly maintained as a living legacy to founder Pierre S. DuPont, Longwood Gardens is, undeniably, one of the premier botanical gardens in the USA. The Gardens attract more than a million visitors a year.
Sprawling over 1,077 acres, this scenic combination of gardens, woodlands, and meadows in the Brandywine Creek Valley is open to visitors year-round to enjoy exotic plants (both indoor and outdoor) and horticultural events and performances, as well as educational lectures, courses, and workshops.
1001 Longwood Road
Kennett Square, PA 19348
Tel: (610) 388-1000
Open: Wednesday–Monday: 10:00 am–5:00 pm / closed Tuesday / hours vary throughout the year. See hours here.
Admission: adults $25 / 62+ and college students with ID $22 / 5 – 18 years $13 / Military (active, retired or veteran) $18.
Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina
Completed in 1895, George Vanderbilt’s 250-room chateau (America’s largest house) is as impressive today as it was more than a century ago. The same can be said for the surrounding grounds and gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also created New York City’s Central Park.
Biltmore’s lush landscape, a combination of forestland, meadows, waterways, and both formal and informal gardens is a living tribute to Olmsted’s genius. Particularly notable here are the Rose Garden, featuring 250 varieties, and the Italian garden with its elegant statuary and water features.
Spring is a popular time to visit — to experience the explosion of color — especially at the Azalea Garden.
1 Lodge Street
Asheville, NC 28803
Tel: (800) 411-3812
Open: the estate is open every day of the year, although times by season. See hours of operation here.
Admission: Biltmore House daytime admission (including the gardens and other areas of the huge estate) starts at $66 per adult when purchased online. Prices vary by date and season. Children 10-16 receive discounted admission; 9 and under are free.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Coral Gables, Florida
Named for the late-great American botanist David Fairchild, this 83-acre Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is internationally recognized for its extensive collections of rare tropical plants, including palms, cycads, flowering trees, and vines.
Fairchild was a government botanist who traveled extensively to bring more than 20,000 plants to the United States, such as mangos, nectarines, dates, bamboos, and flowering cherries. Many of his finds were transplanted in the garden, founded in the early 1930s by his friend Robert H. Montgomery. Consequently, it was opened to the public in 1938 and today remains one of the unique botanical gardens in the USA.
Above all, Fairchild scientists are devoted to conserving tropical plants, hoping to avoid the extinction of threatened species and the denigration of their habitats.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
10901 Old Cutler Road
Coral Gables, FL 33156
Tel: (305) 667-1651
Open: daily 10:00am – 4:00pm
Admission: adults $24.95 / seniors $17.95 / students (with ID) $15.95 / children (6-17) $11.95, children (0-5) Free
Note: Fairchild offers many promotional and discounted tickets. See here.
Fort Worth Botanic Garden, Fort Worth, Texas
Dallas’ often-overlooked sibling city is home to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, one of the finest and most diverse botanical gardens in the USA. The 109-acre Fort Worth Botanic Garden features 22 specialized gardens, ranging from a cactus garden to a backyard vegetable garden. It is home to more than 2,500 species of plants.
Notable here is the Japanese garden, where visitors can wander among koi ponds, stone bridges, and waterfalls. Popular, too, is the 10,000-square-foot Rain Forest Conservatory, filled with more than 700 species of tropical plants.
Open: daily 8am – 5pm / closed Thanksgiving and Christmas day
Admission: adult $12 / 65+ $10 / children 6-15 $6 / children 5 years and younger free
Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona
A stroll through the world-class Desert Botanical Garden with its five walking trails, permanent trail-side exhibits, and special events, transforms the visitor experience into one of discovery. Consequently, one learns much about the Sonoran Desert and its plants.
The garden incorporates the 3,200 square foot open-air Butterfly Pavilion, with thousands of live butterflies. In addition, it has a state-of-the-art nursery space containing a caterpillar nursery and an emergence chamber to let visitors view all stages of a butterfly’s life. It helps make it one of the most unique botanical gardens in the USA.
If you plan to visit the Desert Botanical Garden, remembers that temperatures there can exceed 100 degrees most months of the year, so don’t forget a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses for your visit — plus a bottle or two of water.
Open: October-April 8am-8pm / May-September 7am-8pm
Admission: general admission $24.95 – $39.95 / children 3-7 $14.95 – $18.95 / under 3 years free / active military free.