Whither the botanical garden?


Having just become a board member of the Buffalo and Erie
County Botanical Gardens
, I find myself part of a beautiful and historic
institution. Some would say it has a long way to go before it can be relevant
to contemporary gardeners and garden lovers. It is a traditional Lord &
Burnham glasshouse, full of tropical foliage plants, orchids and seasonal
bulbs. Koi swim coyly underneath the giant tiki waterfall, and topiary monsters
drip trickles of water into the pond.  There are many plans to update the place, including revising
the collections to reflect a global longitude-based tour of plants of the
world, and adding two more domes to the classic three-dome design (squaring
four smaller domes around the massive central dome).

Whatever. What’s there now works for me.  I have long been a regular visitor to
the place, especially in the winter. The sight of its familiar dome looming in
the distance never fails to lift my spirits. I love to sit in the desert house
and bake during minus wind chills, and I love to walk around the
Olmsted-designed surrounding park in fall, admire the big lily pond, and imagine how
much better it will be when they get the crappy nine-hole golf course out of there.

But I realize that many constituents of public gardens like
this one need them to reflect a more diverse range of landscapes: in Chicago,
for example, the BG has extensive areas devoted to native plants, edibles,
bulbs, and dwarf conifers, to name a few. In Buffalo, the exterior gardens (besides
a surrounding, and somewhat decimated arboretum in the park) are shrubs, perennials, and
traditional Victorian bedding arrangements in front (which I love).  Still, if Chicago, which is equally as
wintery as Buffalo, can be as forward-thinking and detailed in its exterior
gardens, certainly we should do more.

What do you look for in a botanical garden, if you look at
all? What would be your priorities, or what do you like best in the gardens
near you? How should we whip our BG into shape? I’d love to hear what you guys

I know many think zoos should cease to exist. Do people feel
the same way about BGs?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. I love Bot. Gardens! I visit them (even dinky un-sung ones)everywhere I go. I like best those gardens that follow two paths: a tropical area whose blooms and exotica feed my zone-5 iced-in soul AND a trial garden that suggests things I might try in my own yard (albeit on a much smaller scale). I realize the special shows (the orchids of Madison County) and the gift shop offerings (frog-shaped tea cosies) are necessary to keep the accounting books in balance, but for me as a gardener the benefit is just to revel in any/every thing the plant world has to offer.

  2. My personal love for Botanical gardens has always revolved around two things – like zoo’s, I want them to feature exotic things – Bromiliads, Orchids, Arturium – all those indoor plants we so often feature in our homes but have never really seen in Nature. Secondly, local successes – whether Native or introduced. Popular perennials, for example, or even successful annuals – featured as educational props for what is possible. Naturally I would mix these with Natives – or even feature them on their own. But I firmly believe in the need for Native plants education.

  3. I love to visit them when we travel, no matter if they are grand or small in scope. What I like best is diversity, and something to see outdoors in winter, if the climate allows, like in Atlanta. Sometimes they are so similar to each other, no sense of place.

  4. Lucky you, Elizabeth!

    There is a group here in Saratoga Springs that is lobbying for a botanic garden and conservatory in Spa State Park, our beautiful downtown park. I think it is a brilliant idea, perfect for this Victorian town. And if they succeed, I plan on spending every winter afternoon in the glasshouse.

  5. I love visiting botanic gardens, and almost always check if a new city I’m visiting has one worth checking in on. To me, it’s important that the gardens have interesting/desirable varieties of plants which can be grown in the area, but for some reason aren’t yet. Exotic plants are always fun, even if you can’t grow them. Beyond that, it’s very important to me that the plants are labeled so I know what I’m looking at!!

    If the garden is in my neck of the woods, one of the most important things it can offer is a great plant sale in the spring and fall. That’s where I hope to find some of the great plants which the gardens feature, but which are rarely found in nurseries. If they’re edible plants, they’re doubly good!

  6. I too love Botanical Gardens; in this small town I miss being able to go and sit in the steamy heat of a Botanical Garden and gaze at (and draw) all the odd and exotic plants there. The glasshouse attached to the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon offered exactly that, orchids, exotica, massed tender flowering plants, a little waterfall into a pond. You cannot believe what a spirit-lifting place that was to go into on a -30C evening in the middle of the long Prairie winter. It was like being transported to another country, a paradise. I don’t really care that I can’t grow any of those plants in my house or garden, and I love to see plants from countries that I might never visit.

  7. I like a good botanical garden in a very casual way… As some previous commenters have observed, they provide a quick tropical vacation in the middle of winter. In Calgary, Alberta, where the climate is ALWAYS very dry, they have created an indoor rainforest environment which people visit as though it were a spa, to absorb moisture.

    I also love the way a garden can provide a tropical vacation in midsummer, too. Keep the orchids and exotics! Sure, expand the garden to educate folks about and celebrate native greenery, but don’t neglect the rich history of what the garden has been.

  8. I’d love to see more botanic garden greenhouses that are really well designed — most of the time they are designed around some attempt to recreate some particular natural habitat, with plants just plopped around seemingly at random. Get a really great, creative designer in there and go to town — you have total control of the whole environment, so use that to create a truly spectacular dream garden.
    Ditto with the outside: Designing in little spaces meant to mimic private yards feels like such a waste: You’ve got all this space and staff home gardeners don’t have, so use it to make something truly spectacular!

  9. I love my local botanic gardens. Thank god I live where there are multiples to choose from and that each has a different style and mission. I visit them all often but I feel most locals only go every once in a while and that is always the problem. I spent a quarter of my life working at a zoo and they have the same struggle – people may love you but they will only visit every once in a while. The best way to increase traffic is to pull off an “event” each and every month, and target the events to appeal to a different demographic so you don’t wear your audience out. And speaking as a person involved with public facilities, it shows when budgets are cut and staff is reduced. The upper tier may think that they can squeeze by with less but the general public sees it and it has an effect on the experience.

  10. Having worked in a botanical garden, The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and being a member of The San Francisco Botanical Garden I would say that the exhibition gardens are the most popular followed by the International regional gardens whose plants can flourish in same climate as the home state.

    In Boston’s AA we were fortunate to have two devoted men , F.L. Olmsted and Charles Sargent leading the way in design layout and plant collecting in far off exotic and often dangerous lands. The Arnold has some of the oldest trees and shrubs in our country from China, Japan, Korea and beyond.

    At the S.F. Botanical Garden the overseeing board has been very smart in keeping the gardens fresh by updating and incorporating new gardens along with new landscape architecture.
    In the Australian garden one can find a fantastic functional seating sculpture made from rammed earth.
    In the Primitive Plants Collection a beautiful new path way system with comfortable seats and viewing platforms were added a few years ago.
    Currently we are installing new pathways and seating areas to further enhance the viewing experience.

    I think a good botanical garden is all about maintaining and enhancing the old and bringing in new ideas to keep things fresh, inspiring, interactive and also familiar.

  11. I am ADDICTED to botanical gardens. I used to travel to client-sites & spend a week or two & I always tried to find the closest botanical gardens. Some were glorified back-yards & some made me think I was at Kew & there is a place for ALL of them.

  12. The two “botanic gardens” I have visited most are the Hershey Rose Garden, which is in fact just about all roses, and the University of Wisconsin’s Arboretum. The rose garden is nice because it is rose overload. The average rosebush in a private garden is smallish, sad and doesn’t have very nice leaves. The rose garden is all about beautiful roses, and that includes nice leaves. If it’s meant to be a hedge rose, it is a hedge. If it’s a climber or rambler, it’s trained over something, and is properly supported. You name it, if it grows well in the climate the rose is there, in a massive display.

    The Arboretum is actually more of a nature preserve. It isn’t gardened much at all. There’s a lot of wild forest, natural wetlands and a gorgeous view of one of the lakes.

    I keep meaning to visit Olbreich Gardens here in Madison, but it often seems like a lot of trouble. It’s not very close by, and since it’s a more generalist garden I worry that it won’t be as over the top and baroque. I’m not very fond of restrained gardens :).

  13. I visit them around the world, whenever I can. Some examples of standouts:

    Green Spring Gardens
    Fairfax, Virginia

    Walk-through examples of gardens that are accessible to average homeowners – vegetables, native plants, cutting gardens. And every spring, a standout plant market that draws growers and shoppers from far and wide – and reintroduces them to this wonderful park space.

    Kew Gardens
    London, England

    Rotating displays that seamlessly interweave plants and history. The spices of Asia, one explained, were from native plants of South America – carried on British merchant vessels. Curries and fajitas, not-so-distant cousins; who knew?

    United States Botanic Garden
    Washington, DC
    Frequent programs designed to engage and delight even the casual gardener: fragrance gardens, cooking with autumn crops, walks through the garden with arborists.

    Common themes to a successful botanical garden:

    Emphasis on accessibility – you can do it, ideas that can be adapted to backyard scale.

    Spotlight on how plants change history and our built environment

  14. I too love Botanic gardens and vist as many as i can… the one thing that is really important to me.. is signage…nothing is worse than trying to track someone down to find out what a certain plant is… i love the gardens that give explinations of the eco systems also.. remember it is the little things that count…

  15. I love Botanical Gardens. The Lyman Plant House at Smith College (about 1 hour from me) has huge shows that draw from several states – the bulb show in the spring and the chrysanthemum show in the fall. But there is always something! The Lyman is set among perennial gardens, and the whole campus is an arboretum. Learning and refreshment for all, not just the students. The Durfee Conservatory at nearby UMass,has not only been of benefit to the campus community, but has provided a comfortable place for new immigrants from places like Cambodia. These immigrants have supplied an unexpected new group of volunteers. Don’t underestimate the appeal and benefits of Botanical gardens.

  16. I wholeheartedly agree about the good signage comment, but knowing how the general public abuses our local botanic gardens, it isn’t always easy to keep signs intact and where they belong. Plus most all of our local botanic gardens are under terrific financial pressure, and just don’t have the staff they used to, and are constantly being asked to do as much with even less money/staff.

    I absolutely love our local San Francisco Bay Area Botanic Gardens, and try to visit them as often as I can. Plus, I make an effort to visit the local botanic gardens wherever I am traveling in California, or around the world. These days I probably get up to my local University of California Berkeley Botanic Garden at least once a month, and over to San Francisco’s Strybing Botanic Garden at least every few months. My favorite botanic gardens of the ones I have seen would have to include Kirstenbosch and the Little Karoo Botanic Gardens in South Africa, Botanic Garden outside Kandy in Sri Lanka, and the Singapore Botanic Garden, along with Kew in England.

    For me, our local botanic gardens are a wealth of less common plants that can be grown easily here in our climate, and I appreciate that they have become a sort of botanical ark in protecting and nurturing species that may have or already have gone extinct in the wild. In visiting foreign botanic gardens, I am always on the look out for local plants that may be adaptable to our San Francisco climate. It is also fun to see how a species that we grow here in California performs in another part of the world.

    Our local collections at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz and San Francisco strongly emphasize plants from the other Mediterranean Climate zones of the world, temperate marine influenced climates such as New Zealand, as well as plants from high elevation tropical cloud forests around the world that do well in our strongly marine influenced Medit climate. (All that summer fog at SF Botanic Garden is almost an exact analogue of subtropical Andes, Southeast Asian/Himalayan and higher elevation cloud forest of Mexico and Brazil and Papaua New Guinea, so we have a lot of truly gorgeous rarer plants from these countries.) Except, of course, that we don’t have the year round rainfall here, but the extra humidity and fog drip of our summer fogs do make it much easier to grow these cloud forest plants better than almost anywhere else outside their habitat.

    I treat the local botanic gardens as an outdoor library, and visit to get ideas for planting designs to use some less common but locally well adapted plants in my gardens. The monthly and annual plant sales are also a great source for getting unusual new plants. I keep journals and snap lots of photos so I have a record of what I am seeing, and to be able to make requests of the botanic staff to propagate plants I especially love for future sales.

    I am not the only one who likes to think of the botanic gardens as a source for introducing new plants, as several of the local nurseries such as Annies Annuals, Suncrest Wholesale Nursery, Monterey Bay Wholesale Nursery, and San Marcos Growers have links with the local gardens, (including the University of Calif at Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara Botanic Garden), to introduce some of their plants into the commercial trade, similar to what happens back in North Carolina, but probably not as well developed.

    I especially like visiting the various gardens in late fall into winter, to see all the blooming things at this season, or plants that may not bloom now, but present nice visual features in this season. You won’t be able to see this wealth of mature, rare species at a nursery, and I love to get ideas for combinations of plants from things I see in the gardens.

    On top of everything, it is just a nice break from the workday stress to take a walk in the botanic gardens and take all the inspiration in, plus lots cheaper than a plane ticket to Mexico, South Africa or Brazil…

    Of course we do have an advantage of having a relatively mild year round gardening climate hear that is borderline USDA zone 9b/10a, so there really is no down season here. I don’t typically visit the tropical greenhouses as much, as I am not much into the indoor plants scene these days, they just seem like too much work for the effort most of the time, especially battling invading insects like mealybugs and scale and thrips, and the argentine ants that like to farm them.

  17. I’m lucky enough to have Strybing Arboretum just a 30 minute drive – 40 is traffic is a pain – from my house, in addition to a conservatory in Golden Gate Park that was recently rebuilt. I’ve also had the joy of a couple of trips (’97 and ’07) to Kew Gardens in England. The thing I wished we had in GOlden Gate Park, like at Kew was some of those majestic grand grassy avenues, like the one that stretches forth from the pagoda. In addition to Strybing, the U.C Berkeley Botanical Gardens are also quite a charmer!

    I guess if I were to be in want of anything, is that there was a tiny micro-pocket of extra chilly weather to support lilacs and peonies. But as it is, it’s too warm, even in chilly S.F., since the average winter temps are only a few degrees colder than average summer highs. Great weather for growing orchids outside.

    I guess considering all things, being able to grow subtropicals outside of a greenhouse is one benefit Strybing and U.C. Berkeley Bot. Gardens versus Kew. I just love the scale of Kew though – their conservatories are HUGE, their strolling avenues go on forever, their lunch pavilion is large, can seat many and the food is good. Desserts are fabulous!

  18. I’ve been to Lewis Gintner Botanical Garden (Richmond) & Cleveland Botanical Gardens. I really enjoyed both. Gintner has an amazing rose garden outside. Cleveland has an incredible botanical library where I spent over an hour looking at books, periodicals, etc.

  19. Since I live in Minnesota, I love a BG with a conservatory for some winter respite. The one at Como Park in St. Paul is blessedly humid even in January. Chicago is a great BG, but if you are in the Midwest, the Olbrich Gardens in Madison, Wis., are also great and have a conservatory.

  20. Every really important activity we do has institutions: art has museums and galleries, music has concert halls and clubs, education has head-start programs and universities. Ornamental gardening has public gardens.

    It’s good that folk think of gardens as tourist destinations and exotic plant collections, and it’s certainly helpful that their displays might introduce us to new plants for our own gardens. Bigger than this, though, public gardens are the stewards of horticulture: they are responsible for keeping our collective gardening culture alive and moving forward. With them, horticulture is a part of our society; without them, horticulture is in danger of becoming just a hobby and an industry.

    So a public garden needs to be zealous in its pursuit of good gardening, and wholly intent on strengthening, inspiring, and teaching horticulture. There’s a discipline to this; a public garden that installs electric trains and tree houses to pull in visitors is in danger of undercutting its own message. It is crucial that our public gardens be thoughtful, and that their activities be compellingly coherent.

    This can be hard. Glass conservatories, for example, speak to two traditions: horticulture as public spectacle, and horticulture as a luxury enjoyed by the very rich. A contemporary botanical garden has to move beyond both of these to understand how its displays make gardening current. Trying to get us to swoon at the amount of money being thrown around is unpleasant; making gardening inaccessible through use of expensive tropicals is problematic; pushing people through a horticultural theme park is inhumane. It takes some planning and thought to make such a place fit into a modern institutional mission. But it certainly can be done.

    The goal of creating a place where people from a broad community can be in heightened contact with great plants that are gardened extremely well is crucial. The goal of creating a shared culture of gardening is even more so. There isn’t a formula for accomplishing these, but it’s imperative that those who are part of the institution be single-minded in their focus.

  21. I grew up a few blocks from here. We used to visit at Easter to look at all the flowering bulbs. I have such fond memories of Easter here. As owner of Local Color Flowers (www.locoflo.com) in Baltimore now, I definitely love Spring flowers and weddings the most!

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