By Brian Jewell
Some of America’s most fascinating gardens lie hidden in places you might not expect.
We’ve all visited large public botanical gardens, which are often tourist attractions in their own right. But in other places, a great garden might be tucked away on a university campus, behind a museum, at a resort or on the grounds of a historic home.
Gardens that come along with other, better known attractions often have their own set of bragging rights. Many gardens at historic homes have been maintained with the plants and designs envisioned by their original owners, giving visitors a glimpse into the horticultural past.
Gardens at museums often make beautiful settings for outdoor sculpture displays, and university gardens serve to educate guests about the climate and plant life of their areas.
Next time your group wants to visit a garden, consider taking a tour of some of these hidden botanical gems.
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
Winterthur, a historic du Pont estate in Delaware, is famous for its 175-room mansion and its collection of art and architectural items from 1740 through 1860. Although a tour of the home is fascinating, there’s much more to see on the outside.
“The house is surrounded by a 60-acre garden, and that sits on 1,000 acres of estate land,” said assistant curator of garden interpretation Karen Steenhoek. “The garden is a wild garden; it uses a plant palette from all over the world in a way that makes it look like no work was done there at all.”
The garden staff does work hard, though, to keep the gardens looking how the du Pont family envisioned them. Lots of perennial flowers make appearances at certain times of year, among them spring daffodils, azaleas and peonies. Summer brings daylilies, and changing foliage colors make a splash in autumn.
For real garden enthusiasts, though, April is prime time at Winterthur.
“Late April is my favorite time,” Steenhoek said. “There are cherry blossoms and soft color palettes of light yellows and pink. We also have spirea flowers, which were created in the ’30s and ’40s, and are considered an old-fashioned plant now.”
When the du Ponts hosted parties in their heyday, they would use white arrow signs to guide visitors on tours through the garden. Today, the staff does better than that: Groups can tour the garden on a tram, guided by expert drivers who point out highlights of the garden, giving information about its history and design.
Centennial Museum and Garden at UTEP
El Paso, Texas
The desert environment of west Texas and the collegiate environment of the University of Texas at El Paso come together to create a unique botanical spot, the Centennial Museum and Garden. Established 10 years ago, this garden was designed to showcase plants native to the Chihuahuan Desert.
“We call it the oasis in the middle of campus,” said curator John White. “We have roughly 750 different species of plants and a total of 2,000 to 3,000 individual plants in the garden. We try to emphasize that there are things in the desert other than cactus that have color.”
Cactus plantings make up a small section of the acre-and-a-half garden. In other areas, visitors will find small desert trees, as well as shrubs, ground covers and vines that thrive in the dry environment.
In addition to desert plants, the garden highlights horticultural techniques that protect flora from the harsh sun and wind of the local environment. The garden is designed to harvest rainwater and drain it toward the flowerbeds.
Other touches include wooden structures that shield the plants from the noonday sun, and thick walls and large boulders placed to block the wind.
Many visitors enjoy the garden’s three water features: a pond and two fountains.
“One of the fountains is in our contemplative garden,” White said. “It’s a copper basin with copper bells and water dripping down from above and hitting the bells. You can sit in there and listen to the sound of the dripping water reverberate. It’s become part of our campus atmosphere.”
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