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Seek peace at these lovely Southern botanical gardens and arboretums

Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, Arkansas. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, Arkansas. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

With the dispiriting and ever-present din of the pandemic, the last year has been anything but relaxing. Yet across the South, splendid botanical gardens provide islands of serenity where visitors can take a deep breath and smell the roses.

And the magnolias.

And the daffodils.

And the peonies.

These soothing natural environments have been a balm to those wearied by the crisis. Visits to outdoor spaces exploded in the last year, including gardens and arboretums where people can stroll quiet paths and surround themselves in a palette of vibrant hues.

“A garden is a safe place to escape to, to find solace and relaxation,” said Liz Atwell, communications coordinator with the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Arkansas, adding that spring is an ideal time to visit. “It’s always so exciting when we see the first blooms of the year popping up.”

As new blossoms herald the season, seek out your own beautiful calm at one of these Southern gardens.

Garvan Woodland Gardens

Hot Springs, Arkansas 

Garvan Woodland Gardens

Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Tulips—not by the thousands or even tens of thousands—are coaxed from the ground by the spring sun at this southwest Arkansas oasis. In fact, more than 150,000 sprout each year, and its hillsides are blanketed in shades of red, yellow, orange, and pink by mid-March.

“That’s our showtime,” said Susan Harper, director of visitor services.

They’re not the only spring stars, however, in this 210-acre horticultural haven that Verna Cook Garvan left to the people of the state through the University of Arkansas. More than 300 varieties of daffodils complement the tulips, quickly followed by camellias, azaleas, dogwoods, rhododendrons, and wildflowers.

Garvan, who took over her father’s timber and brick businesses when he died, loved the wooded peninsula off Lake Hamilton but never built a house there. She worked for nearly 40 years, with just one or two helpers, to add a variety of trees, shrubs, and flowers to the land.

When the university took possession, “there was nothing here except the woods, a shop building, and a pavilion,” Harper said. The gardens opened to the public in 2002, and Garvan’s work has been expanded many times over since then with native and non-native plants, plus architectural treasures. Among the highlights are Anthony Chapel, with its nearly 6-story pine columns and floor-to-ceiling glass, and the whimsical Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House (pictured above) nestled in a grove of pines and oaks. —Elizabeth Granger

Info: Adults, $15. (501) 262-9300; garvangardens.org

The Crosby Arboretum

Picayune, Mississippi

Crosby Arboretum, Picayune, Mississippi

Photo courtesy Crosby Arboretum

Owned by Mississippi State University, the Crosby Arboretum is a 64-acre escape where visitors can connect to nature. This living memorial to L.O. Crosby, Jr.—a timber pioneer, civic leader, and philanthropist—is operated by the state Extension Service and is home to more than 300 species of native plants. The arboretum also manages more than 700 natural areas.

This dog-friendly public garden offers three exhibit areas to explore. In spring, the Woodland Exhibit offers spectacular native azaleas in a variety of hues, as well as mountain laurel. Native iris plants line the water’s edge at the Piney Woods Pond. Yellow pitcher plants bloom in the Savanna Exhibit in early spring, and native orchids arrive in May.

Renowned architect and Frank Lloyd Wright disciple E. Fay Jones designed the striking Pinecote Pavilion (pictured above). It’s located near the visitors center, which should be the journey’s first stop before setting out on the 3 miles of walking trails. —Deborah Reinhardt

Info: Adults, $5. (601) 799-2311; crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu.

New Orleans Botanical Garden

New Orleans

New Orleans Botanical Garden

Photo courtesy New Orleans City Park Archives

New Orleans City Park is just a few miles from the French Quarter, but this sanctuary is a world away from the city’s bustle. The 1,300-acre park is home to 20,000 trees, including some mature live oaks between 750 and 900 years old. Visitors can enjoy a host of attractions, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and its sculpture garden, trails, boat rentals, golf courses, and an amusement park.

The New Orleans Botanical Garden sprawls over 10 acres in the heart of the park with more than 2,000 plant varieties. Carefully trimmed hedges and colorful flower beds create a maze of beauty in this garden originally planted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Visitors will find a Japanese garden, butterfly walk, bronze sculptures, lily ponds, and the original WPA Formal Garden, where four “rooms” contain perennials and shrubs. The Train Garden is a hidden gem with 1,300 feet of track carrying miniature trains. And tropical plants thrive in the Conservatory of the Two Sisters, topped with a spectacular glass dome. —Dennis R. Heinze

Info: Adults, $10. (504) 483-9402; neworleanscitypark.com.

Independence Botanical Gardens

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Independence Botanical Gardens, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Photo by Megan Williams/Courtesy BREC

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, this attraction at Independence Community Park is a work in progress with new phases occasionally being added. The gardens are a joint project between the Botanic Garden Foundation and the Recreation and Park Commission for East Baton Rouge Parish (BREC).

At the center of the 15-acre complex, a pavilion in the Louisiana Iris Garden is surrounded by displays of five native species and unique native hybrids. Guests can stroll through the Crape Myrtle Grove, admire 800 varieties of daylilies, explore tropical plants in the Ginger Garden, and stimulate their senses by the herbs in the Sensory Garden.

Don’t miss the Butterfly Garden’s cassia, fennel, and other plants that attract the delicate insects. And the Parterre Color Display Garden presents geometric planting beds in patterns of color that are linked by gravel and brick pathways. The Baton Rouge Garden Club’s on-site Baton Rouge Garden Center hosts occasional flower shows. —Dennis R. Heinze

Info: Free. (225) 928-2270; brec.org/index.cfm/page/BotanicGarden

Botanical Garden of the Ozarks

Fayetteville, Arkansas

Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Photo by Mike Price/Courtesy Botanical Garden of the Ozarks

Unlike many botanical gardens that started through donations of land or money, this 44-acre attraction began as a grassroots movement. The founders hoped to grow appreciation for local ecology by using a collection of small “backyard gardens” to teach horticultural how-to in northwest Arkansas.

The idea took root, and now a dozen themed gardens not only provide a wellspring of ideas for gardeners but a place to relax. The popular Japanese Garden welcomes visitors to an area of quiet meditation, while the Children’s Garden stirs with activity around a giant tree sculpted from cement. Native butterflies flit through the Butterfly House from May through October, and other garden areas feature an Ozark mountain stream, vegetables, roses, and shade-loving plants.

“There is a place to sit in each garden, and I would encourage visitors to stop and sit for a few moments in each one,” said Atwell, the garden’s communications coordinator. “The sights and sounds are so peaceful and beautiful.” —Elizabeth Granger

Info: Adults, $7. (479) 750-2620; bgozarks.org.

Mynelle Gardens Arboretum and Botanical Center

Jackson, Mississippi

Mynelle Gardens Arboretum and Botanical Center

Photo courtesy Visit Jackson

Flower beds bursting with color, trickling fountains, and charming statues greet springtime visitors. While the gardens are beautiful any time of year, early spring blooms include azaleas and Japanese magnolia trees. The site was the home of Joseph Green and Mynelle Westbrook Green, who started her florist shop here in the 1920s using the gardens to supply flowers for the arrangements. The Westbrook-Green family still operates Greenbrook Flowers on North State Street in Jackson, but the gardens have been under the care of Jackson’s Parks and Recreation Department since 1973.

Paths through the approximately 7-acre complex wind past peaceful areas with wrought iron benches, the Greenbrook House, and a pond inhabited by a number of turtles. Take a scenic selfie at the gracefully arched bridge over the pond. This Jackson landmark hosts the Metro Master Gardeners’ annual spring plant sale, which at press time was planned for April 24. —Deborah Reinhardt

Info: Adults, $5, cash only. (601) 960-1894; mynelle-center.edan.io.

Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor and Deborah Reinhardt is editor emerita of AAA Explorer. Elizabeth Granger is a contributor from Nunica, Michigan.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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