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10 top U.S. botanical gardens you have to visit

A couple sit surrounded by blooming tulips at the Dallas Arboretum Surrounded by a kaleidoscope of blooming tulips at the Dallas Arboretum. | Photo courtesy Dallas Arboretum

A casual stroll through a botanical garden, particularly as spring tickles landscapes back to life, can provide hours of Zen-like calm and revive your own sense of resilience and well-being. And if you investigate closely, you’ll begin to understand why your heart responds to the artistry of a flower, how critical plant research is to our daily lives, and what you can cultivate for the betterment of our world when you return home. To help us along that journey, we asked Pamela Diggle, who heads the University of Connecticut’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Washington Gardener editor Kathy Jentz to walk us through some of their favorite botanical gardens.

1. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

Lilacs bloom at Arnold Arboretum | Photo by Lisa S. Engelbrecht/Danita Delimont for stock.adobe.com

Blooming lilacs are a feast for eyes and nose at Arnold Arboretum. | Photo by Lisa S. Engelbrecht/Danita Delimont for stock.adobe.com

Any woody plant with a prayer’s chance of thriving in Boston is likely among the 16,000 or so living wonders at North America’s oldest public arboretum. Established in 1872, these 281 acres were shaped by American landscape design luminary Frederick Law Olmsted. The terrain is “designed to give you fresh perspectives when you round a corner or come up over a rise,” Diggle says. Even during notoriously dreary New England months, she and her husband, Arboretum Director William (Ned) Friedman, are captivated by twigs and tree bark patterns. “They’re exquisitely beautiful if you look carefully,” she says. 

Don’t miss … the fragrance of the arboretum’s impressive lilac collection in May.

Info: 125 Arborway, Boston, Massachusetts. (617) 524-1718; 
arboretum.harvard.edu. Free.

2. Longwood Gardens

Visitors admire waterlily ponds at Longwood Garden. | Photo courtesy Longwood Garden

Visitors admire waterlilly ponds at Longwood Gardens. | Photo courtesy Longwood Garden

Industrialist Pierre S. du Pont took up residence in 1906 at this 1,083-acre estate in the Brandywine Valley, about 30 miles south of Philadelphia, and spent the next 25 years laying the groundwork for today’s art-filled, architecturally rich garden masterpiece. In addition to the gardens and conservatory, there are more than 100 whimsical animal statues scattered throughout the property, an open-air theater that hosts performances by artists such as the Indigo Girls and Keb’ Mo’, and a beer garden. “That’s what’s great about Longwood,” Jentz says. “You don’t have to like plants at all.” For plant lovers, there’s much to see regardless of what time of year you visit, from spring’s kaleidoscope of tulips to summer’s awakening of more than 100 types of waterlilies to autumn pumpkins. In the winter, plants in the conservatory defy the deep freeze. 

Don’t miss … an after-dark, illuminated fountain show that is synced to music. This spectacle traces back to du Pont’s childhood fascination with the water pumps demoed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

Info: 1001 Longwood Road, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. (610) 388-1000;
longwoodgardens.org. Adults, $25.

3. United States Botanic Garden

The sun sets over Bartholdi Park, one of 20 gardens at the U.S. Botanic Garden. | Photo by Amanda Kleinman/U.S. Botanic Garden

The sun sets over Bartholdi Park, one of 20 gardens at the U.S. Botanic Garden. | Photo by Amanda Kleinman/U.S. Botanic Garden

This garden adjacent to the Capitol Building was envisioned by George Washington and has, since 1820, stayed true to its mission of demonstrating the importance of plants to the well-being of citizens.

The conservatory houses rare corpse flowers, thousands of orchids, and plants from climates all over the world, allowing you to venture from the Mediterranean to the desert to the rain forest without having to buy a plane ticket, Jentz says. Garden lovers can also enjoy a dozen Smithsonian-maintained gardens along the National Mall.

Don’t miss … the Historic Plants Collection, which includes four specimens brought to the U.S. by Pacific Ocean explorers in 1842.

Info: 100 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, D.C. (202) 225-8333; usbg.gov. Free.

4. State Botanical Garden of Georgia

The Alice H. Richards Children’s Garden at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia has themed gardens, edible landscapes, and garden plots. | Photo courtesy State Botanical Garden of Georgia

The Alice H. Richards Children’s Garden at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia has themed gardens, edible landscapes, and garden plots. | Photo courtesy State Botanical Garden of Georgia

A walk beneath a leafy canopy provides a sneak preview of Georgia’s preeminent garden. Take the elevator down to its 33 cultivated acres, surrounded by 280 natural acres, and discover a realm of birding and nature trails; heritage, flower, and other display gardens; and an immersive children’s garden, where carnivorous pitcher plants send up lollipop-like flowers in the spring. 

Diggle is a fan of the garden’s gorgeous informational signage. In the International Garden, for example, signs tell the story of an age of exploration, when botanical gardens became research repositories for plants collected around the world. 

Don’t miss … a new project scheduled to open in early 2021: the Center for Art and Nature, composed of a museum filled with a thousand nature-inspired decorative arts objects and the Discovery and Inspiration Garden, where the raised flower beds are sure to be appreciated by photographers.

Info: 2450 S. Milledge Avenue, Athens, Georgia. (706) 542-1244;
botgarden.uga.edu. Free. 

5. Missouri Botanical Garden

People stroll among weeping Higan cherry trees at the Missouri Botanical Garden. | Photo by Mary Lou Olson/Missouri Botanical Garden

People stroll among weeping Higan cherry trees at the Missouri Botanical Garden. | Photo by Mary Lou Olson/Missouri Botanical Garden

Admission fees to the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) sustain not only 79 acres of world-class horticultural displays but also an ambitious research and conservation effort. Inside the geodesic-domed Climatron (open Thursday–Sunday), you’ll see plants that have nearly vanished from existence, such as the Mauritian bloody bellflower. Jentz recommends taking a class or workshop here, and the educational offerings include cooking, art, and crafting sessions. MBG is also a home gardener’s lifeline: Its Plant Doctor service is available via the website or email at plantinformation@mobot.org. (At press time, the on-site Center for Home Gardening was temporarily closed due to the pandemic.) 

Don’t miss … the 14-acre Japanese Garden, which is at its most striking when cherry blossoms are in bloom, typically late March through early April.

Info: 4344 Shaw Boulevard, St. Louis. (314) 577-5100; missouribotanicalgarden.org. Adults, $14. 

6. Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden

Tulips and daffodils take over the landscape at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden. | Photo courtesy Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden

Tulips and daffodils take over the landscape at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden. | Photo courtesy Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden

Jentz describes the inventive and bold Dallas Arboretum as a botanical garden on steroids. More than a half-million tulips and spring flowers bloom from late February through mid-April, and some 90,000 pumpkins and 150,000 autumn flowers are used in fall’s artistic displays. Dave Forehand, vice president of gardens, admits that the Texas ethos influenced the garden’s outsized design. “That’s what people expect,” Forehand says. “If you want people to be awed, you’ve got to do it big.” Since opening in 1984, this 66-acre oasis has trialed 1.4 million plants, contributing volumes of research on what will grow in this sun-scorched environment. Home gardeners, take note: “If we can’t kill it, nobody can,” Forehand says. 

Don’t miss … the 8-acre Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden, where you don’t have to be knee-high to a grasshopper to experience plants with all of your senses.

Info: 8525 Garland Road, Dallas, Texas. (214) 515-6615; dallasarboretum.org. Adults, $17.

7. Tucson Botanical Gardens

A child plays at a fountain at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. | Photo by Dominic Bonuccelli/Tucson Botanical Gardens

A child plays at a fountain at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. | Photo by Dominic Bonuccelli/Tucson Botanical Gardens

Tucson Botanical Gardens, one of the best small urban gardens in the United States, showcases the desert’s surprising lushness. The 17 display gardens tucked into 5 1/2 acres in the heart of the city perfume the air with a citrus-floral fragrance. Spring is a good time to see migratory birds, including a Cooper’s hawk that returns every year to nest in an Aleppo pine. The garden also encourages water conservation, and, Jentz says, the xeriscape displays persuade many Southwestern homeowners to trade their grass turf for drought-proof plants.

Don’t miss … the blue morpho butterflies flittering around inside a greenhouse filled with orchids, hibiscuses, and other flowering tropical beauties. While the greenhouse is closed due to the pandemic, you can spy on butterflies, including newborns emerging from their chrysalises, through viewing windows and chance upon them in the outdoor butterfly garden. 

Info: 2150 N. Alvernon Way, Tucson, Arizona. (520) 326-9686; tucsonbotanical.org. Adults, $15.

8. Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum

A hummingbird sips nectar from a flower at the Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum. | Photo by Jay Pierstorff/Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum

A hummingbird sips nectar from a flower at the Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum. | Photo by Jay Pierstorff/Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum

Tucson is doubly blessed with botanical gardens. The Arizona–Sonora Desert Museum, 18 miles west of the Tucson Botanical Gardens, is a hybrid—part zoo, part botanical garden—where the terrain can feel as foreign as the surface of Mars to visitors from less-arid climates. 

Diggle says the gardens’ naturalistic animal enclosures immerse visitors in the whole desert ecosystem. She recalls being so mesmerized that she explored “for hours and hours” in the 110-degree heat of late July. And Jentz offers this advice for exploring the desert environment: Wear closed-toed shoes and stay on the trail.

Don’t miss … the museum’s Hummingbird Aviary. Being surrounded by whirring pollinators is an experience you won’t soon forget, Jentz says.

Info: 2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, Arizona. (520) 883-2702; desertmuseum.org. Adults, $23.95.

9. Quarryhill–Sonoma’s Botanical Garden

Irises add a colorful touch to a serene, green scene at Quarryhill. | Photo by Mark Hullinger/Quarry Hill Sonoma's Botanical Garden

Irises add a colorful touch to a serene, green scene at Quarryhill. | Photo by Mark Hullinger/Quarry Hill Sonoma's Botanical Garden

Don’t let the roadside grapevines throw you: This isn’t yet another Sonoma Valley vineyard. Through the gate lies a 25-acre wild Asian woodland the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else on this continent. Diggle is most impressed by the way the different forms are juxtaposed. It’s a “landscape that surprises you,” she says. This is a relatively young garden, planted over the past 30 years with seeds collected on expeditions to China, Japan, and South Korea. Among its inhabitants are rare beauties like one of only about 50 Magnolia sinica trees left on Earth. 

Don’t miss … the 2-acre forest planted with Acer pentaphyllum maple trees, destined to one day produce seed that can help reforest their native China, where this delicate species is nearly extinct.

Info: 12841 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen, California. (707) 996-3166;
quarryhillbg.org. Adults, $12.

10. Hawai‘i Tropical Bioreserve and Garden

A moss-covered jungle surrounds Onomea Falls in Hawai‘i Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. | Photo by Paula Cobleigh/stock.adobe.com

A moss-covered jungle surrounds Onomea Falls in Hawai‘i Tropical Bioreserve and Garden. | Photo by Paula Cobleigh/stock.adobe.com

Of the Aloha State’s 30-plus lush plant repositories, “the big one” that garden enthusiasts should seek out is the Hawai‘i Tropical Bioreserve and Garden on Hawai‘i Island, Jentz says. A family’s labor of love, this 17-acre jungle landscape overlooking Onomea Bay, about 7 miles north of Hilo, has been populated with 2,500 tropical and subtropical plants. Some are native; others were collected from afar, including several now extinct on their home turf. Rare orchids, more than 150 types of ornamental gingers, and waxy-looking heliconia with vibrant, spring-blooming flowers all draw photographers’ eyes. 

Don’t miss … the three-tiered Onomea Falls, once hidden by jungle but now an easy photo op thanks to a viewing bridge.

Info: 27-717 Mamalahoa Highway, Papaikou, Hawaii. (808) 964-5233; htbg.com. Adults, $25.

Kim Knox Beckius is a contributing editor at Yankee Magazine and a widely published travel and lifestyle writer who spent enough time at home in 2020 to take up backyard gardening.

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