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Gardens of Delight

Visit one of these 17 botanical gardens in the Western United States and your sense of wonder will never be the same again.

Allerton Garden, a National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kaua'i
Photo caption
The Roman goddess Diana goes Hawaiian at Allerton Garden.

Botanical gardens are sanctuaries where you can gaze up at a cloud-forest canopy, stick a hesitant finger inside a Venus flytrap, or contemplate a butterfly and restore your sense of awe in a civilization-weary world.

Each of these Western gardens offers distinct treasures, from fierce desert succulents to tropical fruits the size of duffel bags. What they share is a mission: to preserve a living library of plant species that exemplifies the value—and vulnerability—of the earth's flora. "People come to see pretty or unusual plants, but they walk away understanding the need for conservation," says Janet Leopold, a spokes-person for Hawaii's National Tropical Botanical Garden.

So visit one of these horticultural Edens. Your worldview and your sense of wonder will never be the same again.

By Kristina Malsberger

UC-Davis Arboretum

DON'T MISS: More than 80 kinds of oak in the Shields Oak Grove
BASICS: 1 Shields Ave., Davis, Calif., (530) 752-4880,

Home to both cacti and coast redwoods, it features numerous drought-tolerant plants such as the Santa Barbara daisy and Argentine rain lily.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens

ELEVATION: Sea level to 84 feet
BEST TIME TO VISIT: May through July
DON'T MISS: The nearly nonstop color in the Heath and Heather Garden
BASICS: 18220 N. Hwy. 1, Fort Bragg, Calif., (707) 964-4352,

Stretching from coastal prairie meadows to ferny pine forests, this oceanside paradise is famous for its tree-size rhododendrons, some of which grow nearly 20 feet tall. The exuberant blossoms abound in late spring as do heritage roses, lilies, and wildflowers, including the rare Mendocino paintbrush. Late summer and fall usher in fuchsias, hydrangeas, and dahlias. In winter the ocean-facing benches provide a great vantage point for spotting migrating gray whales.

University of California Botanical Garden

FOUNDED: 1890; moved to present location in 1923
ELEVATION: 625 to 890 feet
DON'T MISS: The greenhouse collection of carnivorous plants and orchids
BASICS: 200 Centennial Dr., Berkeley, Calif., (510) 643-2755,

UC-Berkeley botanists have crammed an amazing array of vegetation and habitats into the hills above San Francisco Bay. Follow a trail through a cluster of South American cacti and other arid exotica before heading into a wet world of New Zealand tree ferns and Asian lilies. Climb uphill toward a field of roses, stopping occasionally to admire the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Nearly one-third of all native California plant species can be found on these grounds, but foreign beauties blend equally well into the landscape. The Chinese dawn redwoods make a graceful counterpoint to the five-acre grove of coast redwoods across the road.

Huntington Botanical Gardens

ACRES: Around 150 ELEVATION: 580 to 720 feet
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Winter and spring DON'T MISS: Flowering plum, cherry, peach, and apricot trees in the Japanese Garden (January through April) BASICS: 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, Calif., (626) 405-2100,

With a Buddhist shrine perched above the Japanese Garden and Thomas Gainsborough's famous Blue Boy hanging in the nearby Erburu Gallery, the experience here is as much cultural as horticultural. Still, the living specimens hardly disappoint: 95-year-old golden barrel cacti in the Desert Garden, 200-year-old bonsai, otherworldly orchids and rare treasures in the conservatory, and in spring enough roses and magnolias to fill the air with fragrance. The popular Children's Garden includes a topiary "volcano" featuring flame red New Zealand flax and a fog grotto fueled by high-pressure nozzles—the place to get lost on a warm day.

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

DON'T MISS: The California wild lilacs (early spring) BASICS: 1500 N. College Ave., Claremont, Calif., (909) 625-8767,

The largest botanical oasis dedicated exclusively to California's native plants, from delicate Matilija poppies to a sprawling 200-year-old coast live oak. Pick up landscaping tips in a two-acre display area.

The Living Desert

DON'T MISS: The walk-in aviaries
BASICS: 47-900 Portola Ave., Palm Desert, Calif., (760) 346-5694,

Animals liven up scenes from the world's deserts. Bighorn sheep look at home around the Joshua trees, while cheetahs and aardwolves complement the African acacias.

National Tropical Botanical Garden

ACRES: 600 in Hawaii
ELEVATION: Sea level
DON'T MISS: The bamboo bridge over Lawai Stream in McBryde Garden
BASICS: Southshore Visitors Center, 4425 Lawai Rd., Poipu, Kauai, Hawaii, (808) 742-2623,

The south shore of Kauai is home to the headquarters of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a network of four Hawaiian gardens (plus one in Florida) that showcase the flora and history of Polynesia. McBryde Garden holds the world's largest collection of native Hawaiian plants. Con-servation is a top priority: Workers helped save the rare Brighamia through hand pollination and seed collecting. The seaside Allerton Garden, adjacent to McBryde, includes a bamboo grove and tropical fruit orchard. Limahuli Garden on Kauai's north shore features taro terraces that date back to the first wave of Polynesian immigrants. Maui's Kahanu Garden boasts 122 kinds of breadfruit trees, the largest assortment anywhere.

University of Washington Botanic Gardens

ACRES: 230, plus 74 acres at Union Bay Natural Area
ELEVATION: Just above sea level BEST TIME TO VISIT: Spring through summer
DON'T MISS: Azalea Way (April and May)
BASICS: 2300 Arboretum Dr. E., Seattle, (206) 543-8800,

What would you do with 300 acres of lakefront property next to downtown Seattle? The University of Washington had a fertile idea: a botanical preserve featuring thousands of trees (including one of the largest collections of Japanese maples in the United States), willow-fringed meadows, and enough flowers to ensure color at any time of year. By spring, the crab apple and cherry blossoms can knock a person over. Bald eagles, great blue herons, ring-necked pheasant, American goldfinches, and many other birds mingle at the Union Bay Natural Area. Reclaimed more than 30 years ago from a garbage dump, this location now provides some of the best bird-watching in the city.

VanDusen Botanical Garden

ELEVATION: 80 to 100 feet
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Spring through summer
DON'T MISS: The Laburnum Walk in May
BASICS: 5251 Oak St., Vancouver, B.C., (604) 878-9274,

The wet but mild climate supports a profusion of plants from around the world, including Chinese dawn redwoods, North American bald cypresses, Chilean beech trees, and Mediterranean cedars.

Red Butte Garden

ACRES: 18 ELEVATION: 5,000 feet
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Spring through early summer
DON'T MISS: The wildflower meadow
BASICS: 300 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City, (801) 581-4747,

Natives and exotics, including North American limber pines and Chinese paperbark maples, thrive in this garden. One highlight is the April explosion of 100,000 daffodils; crab apple and wisteria blooms add to the show.

Denver Botanic Gardens

ELEVATION: 5,280 feet
BEST TIME TO VISIT: May through September
DON'T MISS: The Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory
BASICS: 1005 York St., Denver, (720) 865-3500,

This mile-high landscape changes with the seasons: Lilacs and mountain flowers (such as rock jasmine from the Himalayas) burst forth in spring, water lilies abound in summer, and native leaves turn red in fall. The tropical conservatory—a domed rain forest—is a popular winter retreat. Groves of oak and cotton-wood stand tall year-round while gnarled ponderosa pines give the Japanese garden a Western ?avor.

Desert Botanical Garden

ELEVATION: 1,300 feet
DON'T MISS: The walk-in Butterfly Pavilion (March 2–May 13; September 29–November 4)
BASICS: 1201 N. Galvin Pkwy., Phoenix, (480) 941-1225,

No surprise: This arid garden goes in huge for cacti—from ground-hugging Chilean species to a nearly 40-foot-tall cardón cactus from Baja California—as well as other sun-loving plants from around the world, including African aloes. The surrounding Sonoran Desert is especially well represented. More than 130 species in the garden are rare, threatened, or endangered. In spring, purple and yellow cactus blooms shine bright against a backdrop of red sandstone. Spring wildflowers such as desert marigolds and bluebells, along with the accompanying butterflies and rufous hummingbirds, add more splashes of color. The native butterflies in the pavilion will flutter around your head.

Cheyenne Botanic Gardens

ACRES: 9.5 ELEVATION: 6,010 feet
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Late July through mid-September
DON'T MISS: The large solar-heated greenhouse
BASICS: 710 S. Lions Park Dr., Cheyenne, Wyo., (307) 637-6458,

In a formidable climate, dedicated horticulturalists coax from the soil an impressive array of flowers (from water lilies to prickly pears), shrubs (including burning bush and mountain mahogany), and trees (such as piñon pines and buckeyes). Kids enjoy taking the zigzag walkway over a wetland.

Tizer Botanic Gardens

DON'T MISS: The large solar-heated greenhouse
BASICS: 38 Tizer Lake Rd., Jefferson City, Mont., (866) 933-8789,

This gem, specializing in clematis, attracts more hummingbirds than visitors. Researchers recently banded 54 hummers in 45 minutes.

Alaska Botanical Garden

ACRES: 110 (mostly undeveloped forest)
ELEVATION: 100 feet
DON'T MISS: The giant, lichen-covered boulder left behind by a glacier
BASICS: 4601 Campbell Airstrip Rd., Anchorage, (907) 770-3692,

The wildest of the West's gardens—black bears and moose are frequent visitors—is also the most surprising. Who imagined so many flowers, trees, and shrubs could flourish this far north? Some buds, including yellow globeflowers and primroses, open as soon as the snow melts. This is one of the few gardens where you can see the rare and brilliant Himalayan blue poppy. In June, visitors—and bears—can watch king salmon fight against the current of Campbell Creek. By the peak of summer, 22 hours of daily sunlight fuels frantic growth along the wildflower walk and the 1.1-mile nature trail through birch and spruce woodlands.

San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum

ELEVATION: Just above sea level
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Spring through summer
DON'T MISS: The collection of native California plants
BASICS: Ninth Avenue at Lincoln Way, San Francisco, (415) 661-1316,

Even people who can't tell a rose from a rhododendron can appreciate the serenity of this Golden Gate Park oasis. Plant aficionados will marvel at the vast numbers of rare species from all over the world. Some—including the golden fuchsia from Chiapas, Mexico—are no longer found in their native habitats. The Mesoamerican cloud forest thrives in the local fog. Other attractions include 0an authentic patch of Australian bush, a Japanese moon-viewing garden, and a collection of primitive plants such as cycads, palmlike living fossils that predate the dinosaurs. Vast lawns are perfect for picnicking, strolling, and Frisbee throwing.

Idaho Botanical Garden

ELEVATION: 2,400 feet
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Mid-May to mid-October
DON'T MISS: The Lewis & Clark Native Plant Garden
BASICS: 2355 N. Penitentiary Rd., Boise, Idaho, (208) 343-8649,

Built on the old state prison site, this garden shows off the full potential of Rocky Mountain soils and climate. The Lewis & Clark plot teems with native flora, including aspen, echinacea, and syringa (mock orange), the state flower of Idaho. Visitors can compare living plants with Meriwether Lewis's journal entries and drawings. Trees planted by inmates during the 1950s provide shade in the Meditation Garden.

Photography by Douglas Pebbles

This article was first published in March 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.