As a child I was taken to Planting Fields, an arboretum that is now a state park, in Oyster Bay on Long Island. As an undergraduate I visited the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, Scotland and as a graduate student I found myself wandering into the Rhododendron Gardens in Bremen, Germany during some free time in between shifts at the deep-sea core repository.
Planting Fields was perhaps a refuge for my mother, a place where she could take her three small children, and both they and she could enjoy themselves. The botanic gardens of European cities are inexpensive places for traveling students to spend time; they provide a green and quiet respite from days and hours of train rides, cheap hotels, and crowded cafés.
Botanic (or botanical) gardens tend to include greenhouses and more exotic plants, while arboreta may include exotic plants, but generally from the same climate. “Public gardens” are likely to be the most of-the-place oases in the sense that more (although almost certainly not all) of the plants, shrubs and trees present will be either native or at least from the same continent.
Because they are, in all cases, planted, and because they are often rife with exotic species, botanical gardens, arboreta and public gardens are excellent places to meet new species. The plants there have the added advantage of being labeled. If you wanted to add a specimen to your own landscape, buy a potted plant for your sun room or even add some interest to the next bouquet you purchase from the florist, these plant menageries are the right places to broaden your botanical palette.
The Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh began its life as a “physic garden,” which is to say one devoted to growing medicinal plant. It was founded in 1670 and is the second oldest botanic garden in Britain. It moved to its present location in Inverleith in 1820, in order to escape the growing pollution that the Industrial Revolution brought to Edinburgh.
Many botanical gardens in the US and the UK are non-profit organizations, whether or not they are allied with a university. The Royal Botanic Garden has a full research staff, an education department that offers botanical instruction to the general public and is simply a public institution for its city, staging community events, art exhibits and other cultural undertakings.
Across the pond in the Bronx, Americans will find the New York Botanical Garden. Established in 1891, it is much less boastful about its venerable history than its Edinburgh counterpart. In fact, the NYBG’s Web site states that the founders, Columbia University botanist Nathan Lord Britton and his wife Elizabeth, were inspired by a visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. They purchased the Bronx acreage from the Lorillard family, who were tobacco merchants. Its financiers were the usual gang of Gilded Age despots.
The NYBG’s public offerings are remarkably similar to those offered in Edinburgh: a mixture of educational and cultural programming for all ages. And like the Royal Botanic Garden, there is an extensive research staff. Both institutions are overtly devoted to plant conservation around the world.
Most major (and many minor) cities in the developed world have some form of botanical garden or public garden somewhere in their confines. Some of the ones that I have visited are listed here in no particular order:
Chicago Botanic Garden
San Francisco Botanical Garden
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Botanical Haven and Museum of the University of Copenhagen
Villa Borghese, Rome
Villa d’Esta (Tivoli Gardens), Rome
Thuja Garden, Northeast Harbor, Maine
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, Seal Harbor, Maine
Dundee Botanic Garden, University of Dundee, Scotland
Rhododendron Park and Botanic Garden of Bremen, Germany
Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens
Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park, Rochester, New York
George Eastman House, Rochester, New York
Planting Fields, Oyster Bay, New York
Arnold Arboretum, Boston, Massachusetts
That’s a haphazard list of the ones that I can think of off the top of my head, but you get the picture: they are pretty much anywhere you go. When you need a break during a journey, a conference or a family visit, find a botanical garden.
A professional organization dedicated to public gardens, in general is the American Public Garden Association (formerly known as the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta).