Deep in the Bronx, there's a place where the incessant hum of New York City disappears. A river flows along the edge of an old-growth forest, where songbirds serenade in the canopy of massive maples, oaks, and chestnuts that have stood unmoved since the American Revolution.
Sound like an urban myth? This place does exist, cloistered within the New York Botanical Garden. The allure of this 250-acre tract is undeniable, but for Brian Sullivan, the institution's vice president of landscape, outdoor collections, and gardens, its beauty is more than skin deep.
"We want to connect people with plants," Sullivan says. "Public gardens are uniquely poised to be an advocate for the plant kingdom."
America's most beautiful gardens share this ability to deepen visitors' understanding and appreciation of the natural world.
See More of America's Most Beautiful GardensLandscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the mastermind of New York’s Central Park, designed the gardens and grounds cradling this 250-room Vanderbilt estate. His vision perseveres in Biltmore’s miles of forested paths, its 15-acre array of native azaleas—among the largest of its kind in the nation—and its formal plots like the geometric flower beds of the Walled Garden and the Italian Garden’s water-lily-filled reflecting pools.Best Time to Visit: April and May for riotous azalea blossoms; June through September to see the Rose Garden’s more than 200 varieties in bloom. Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company
See More of America's Most Beautiful GardensWhen Mildred Barnes Bliss and her husband purchased this Georgetown estate in 1920, she and landscape designer Beatrix Farrand almost immediately set about transforming the 53-acre property’s neglected grounds. Their efforts live on in a series of informal and enclosed gardens inspired by Italian, French, and English traditions. The results include trimmed boxwood topiary, the casual grace of Cherry Hill, and the terraced Rose Garden—a spot so favored by the Blisses that it became their final resting place.Best Time to Visit: March for an explosion of pale pink along Cherry Hill; April for an array of emerging tulips. Photo: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC.
See More of America's Most Beautiful GardensThis 37-acre property in a residential neighborhood of Santa Barbara matches the eccentricity and whimsy of its founder, Polish-born opera singer and socialite Madame Ganna Walska. Married and divorced six times in her 96 years, Walska’s steadiest love affair was with this botanical garden. She spent more than four decades cultivating an exotic collection that includes more than 170 types of aloe, hundreds of weeping euphorbias, a plot devoted exclusively to silver- and blue-toned plants, and an extensive compilation of cycads (cone-bearing plants). She funded the cycad garden in the 1970s by auctioning off her million-dollar jewelry trove.Best Time to Visit: Summer to see the garden’s namesake lotus flowers in bloom; November to January for fruiting persimmons, pomegranates, and citrus. lotusland.org Photo courtesy of Lotusland
See More of America's Most Beautiful GardensOn the ethereal north shore of the aptly nicknamed Garden Isle, this tropical expanse counts nearly 1,000 acres of pristine forest and riparian habitat. Visitors tour the gardens at the base of the 2,000-foot-deep valley—named the best natural botanical garden by the American Horticultural Society—to see rare native ferns, herbs, and palms. Culturally significant plants include taro, frangipani, and papaya.Best Time to Visit: Go in spring when native herb ko’oko’olau displays yellow, daisy-like flowers. ntbg.org Photo courtesy of the National Tropical Botanical Garden
See More of America's Most Beautiful GardensAs the longtime home of industrialist Pierre S. du Pont (of DuPont Company fame), this public garden west of Philadelphia reflects the tastes of its founder. More than 1,000 acres of outdoor gardens include the centuries-old trees that inspired du Pont to conserve the land and an Italian Water Garden he designed himself. A historic, four-acre conservatory also sustains many of his favorite flowers, ferns, and fruits. Longwood hosts a summer concert series and houses a massive concert organ with more than 10,000 pipes in a grand ballroom—music being another passion cultivated by du Pont.Best Time to Visit: Fall to see the Norway maples that surround the 130-foot-tall Main Fountain emblazoned in gold; April for crocus and trillium carpeting the forest floor. longwoodgardens.org Photo: L. Albee / Longwood Gardens
See More of America's Most Beautiful GardensMolded from yew shrubs, dozens of topiaries reaching 12 feet tall transform this seven-acre downtown park into a living sculpture garden. It was the brainchild of local artist James T. Mason, who debuted the display in 1992. The centerpiece is an interpretation of French Post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat’s 1884 work A Sunday on La Grand Jatte, a collection of men, women, children, and animals believed to be the only topiary version of a painting.Best Time to Visit: Topiaries are most robust in the summer, but a fresh dusting of snow lends added drama. topiarygarden.org Photo courtesy of Friends of the Topiary Park
See More of America's Most Beautiful GardensBorrowing from Buddhist, Shinto, and Taoist philosophies, the late landscape architect Takuma Tono created a garden true to the traditions of his native Japan. Stone, water, and plants harmonize in the five distinct gardens of this 5.5-acre oasis near the Rose Gardens in Washington Park. Bridges, pagodas, and an authentic teahouse punctuate the landscape of native plants and Japanese imports.Best Time to Visit: Spring to see the Flat Garden’s weeping cherry erupt into pink blossoms; fall for a colorful canopy in the Natural Garden. Photo: Portland Japanese Garden, Portland, OR. Photo by Jonathan Ley
--Sarah L. Stewart
See All of America's Most Beautiful Gardens
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