Entertainment, education: Public gardens have it all

Entertainment, education: Public gardens have it all

by Ellen Goff

When you walk through the front gate of a public garden, you know you're entering another world. These special places come in many forms: botanical gardens, arboretums, college and university gardens, glass-covered conservatories, nature centers, even zoos, where you may find flora from the habitat of the fauna on display.

Today's public gardens are not just about plants as they were in centuries past, and you'll often find an ever increasing range of displays and activities available for individuals of every age.

Botanical gardens emerged from medical gardens of the 17th century, where early pharmacologists taught their students to identify beneficial plants, distinguishing them from poisonous ones.

Plant collecting became a science and displaying collections a passion in Europe and the new American colonies.

Agricultural and commercial interests followed, with garden displays expanding to show off the newest additions. A regular supply of rare, exotic specimens from plant hunters and explorers fueled the growing passion of private collectors as well.

Fast forward several centuries to the modern public garden, and you'll find plants that thrive under Southeastern climate and soil conditions quite similar to your own home landscape.

If your garden is exhausted and done for this season, check out your local public garden to see how to maintain interest and beauty in every season. It's also a great place to gather ideas for next year.

Many gardens have retained their original mission as scientific and educational institutions. Some programs offer public sessions to increase plant knowledge and appreciation. Others deal with global environmental and conservation issues. There are offerings for children as well as activities families can do together.

Yet, to respond to visitors' changing interests, the new public garden is part environmental center, arts venue and community center for evening and seasonal events.

"We started paying more attention to providing our guests with a relevant and real experience a number of years ago," says Jim Hoffman, director of marketing at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont, N.C.

"For families, we created the Wild About Summer series, that draws connections between plants, wildlife and people. For adults, we started Garden Nights and extended hours Thursday evenings in the summer. Our programming has changed to attract a changing audience."

The trend for broader programming and exhibits has spread among public gardens throughout the Southeast. The Atlanta Botanical Garden has new edible gardens on display and an outdoor kitchen to show ways of cooking what you grow.

North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill offers yoga in the garden and a Chinese brush painting workshop. In the University of South Florida Botanical Gardens in Tampa, gophers, tortoises, butterflies, insects and more than 60 species of birds await discovery.

Now, hopefully, you can understand why visiting a public garden can transport you to another world. Maybe it's time to go see for yourself?

To find gardens near you, visit the American Public Gardens Association at publicgardens.org and click "garden search."

Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.

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