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Gardens: Beauty grows here

Courtesy Longwood Gardens

A delight for the eyes, botanical gardens are more than just places to saunter past succulents and meander through rows of purposefully planted flora; they offer an escape into a growing world of beauty and peace. Even in a group setting, journeying through a botanical garden is a great way to lose yourself in the splendor of creation while staying on the straight and narrow path.

Whether stocked with local plant life or themed with regional flair, botanical gardens provide a chance to interact with nature and take a step back from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Here are a few of our favorites around the country.

Botanica Gardens
[ Wichita, Kansas ]
Established in 1897, Botanica has expanded from a meager nine acres with four themed gardens to a breathtaking 17.6 acres with 25 themed gardens. The most recent addition is the Downing Children’s Garden, which opened in July 2011 and has been a breath of fresh air for children and adult visitors alike.

Botanica offers tours for groups of 10 or more and hosts special events throughout the year, among them the family-appropriate fall festival BOOtanica and Illuminations, a holiday celebration that features a synchronized light show set to festive music.

“The gardens are a wonderful place to explore different plant species and enjoy the oasis of everything green and growing,” said Kristin Marlett, marketing director, who noted that the butterfly house has been a huge success since it opened in 1999. “When I’m alone, I love to walk through the garden and admire its beauty; it is a stunning garden all the way through. When I have my son, I love to watch him play in the children’s garden and see how he interacts with the kids, fountains, playhouse, water pumps and much more.”

Norfolk Botanical Garden

[ Norfolk, Virginia ]
What started as one man’s fondness for azaleas quickly grew into a multifaceted, grant-funded project to build a 155-acre botanical garden of which the city of Norfolk could be proud. In 1938, more than 200 African-American women and 20 men employed by the Works Progress Administration came out to earn 25 cents per day, and they didn’t stop until all the dense vegetation was cleared and the first azaleas were planted.

“The garden has certainly grown from its humble beginnings,” said Kelly Welsh, public relations manager. “We now have more than 95 species of birds, 30 kinds of butterflies and 40 themed gardens, including our World of Wonders Children’s Adventure Garden. We are known for our award-winning camellias, large azalea collection, rose garden and hydrangea collection and a wide variety of unusual plants.”

The garden will be celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2013, and the staff is planning all kinds of great events to be held throughout the year, including a visit from poet Maya Angelou.
Throughout the year, groups can enjoy boat tours, tram tours or just a stroll through the rose and hummingbird gardens on a scenic walking path.

“The garden is a peaceful place with changing scenery,” Welsh said. “I am here at the garden every day, and I am still amazed on a daily basis. Over the years, we have added a pedal-through-the-petals feature where guests are able to ride their bikes throughout the garden at night. Starting in late November, guests will be able to drive their vehicles after dark throughout the garden and experience a wonderment of holiday lights known as our Garden of Lights. It is a spectacular display that draws thousands of guests a year.”

Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center
[ Orange, Texas ]
After being closed for 50 years, the Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center reopened in 2008; crowds of people lined up for the chance to explore this remarkable botanical wonder set in the heart of Orange, Texas. Taking its name from the 1933 book “Lost Horizon,” the term “Shangri La” indicates a safe haven of beauty, peace and enlightenment.

The Shangri La gardens showcase a beautiful array of green color, but the nature center is green as well and was the first project in Texas to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Platinum certification for environmentally safe architecture. The gardens were shut down briefly after Hurricane Ike damaged the Texas coastline in 2008, but six months later, the dedicated staff and botanists had everything growing again and ready to reopen.

“Today, Shangri La offers visitors a chance to visit a beautiful garden and ride an electric boat into a cypress tupelo swamp at the Nature Center,” said Michael Hoke, managing director of the gardens and nature center. “These two venues provide an excellent opportunity to explore nature’s beauty and develop a sense of how many have worked with nature to make a beautiful garden.”

Main attractions include an interactive children’s garden, a gift shop, a full-service cafe and a bird blind for taking covert snapshots.

“Group tours are arranged for a four-hour period,” added Hoke. “They start with a guided tour of our gardens and end with a pontoon boat ride to the outposts at the beaver pond, based in a cypress/tupelo swamp.”