Given the weather, the Midwest might seem like an odd place to stick world-class botanical gardens. However, throughout the region, the Midwest is brimming with gardens that not only push the boundaries of the types of plants you’d expect to see growing locally, but also what you’d imagine a botanical garden could be.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, not only specializes in tropical plants but even has a custom-built Royal Thai pavilion gifted to the garden by the king of Thailand himself. In St. Louis, one of the top three botanical gardens in the world hides right off I-44.
In Wichita, Kansas, Botanica shows the limits of what surprising plants can grow outdoors in the Midwest, while in Columbus, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa, prodigious indoor conservatory and greenhouse space makes the Franklin Park Conservatory and the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens hotbeds of year-round activity.
Because of its location a bit farther south than many of the Midwestern states, Botanica in Wichita is able to offer an unusual experience among Midwestern botanical gardens: nearly 18 acres of year-round outdoor gardens.
“Our variety strikes a lot of people,” said Mitzie Hall, Botanica’s outreach and tour coordinator. “We’re in the Midwest, but we’ve planted a wide range of what we can possibly grow. For instance, we have a tulip tree from the South that blooms tulip bulbs.”
Before visiting specific gardens based on their interests, groups begin in the Shakespeare Garden, where groups can see five of the more than 50 sculptures scattered throughout the gardens, and the Butterfly Garden, which dates back to the early days when Botanica was just a few acres.
The Downing Children’s Garden added four years ago incorporates interactive experiences for all ages with a mix of live demonstration and indoor education areas, including a farm replica.
“Adults who grew up on a farm resonate with that area,” said Hall. “It’s not only visually pleasing for adults; it’s fun but also a learning experience.”
Botanica is also now installing its first cultural garden: the Chinese Garden of Friendship.
In addition to touring the gardens, one of the highlights of a group visit to Botanica is a picnic in the garden or a catered meal in one of the eight spaces available for private rentals. Groups can do private rentals of the Shakespeare Garden and the Beverly Blue Teaching Garden, as well as three pavilion or lawn-style spaces, or take their meal inside in the Fireside Room if the group is small, or in the larger Lotus Hall or Terrace Room banquet spaces if more space is needed.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
One of the most beloved attractions among visitors to Madison, Olbrich is distinct from most botanical gardens, from its strong connection to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to its creation from the singular, endearing dream of one man.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens was originally imagined in 1916 by Michael Olbrich. Its current site was once in the middle of a highly industrial zone in a period when working in industry was a much dirtier and more dangerous job than it is today.
“Olbrich wanted to create a place where the everyday worker would be able to enjoy the beauty of the natural world,” said public relations and marketing manager Katy Plantenberg.
Today, despite the weather, the garden can be enjoyed year-round, as the horticultural staff has planted the area for all seasons, with ornamental grasses and mums in the fall to winter berries. In keeping with Olbrich’s vision, the indoor areas connect visitors with plants that most people have never seen that generate familiar products, such as bananas, star fruits, papayas and coffee trees.
For many visitors, the highlight is a visit to the Thai garden and pavilion at the far edge of the gardens near the waters of Lake Monona. Constructed in Thailand, the gold-leaf-coated pavilion was assembled in the gardens by nine Thai artisans. A new electric tram opened this April to take visitors with mobility issues to this edge of the 16-acre park. The tram makes a loop every 20 to 25 minutes.