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Why Public Gardens Matter

A Celebration of Public Gardens

Mounts Botanical Garden joins organizations around the nation that are celebrating the work of public gardens this week. We decided to take you on a journey to explore some of the unique gardens around the country, sharing highlights from their work and collections. 


Why is the work of public gardens something to be celebrated? The answer to that question lies in what it means to be a public garden.

“A public garden is an institution that maintains collections of plants for the purposes of public education and enjoyment, in addition to research, conservation, and higher learning.” -American Public Gardens Association

The Association’s definition is structured to emphasize the inclusion of public education and enjoyment. The public nature is what sets these organizations apart from their private or commercial counterparts.

Grow Like a Pro workshop at Mounts Botanical

Mounts Botanical Garden maintains a 14-acre property with 25 display gardens, but the Garden’s mission is to inspire and educate through nature. The identity of a public garden is, at its core, horticulture and public engagement working hand in hand.

Public gardens play a variety of roles in their community and it is a point of pride for these organizations. More than a science museum or aquarium, public gardens represent their local environment in a unique way. Outdoor display gardens and natural areas are subjected to the same conditions as the home gardener down the street. Public gardens get to be an example and inspiration as to what can be accomplished in the area, be a beacon of community pride to tourists and visitors, and educate our community by bringing plants from around the globe to them.

No two public gardens are the same, and the diversity of collections and environments is what makes looking at public gardens as a whole so interesting. Public gardens are reflections of their community. There is a collaborative understanding that gardens across the nation work together on a larger scale. From snowy mountains to deserts and foggy bays to sunny beaches, let’s explore the rich assortment of work that public gardens do with a trip around the United States.

What is a “Public Garden”?

A public garden maintains a collection of plants for education and enjoyment, but that still leaves a pretty broad definition. The terms botanical garden and arboretum are frequently used in describing public gardens. Both terms refer to the type of collection that the garden maintains.

As defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, a botanical garden is “a place where a wide variety of plants are cultivated for scientific, educational, and ornamental purposes.” A botanical garden is not necessarily a public garden, and vice versa. Humans have a long and wild history of wanting to collect and understand beautiful things, and plants are no exception. Originally studied primarily for their medicinal purposes, interests in plant imports from outside of Europe changed with exploration in the 17th century and really exploded in the 18th century. The Victorian era saw an expansion of tropical gardens, construction of glasshouses and conservatories, and a desire to collect and display species from across the globe, with the hub of this growth at Kew Gardens, just outside of London (and you thought this was just a national tour).

The Conservatory of Flowers in the late 1800s (Image: The Conservatory of Flowers)

The Conservatory of Flowers, located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, is a great example of a glasshouse. The Conservatory is distinctly Victorian in its architecture, and although some of its origin is surrounded in mystery, most believe it was modeled after Kew Gardens. It originally opened to the public in 1879, a collection of tropical plants that would otherwise not survive San Francisco’s climate. Over the years, the Conservatory would face fires and natural disasters but the people of the city kept investing in their garden. Recently celebrating its 140th anniversary, the glasshouse is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Conservatory today strives to connect people and plants in a way that is most meaningful for the Bay Area community and its visitors through its warm galleries filled with unusual plants and living walls. There’s one species in particular that is always a major showstopper, the Amorphophallus titanum or Corpse Flower. The Corpse Flower is known for its blooms of unusual size that attract attention and create teaching moments…every few years. A Corpse Flower bloom is a rare and stinky event, and its first bloom will not occur until 7-10 years into its life cycle and uses a putrid scent to attract pollinators. With a rich history of blooming specimens, the Conservatory of Flowers takes virtual visitors through the process of an inflorescence growth, opening, and collapse on their website with 2018’s Suma the Titan (watch Suma’s bloom in time-lapse below) and Amor the Arum and 2019’s Scarlett the Titan. 

A botanical garden does not have to focus on collecting species from around the world, many gardens showcase their community with a collection of native species. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas consists of cultivated gardens, an arboretum, and managed natural areas and wildlands that focus on the ideas of conserving native plants, creating sustainable landscapes, and conserving resources. The Center is named for former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson. Mrs. Johnson was ahead of her time and recognized the importance of wildflowers and other native plants. In 1982, she and actress Helen Hayes founded the Center with the intention to help preserve and restore the beauty and biological richness of North America. Public interest created a need for growth and the center moved from its original 60-acre site to their now 284 acre campus. The Center joined the University of Texas at Austin in 2006 and was designated as the Botanic Garden of Texas in 2017. 

A painted lady butterfly enjoys the benefits of a sunflower (Photo: Chris Helzer, author of Sunflower Squad Goals)

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is home to over 900 species of Texas native plants. Its landscapes are managed to support a vast web of life: 143 species of birds, 15 species of mammals, and 1,800 species of insects have been recorded. Gardens can be beautiful and provide food, water, shelter, and community to native animal species at the same time. Explore the principles of building a habitat garden with Living Space, an article from Wildflower. With a substitution of proper native species, the basic principles of a habitat garden can be applied anywhere. Another Wildflower article, Sunflower Squad Goals, explores the benefits of an iconic wildflower. If inspiration hits, Mounts Botanical Garden’s partner, the University of Florida has some tips for sunflower cultivars and natives for use by the Florida gardener.

Similar to a botanical garden but with a different focus, an arboretum is “a place where trees and plants are grown in order to be studied or seen by the public” as defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary. Although the concept of an arboretum had long been established, the first use of the term appeared in John Claudius Loudon’s The Gardener’s Magazine in 1833, in reference to a nursery that was open to the public for education about trees.

Kris Bachtell teaches a class about Oaks at the Morton Arboretum (Photo: The Morton Arboretum)

The best explanation of an arboretum comes from those directly doing the work. The Morton Arboretum’s Google Arts & Culture page takes a digital journey through the collections and scientific research of a modern arboretum. The inspiration for the Morton Arboretum has deep roots in founder Joy Morton’s own family tree. Joy Morton founded the Morton Salt Company in Chicago and built his estate just 25 miles outside of the city in Lisle, Illinois. The Morton family’s motto was “Plant Trees” and his father, J. Sterling Morton, was the founder of Arbor Day. The Morton Arboretum was established on his property in 1922, envisioned as a “great outdoor museum of trees.” Today, the Arboretum spans 1,700 acres. With trees collected from America, Asia, and Europe, the Arboretum teaches visitors about how to care for trees and about the ecosystems they anchor. Explore some of the Great Trees at the Arboretum that are found on their more than 16 miles of trails through midwestern forest and restored prairie.

This understanding of botanical gardens and arboretums plays into the collections aspect of the public gardens definition, but what about the other purposes public gardens serve?

The Roles Public Gardens Play: Research and Conservation

Botanical gardens are built on a foundation of scientific inquiry. After education and enjoyment, the American Public Gardens Association lists research and conservation as key functions of a public garden. Some public gardens are part of Universities and conduct research through various University departments. Others maintain their own laboratories. Regardless of their setup, public gardens understand the important role plants play in our ecosystems and work to promote understanding.

In addition to the public gardens at York Street and Chatfield Farms, Denver Botanic Gardens has an extremely dynamic team of scientists who work on a wide variety of topics from horticultural research, biodiversity research, and phenology to better understand environmental changes and plant species. One of their programs sees researchers working in the field with volunteers to document plant diversity and collect baseline foundation data for environments that are being lost due to development. 

What happens with collected specimens and information gathered from field work? The term living collections is used frequently to describe the plants that can be viewed at a public garden, and implies that organizations may also maintain non-living collections. Public gardens may also maintain horticultural libraries, art collections, or herbariums. A herbarium can be thought of as a library for biological information, and is defined by Merriam Webster as “a collection of dried plant specimens usually mounted and systematically arranged for reference.” Herbariums play a key role in understanding and conserving species. Public gardens are not just stewards for beautiful flowers, and Denver Botanic Gardens has a special interest in mycology, the study of fungi. The Sam Mitchel Herbarium of Fungi holds nearly 20,000 specimens from across Colorado and the greater Southern Rocky Mountain Region. The video below explores the history of the herbarium, gathering specimens, collection maintenance, and the role of a herbarium in future research.

Research and understanding informs conservation which gardens achieve through public education and direct action. Like many public gardens, Desert Botanical Garden was created by a group of concerned citizens interested in conserving their local environment. The Garden is located in Phoenix, Arizona which is the largest city in the Sonoran Desert. The 140 acre property is home to over 4,000 desert species. Desert Botanical plays a key role in the conservation of desert species. Two of their collections are designated as the National Collection by the Plant Collections Network. Their collection of Cactacea includes over two-thirds of the total number of species in the cactus family and over 80% of the collection is represented by at least one individual of wild origin. The Agavaceae collection is the most prominent collection in the United States with 186 of the 212 known species and varieties of agave. Take a look at Desert Botanical Garden’s work to conserve the fifth most threatened species group in the world:

Desert Botanical Garden is home to 379 rare and endangered desert plant species. The Garden’s seed bank of desert species stores frozen seeds and pollen of rare plants. Researchers are able to learn a lot about rare and endangered plants through their seeds. Explore how scientists are able to learn about plants through photography in the Garden’s Seed Lab:

Scientists have always relied on art to share the importance of plants and conservation. Before photography was widely available, researchers used illustrations to document botanical findings for scientific purposes. Many of these illustrations go far beyond scientific documentation and are works of botanical art. Nature is beautiful and inspiring and public gardens are a great place to create that artistic connection.

The Roles Public Gardens Play: Arts and Culture

Plants have always been a source of inspiration for artists throughout history from Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and the botanicals of Georgia O’Keeffe. Some artists portray nature a little less literally. Known for his use of surrealism, Salvador Dalí was also inspired by the environment around him and especially that of Catalonia. And what better place to explore the relationship between an artist and plants than at a public garden? Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida has brought Dalí’s work to life in the garden. Their exhibit, Salvador Dalí: Gardens of the Mind, highlights the artist’s use of botanical imagery. Focusing around Flordalí, a series of lithographs on loan from The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Gardens of the Mind combines Dalí’s work with displays of tropical plants. Selby Gardens is able to contextualize Dalí’s life, work, and relationship with nature in a way that a traditional art museum cannot. Explore how Selby Gardens brought Flordalí to life with this video tour of the exhibit.

It does not take an artist to bring art to botany; nature is its own artist. New York Botanical Garden’s annual Orchid Show is a fantastic example of how horticulture can be art. Each year, NYBG transforms the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory with installations, painting with plants to educate their visitors in new and interesting ways. This year’s show was Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope, which saw each gallery transformed into a different color experience and visual effect by the famed designer. Jeff Leatham is the artistic director of the Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris with studios in Philadelphia and Beverly Hills. Leatham’s floral design work is famed for his distinctive use of color and his client list includes Cher, Dolly Parton, Oprah Winfrey, the Kardashians, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A speckled purple orchid was named in his honor in 2017, Vanda Sunanda Jeff Leatham which is one of the many thousands of orchids that provide bursts of color throughout the show. This walkthrough of the show includes features on fascinating orchid species that are part of New York Botanical Garden’s collection. Spring visitors of Mounts Botanical Garden might recognize an attention grabbing vine from the Edible Garden that tries to steal the show in one of the later galleries.

Public Gardens & You

Public gardens are dynamic institutions that provide many important functions for their communities. Far more than a park with a lot of flowers, public gardens are the ambassadors for our environment. Every organization provides something unique, and Mounts Botanical Garden is no different. From its founding, Mounts Botanical Garden has always provided a learning experience for visitors to better understand gardening in South Florida. We have grown tremendously from our original collection of citrus and fruit trees to today’s 25 display gardens comprised of over 2,000 tropical and sub-tropical plant species, but our mission has stayed true. Mounts Botanical Garden of Palm Beach County describes more than a physical location, we are here to be your public garden. As part of University of Florida/IFAS and Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension, the Garden strives to provide the most up to date educational opportunities based on current research. The Garden provides environmental education opportunities that change the way students think about natural areas in Florida. Through the Ambassador of the Wetlands program, students get to experience field work and understand the importance of wetlands in Florida’s water resources. Our display gardens provide examples for homeowners of responsible gardening as well as how native plants can be beautiful. The Art in the Garden plan emphasizes the importance of connecting visitors with the Garden through temporary and permanent art installations. Most importantly, we are proud to share our Garden with you, our members and visitors, so that you can enjoy everything it has to offer.

We strive to be a local example of the importance of public gardens. The American Public Gardens Association includes more than 585 institutions spanning all 50 states and Mounts Botanical Garden is proud to be a part of this giant network that understands the importance of providing access to plants and nature to everyone.

We are proud to be your local public garden and hope you join us in celebrating National Public Gardens Week!