The altitude in the mile-high city isn’t the only thing that will take your breath away – the wide range of gardens and collections of this fabulous public garden will do the same. Considered one of the nation’s top five botanical gardens, this urban oasis among residential neighborhoods includes more than 17,000 plant species from around the globe. The mission of Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) is to connect people with plants, especially plants from the Rocky Mountain region, and similar regions around the world.
The Gardens began in 1951 on 100 acres in City Park, but in 1958 moved to its current location on York Street, transforming an old cemetery into a stunning display of plants and landscape design in a unique high altitude climate and geography, showcasing drought-tolerant native and other plants that thrive in Western gardens. Here the time honored traditions of European horticulture merge with a dynamic diversity of plants (in 2,290 genera and 262 families) and design that represent the best in horticultural achievement. The 50 gardens contain collections of plants from more than 30 countries around the world with high altitude climates similar to Colorado’s.
Not only is DBG an unforgettable garden experience for the whole family, it is also a living laboratory for education and plant conservation programs. Thousands of students students participate annually in educational programs. The Sam Mitchel Herbarium of Fungi has the most complete and diverse collection of mushrooms housed anywhere in the Rocky Mountain region, with 20,680 specimens, while the Kathryn Kalmbach Herbarium of Vascular Plants holds historic collections, uncommon species, and recent collections from the Southern Rocky Mountain Region. DBG, Colorado State University and Colorado landscape and nursery professionals work together on PlantSelect®, a program designed to discover and distribute the very best plants for Rocky Mountain gardeners.
Covering 24 acres, both indoor and outdoor gardens display plants native to the desert, plains, mountain foothills, and alpine zones of the West. Various gardens transport guests around the globe through horticulture, while many different gardens focus on the strictly ornamental value of plants, others focus on specific conditions, such as shade or aquatic habitats (water gardens). The different types of gardens flow into each other via pathways and bridges; meandering streams connect many of these areas.
GARDENS OF THE WEST
These gardens — presented in alphabetical order, but not how they are arranged in the DBG —showcase plants that thrive in Colorado’s climate, both Western North American native plants and the best of the world’s vast steppe climate floras. Steppe regions are semi-arid, cold-winter areas of the world in North America, Eurasia, South Africa and South America. In Colorado, these shortgrass prairies and sagebrush valleys are habitat for the rare species studied by the Gardens’ Research and Conservation Department.
The Bristlecone Border, one of three gardens in the Western Panoramas surrounding the amphitheater, is a demonstration of Colorado’s subalpine ecosystem from 10,000 feet to 11,500 feet. Choice rock and a variety of native grasses, flowers and shrubs have been placed to simulate the alpine environment where the gnarled, architectural evergreen known as the bristlecone pine naturally grows.
Cactus and Succulent House
Tender cacti and succulents representing 20 families are displayed in this small, quaint glass house on one edge of the Rock Garden. Unusual, desert-adapted Old World exotics lead into native species of North America, Central America and South America.
Colorado Garden Show Promenade Garden
This streetside garden features hardy, drought-resistant plants that thrive on steep slopes. The plants are fast-growing and low-maintenance, and they have tightly intertwining roots that help prevent rainwater from washing away soil.
This garden spotlights Colorado’s rare and threatened plants and their companions, primarily from the southwestern portion of the state. Featured plants often correspond with those studied in the Gardens’ Research and Conservation Department.
As you enter the DBG, this low-water garden showcases a diverse collection of yuccas and other members of the agave family. These woody relatives of lilies are revered and used by Native Americans living in arid climates. They have deep taproots that access underground water. The water stored in the root can be drunk, the root itself can be roasted, and the fibers curling from the edge of each spiky leaf make a durable rope and cloth.
Darlene Radichel Plant Select Garden
This garden displays low-water plants introduced by the collaborative Plant Select® program. Each plant went through a rigorous process to determine its suitability for the High Plains-Intermountain Region.
Receiving no supplemental irrigation, the Dryland Mesa is a showcase for arid-adapted plants. The garden features cacti, agave, yuccas, trees and shrubs that are suitable for this region. Most of the plants in this garden have silvery or hairy foliage, reduced leaf size and/or succulent leaves or spines. These are water-conserving adaptations commonly found on plants native to dry climates. Peak bloom is from mid-May to mid-June.
Dwarf Conifer Collection
This western-themed garden highlights the subtle variations in color and texture of dwarf conifers, cultivars well-suited for small spaces. These slow-growing evergreens, perhaps best viewed in winter, gain only 1-6 inches of height annually.
Gates Montane Garden
The first outdoor garden planted at the York Street site (1961), Gates Montane brings Colorado’s high-altitude forests down to the plains. The garden evokes a walk through the montane regions of Colorado, the forested ecosystem of ponderosa pine, quaking aspens and other trees and shrubs common to altitudes of 8,000-10,000 feet, with the plants chosen to reflect benefactor Charles C. Gates’ summer property in Bear Creek Canyon near Golden, Colorado.
Grant Family Cottonwood Border
Part of the Western Panoramas, the Cottonwood Border offers a glimpse into the Colorado plains ecosystem between 3,500 feet and 6,000 feet in elevation. Colorado’s largest native deciduous tree, plains cottonwood (Populus deltoids ssp. monolifera), rises above a diverse mixture of lowland grasses, trees, and shrubs, serving as a demonstration of native, wild gardening.
This living roof is a testing ground for growing plants atop buildings in a semi-arid environment, and includes more than 100 species of native, drought-tolerant plants. Installed in the fall of 2007, it is the first publicly accessible green roof in the city of Denver.
Laura Smith Porter Plains Garden
Extending east from a backdrop of cottonwoods, this lowland garden features grasses and wildflowers of the Great Plains. Before parking lots, high-rises and SUV’s, Denver resembled this Plains Garden. Every plant within this garden is native within 30 minutes of Denver.
Mordecai Children’s Garden
This magical, 3-acre oasis is a place for children and families to explore plants and the natural world, through hands-on experiences and play. A variety of authentic natural materials in this garden allow kids to use their imagination and sense of wonder to create their own connections with plants.
The plant life and natural environment of six different ecosystems in Colorado are represented in the Trailhead Terrace and Rooftop Alpine Garden (alpine); Marmot Mountain and Pika Peak (subalpine forest);
Mystery Forest (montane forest); Glorious Grasslands (plains and grassland); Pipsqueak Pond (riparian); and Sagebrush Stage (montane shrubland). The Chipotle Home Harvest Garden demonstrates growing vegetables, composting, and promotes growing plants at home.
Ornamental Grasses Garden
This garden provides a bridge to Colorado’s historic prairie lands, and highlights the graceful structure and diversity of ornamental grasses, as well as their usefulness in providing year-round texture, color and sound to any bed.
As part of the Western Panoramas, the Ponderosa Border spotlights ponderosa pines and their accompanying flora that grow from the foothills to the lower montane region (6,000-8,000 feet.) Known for their cinnamon-colored bark, the pines are displayed among drifts of native grasses and wildflowers.
Roads Water-Smart Garden
Set along the main western path into the Gardens, this area shows off the flower power of drought-tolerant plants and demonstrates ways to group plants with similar watering requirements. Plants here come from the semi-arid climate of the West or other areas of the world that have a similar climate to Colorado’s, primarily the Mediterranean, South Africa and Central Asia. Flower colors and plant textures are skillfully combined to yield a sophisticated informality that characterizes the West. This garden is truly “water-smart” in that plants with similar watering requirements are grouped together. The lower zone is slated for plants requiring the most water, while plants at the top require the least.
Inspired by the heritage of Native Americans from the Four Corners area, Sacred Earth demonstrates the importance of plants in the lives of American Indians. These plants are medicines, building materials, dyes and food, in addition to playing significant roles in spiritual and ceremonial life. A rustic ramada provides a shady spot to learn about the plants, the people and the cultures of the Southwest.
The Welcome Garden serves as a gateway to the Gardens, offering year-round interest while hinting at what is possible in a local yard. Among its features are flowing water, a gathering space and native plants intermingling with ornamental cultivars.
INTERNATIONALLY INSPIRED GARDENS
Japan, China, South Africa and the Tropics are some of the countries and regions that inspired garden designs and plant selection in the DBG. Many of these gardens include plants from other steppe regions that are similar to Denver in climate and soils. Once again, these are in alphabetical order.
Bill Hosokawa Bonsai Pavilion
The pavilion displays majestic trees on a miniature scale. Bonsai from Rocky Mountain tree species appear on outdoor pedestals, while tropical specimens fill a glass house. Within the glass house, a water table provides humidity for these tender bonsai. Also on display are viewing stones suggestive of landscapes.
Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory
Dedicated in 1966 and awarded Denver Landmark Status in 1973, the dome-shaped, cast concrete and Plexiglass conservatory is one of the world’s most unique displays of exotic plants from tropical and subtropical regions. The interior plantings were renovated in 1997. Of special interest are bananas (Musa), chocolate (Theoborma cacao) and coffee (Coffea arabica). Colorful orchids and bromeliads share space with a collection of plants used for food, fibers, dyes, building materials, and medicines. A two-story model of a banyon tree midway on a circular path includes a staircase that enables visitors to view the indoor tropical forest from within and above the canopy. Thousands of exotic specimens can be observed from the winding paths or viewing decks that offer a view into the upper canopy of the tropical forest, complete with tropical mist.
Ella Mullen Weckbaugh Tea House Garden
The authentic teahouse in this garden, designed and constructed in Japan, was shipped across the Pacific and reassembled on its present site by skilled Japanese artisans. A traditional tea ceremony is available at times.
Shofu-en Japanese Garden
Shofu-en translates to ‘Garden of Pine and Wind.’ A traditional Japanese stroll garden built in 1979, Shofu-en was inspired by Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and features 130 pines transplanted from the foothills. In this 2-acre garden designed by Kawana Koichi, water, rock and plants combine in an artistic style that symbolizes our harmonious relationship with nature. A walking path meanders through the garden around a central pond with several points of interest interrupting the walk. Three small islands in the pond represent the usual crane (the largest), tortoise and treasure ship, symbols found in many gardens of this type. Ponderosa pines with twisted and weathered form appear throughout the garden. The pine, an important and symbolic tree in Japanese gardens, signifies longevity and happiness. All of the 130 sculpted character pines, collected from Roosevelt National Forest, are each over 250 years old. The garden is screened from the other parts of the botanic garden by scrims of bamboo fencing on the north, west and east sides. The garden has two entrances and the scenes unfold quite differently depending on which direction one takes.
This intimate garden showcases over 8,000 exotic and fragrant plants from various Asian countries in a one-acre display. One-third of the garden features astonishing and threatened flora of the Asian steppe region, while other parts include peonies, bamboos, Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) and wild-collected species from Kazakhstan and Pakistan. A woodland area displays trees such as Himalayan and lacebark pines (Pinus wallichiana, P. bungeana) and over a dozen kinds of Asian maples. A stream and pond, a unique hand-made stone path, a wooden seating structure and two intricately designed moon gates add to the exotic ambiance.
This two-story indoor garden is a rotating display of the tropical greenhouse collections. Recesses within the walls allow staff to easily change out orchids, bromeliads and other tropical plants as they come into bloom.
Rock Alpine Garden
This world-renowned garden is internationally acclaimed as a premier example of the art of rock gardening with its plant breadth and diversity. With more than 500 tons of rock used in its construction, this garden provides habitats similar to more than 20 different high altitude environments based on slope, soil type, moisture and exposure for more than 2,300 species of plants. Spring bulbs begin the color display in March, with alpine plants taking the spotlight in May. Plants from monsoonal climates such as the Himalayas, southwestern United States, northern Mexico and the Karoo and Drakensberg of South Africa provide summer color.
Explore steppe climates through a scientific lens in an exhibition that uses interactive technology —touchscreens, light, sound and video — to follow research and horticulture staff into the field across the state and throughout the steppe regions of the world.
South African Plaza
This exotic garden showcases South Africa’s rich plant diversity, and highlights the complexity and fragility of the country’s steppe region. Visitors are often surprised to note that some of their favorite plants that thrive well in Colorado actually come from South Africa (since many areas of southern Africa have a climate similar to Denver’s). Tender plants from southern Africa, including bird-of-paradise, calla lilies, agapanthus, asparagus fern, kalanchoe, lobelia and geranium (Pelargonium spp.) are featured in containers. The borders of the garden contain plants from South Africa – such as Cape fuchsia (Phygelius spp.), ice plant (Delosperma spp.), gazania, and red hot poker (Kniphofia spp.) – that are hardy and otherwise grow well in Colorado.
This garden teaches about the fragile steppe biome and about steppe landscapes across the world with climates and plant communities similar to Denver’s semi-arid region. Featured are Central Asian, South African, Patagonian and North American Steppes. It was under construction when this article was photographed.
Full of color, the ornamental gardens include many horticultural favorites, such as roses, daylilies and irises. Many of these gardens are enhanced each spring by annual flowers.
All-America Selections Garden
This display garden of annuals bursts into view with bold, brilliant color. The garden presents the latest and past year’s introductions, which includes annual bedding plants and various vegetables. The renovated garden was just being planted when this article was photographed.
El Pomar Waterway
Part of the Romantic Gardens, a collection of gardens surrounded by stucco walls, this elegant garden features a brick walkway and long reflecting pool, culminating in a waterfall. The bottlebrush-like flowers of Oriental fountain grass line the pool, while vertical beech trees and blue oat grass soften the border along the wall.
The Ellipse in Honor of Nancy Schotters
Adjacent to the Romantic Gardens and the back of the Ruth Porter Waring Botanic Gardens House (available for small meetings), the Ellipse features roses from the May-Bonfils Stanton collection, as well as the bright orange Chihuly sculpture “Colorado.” Also on display are hydrangeas, peonies, delphiniums, daylilies and other rose companions.
A living potpourri, this garden a myriad of fragrant and aromatic plants in lush sweeps and drifts, ranging from heavily perfumed roses to delicately scented mock orange and spicy oregano. Part of the Romantic Gardens, it also includes a row of flowering plum trees and a circular pond with lotuses and waterlilies.
Gloria Falkenberg Herb Garden
Designed in a traditional European style, with circular, narrow beds at the center — but with wide brick paths between for accessibility – DBGs herb garden features culinary and medicinal herbs from the Middle Ages that are still common today, as well as a sandstone sundial. Between the Herb Garden and Scripture Garden are intertwined brick paths resembling the classic knot pattern that was popular during the Elizabethan era in England, around 1550, with herb plants filling the spaces between the paths. The statue “The Boy and a Frog” in the Knot Garden was sculpted in 1898 by Elsie Ward Hering, and artist who grew up in Denver.
Lainie’s Cutting Garden
The cutting garden is designed in concentric circles, with a colorful and varied mix of herbaceous and woody plant material, with fast-growing annuals planted at the center and perennials radiating out to the edges. An urn adorns the center of the garden, drawing the eye in, while each bed is assigned a color theme for ease of harvesting. Designed with the spectrum of the rainbow in mind, each plot offers a wide selection of tints, shades, textures and shapes of a particular color. Volunteers combine plants from the plots to create masterpieces displayed in the Bonfils-Stanton Visitor’s Center.
Le Potager: A Gift from the Ladd Family
French-style design combines with agriculture in this culinary garden of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. Lined with a mixture of boxwoods, basils, chives and stone walls, the garden boasts multi-colored vegetables and espaliered apple trees. Edible flowers like pansies, pinks and nasturtiums intermingle with kale, chard and lettuce. Pots of topiary herbs, old-fashioned features of forcing jars, cloches, and watering cans evoke the romance of Old World gardens of the French countryside.
Lilacs combine with irises, daylilies and spring-blooming bulbs to create a tapestry of color from early spring through mid-summer. The garden features nearly 80 different species and varieties of lilacs, and more than 200 cultivars of iris and 150 cultivars of daylilies.
The steep berm at the west end of the Greenhouse Terrace is designed as a formal parterre, with tightly clipped plants arranged in symmetrical patterns. A variety of low-growing plants are arranged en masse to create a bold display.
O’Fallon Perennial Walk
Modeled after European perennial borders, this garden was designed by Rob Proctor and Lauren Springer Ogden in the early 1990s, weaving together a rich variety of perennials of varying colors, heights, shapes and textures along a backdrop of a formally pruned native juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) hedge. This hedge creates an optical illusion; the rows are angled so that the views from the north end make the south end appear farther away than it actually is. The best of heirloom and modern varieties of irises and daylilies intermingle with evergreen shrubs such as boxwood and blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’), flowering shrubs such as lilacs, roses and shrub althea (Hibiscus syriacus ‘Minerva’), other herbaceous perennials—such as the tall, fringed flower spire of the Asian foxtail lily or desert candle (Eremurus himalaicus) in the west bed toward the north end of the walk—and bulbs to make this garden interesting throughout the seasons. Purples, blues, golds and oranges are complemented by silver foliage. The colors pink and white take on significant roles, softening the “brassy” look of all those oranges. This walk leads to the Romantic Gardens.
In keeping with traditional French orangeries, this glass walkway showcases exotic tropicals, Italian cypress and seasonal plantings in custom, Versailles-style planters. It also displays a variety of potted citrus that are moved to the outside terrace during warm months.
As part of the Romantic Gardens, this plaza offers picturesque settings for weddings and other events. With a lush profusion of annuals, perennials and overflowing containers in an intimate area, it features twin pavilions, as well as pillars painted in whimsical colors.
A contemplative space, the Scripture Garden brings together plants originating in the Fertile Crescent, the ancient region of the Middle East region with great topographic diversity (desert, mountain, river valley), which has resulted in great botanic diversity. The plants selected symbolize various religious stories and interpretations associated with Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, including pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelinii), apricot (Prunus armeniaca), and fig (Ficus carica). Frost-tender plants, like the date palm and fig, are kept in containers for display outdoors in summer and indoors in winter.
This unique garden utilizes architectural features and sensory plantings to enable people of all ages and abilities to interact with plants. Specialized gardening techniques and structures help to minimize barriers and maximize people’s abilities.
Victorian Secret Garden
This garden pays homage to Europe’s golden age of plant exploration in the late 1800s, when it was fashionable to create opulent tropical gardens to show off personal wealth and exotic plant collections in glasshouses. The featured structure is dripping with gorgeous plants of all colors. Since Colorado’s climate is arid, the in-ground plants are hardy species that capture the look of tropicals.
These shady gardens provide a great place to linger on warm days. Diverse plant palettes that thrive in varying moisture conditions offer eye-pleasing color and texture and provide habitats for birds and insects.
Birds and Bees Walk
As visitors walk a woodland path, they observe bees, butterflies and hummingbirds flitting among a beautiful garden that showcases the world of pollinators and their importance to our environment. Designed as a living storybook, interpretive panels placed throughout an interactive path engage visitors in the exciting world of pollination.
To many people, the oak is the quintessential tree: stately, disease-resistant and long-lived. Many species and hybrid oaks that grow well in the region are included in a naturalistic setting that was planted in 1982 as a curated collection to help preserve oak genetics.
Beneath the crabapples (Malus spp.) and Austrian pines (Pinus nigra) on the main east-west walk visitors can take refuge from the heat or find inspiration for the challenge of selecting plants that grow well in shady conditions and flourish in spite of competitive tree roots. The first crabapple trees were planted here as a demonstration in 1976. Under the dappled shade of these venerable trees grow an enormous range of perennials and annuals that perform well in the Denver area with a diversity of flowers, foliage, form and texture.
This cool retreat, set beneath a canopy of mature birch, aspen, maple, oak and fir trees, offers a host of ideas for gardening in a wooded environment, while highlighting the ecological importance of forests. Beautiful, low-maintenance shrubs and perennials complement a variety of design elements. Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) is a featured tree, as it is drought tolerant. A patinaed solarium is used for social gatherings and events throughout the year.
The water gardens are home to the aquatic plant collection, which includes waterlilies, water platters, lotus and canna. Though located in a semi-arid climate, the Gardens has become one of the world’s leaders in aquatic gardening and display of aquatic plants. An extensive system of pools meanders through the Gardens and provides backdrops for many other gardens.
Four Towers Pool
This pond adjacent to the Science Pyramid displays a changing array of aquatic plants. During the 2016 season, Australian waterlilies were highlighted. The tower fountains in this pool are the entry point for water recirculated throughout all of our waterways running west to the Gates Montane pond.
Claude Monet is most famous for his impressionistic paintings of waterlilies and other garden settings, painted in his own garden in Giverny, France. The Monet Pool, the largest water garden, is reminiscent of Monet’s beautiful paintings with its rich display of aquatic plants, including hardy and tropical waterlilies, Victoria waterlilies, cattails, pickerel plants, cannas, iris, and more.
And More …
And of course, there is also the gift shop in the Bonfils-Stanton Visitor Center, that offers gifts, live plants, gardening supplies and statuary, decorative items and horticultural books and catalogs, as well as herbs and vinegars produced by the Gardens’ Guild. The Shop at the Gardens offers more than 10,000 items that have been specially chosen by the staff to reflect the Gardens’ core values of sustainability, transformation, diversity and relevance.
The Helen Fowler Library holds a significant collection of botanical and horticultural materials about the Rocky Mountain region and similar regions around the world, with over 25,000 titles. The rare books collection includes early European herbals, publications of initial botanical study in the New World and of exploration into the trans-Mississippi West, and many other unique works related to the study of botany and gardening, both regional and across the world. The Library also houses a distinct collection of rare books on loan to the Gardens. The archival collection contains materials related to the history, founding and development of the Gardens as well as other historical botanical and horticultural collections.
To extend the experience of Denver Botanic Gardens beyond the boundaries of the capital city, there is also Chatfield Farms, a 750-acre native plant refuge and working farm in Littleton. Facilities include the Earl J. Sinnamon Visitor Center, the historical Hildebrand Ranch, a restored 1918 dairy barn and silo, the 1874 Deer Creek Schoolhouse, 2.5 miles of nature trails, and the Deer Creek Discovery children’s play area. Over 150 different types of native wildflowers and shrubs are planted in the garden at the Visitor Center and the Carol Gossard Colorado Native Plant Garden at the Green Farm Barn. The three-quarter acre Lavender Garden is Chatfield Farms’ newest garden, established in 2015, with 14 varieties of lavender under cultivation in rows as a crop, with others grown as ornamental plants within nearby perennial beds. The Janice Ford memorial Dye Garden was planted in 2014 and features 15 varieties of dye plants used to color fabrics.
– Susan Mahr, University of Wisconsin – Madison
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