Northern Hemisphere or Southern, east or west, there’s always something in bloom at the best botanical gardens in the world. The astonishing variety of flora on display offers an escape for nature lovers and inspiration for aspiring green thumbs. And although most of these top botanical gardens are temporarily closed as part of the global effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, some are offering virtual tours online—and all are dreamy ideas for when you can hit the road again.
Botanical gardens around the world
Royal Botanic Gardens
Kew Gardens (pictured above) may be the most famous botanical park in the world and not just because it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. More than 50,000 plants thrive here, including many you’d never expect to find in dreary-gray England. For that, you have the climate-controlled Princess of Wales Conservatory to thank. The glasshouse is carved into zones: one is dedicated to carnivorous plants like Venus flytraps; another to dry tropics such as succulents and cactuses; and a third that is humid and tropical enough to grow Victoria amazonica, the world’s largest water lilies.
The property also has a rock garden with a tiered waterfall and an arboretum with 14,000 trees, including giant redwoods and black locusts dating to the 18th century. For the ultimate immersion, head to the edge of the garden, where a 37-acre storybook forest meets the River Thames and an elevated trail snakes through a watercolorist’s palette of wildflowers.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
The Singapore Botanic Gardens, the Lion City’s crown jewel, celebrates its 160th anniversary this year. It is the only tropical botanic garden on the UNESCO World Heritage list and the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Singapore. The 203-acre greenspace welcomes millions of visitors a year, many drawn by plentiful photo opps of lakeside gazebos, groves of wild fruit trees, the bonsai garden, and a perfumed grouping of frangipani. Of special note is the 7.4-acre National Orchid Garden—the largest of its kind, with more than 1,000 wild species and 2,000 hybrids, organized into color zones.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio’s 350-acre Jardim Botânico, founded in 1808 by John, prince regent of the United Kingdom of Brazil and Portugal, has built a reputation as one of the finest tropical gardens on Earth. Of its 7,000-plus species of tropical plants, the vast majority are native to Brazil. And though it’s the garden’s Avenue of Royal Palms that surface repeatedly on Instagram, its rare bromeliads and traditional Japanese garden are not to be missed. Note to birders: Bring your binoculars because more than 100 species of fowl are known to shack up in this garden.
Arctic-Alpine Botanical Garden
The Arctic-Alpine Botanical Garden, the world’s northernmost botanical garden, showcases traditional perennials and herbs from the tippy-top of Norway, plus a surprising array of plants from other continents. Part of the University of Tromsø, there are 25 collections in total, specializing in Arctic and Antarctic plants, as well as species native to the Himalayas, South America, and Africa. The garden is open year-round and free to visit, but most flowering takes place between May and October. In winter, BYO skis to experience the AABG’s evergreen shrubs and snow-capped rockscapes.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Cape Town, South Africa
It’s hard to beat a backdrop that includes Table Mountain National Park. Nestled into the eastern slopes of South Africa’s most iconic landmark, this world-renowned garden lives up to its hype: 1,305 acres with more than 7,000 species of plants, most of which are native to the Cape and southern Africa. Located eight miles from the heart of Cape Town, the 107-year-old Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden is blessed with postcard-worthy groupings of protea and cycads, hiking and mountain biking trails, expansive lawns for picnicking, and a 427-foot tree-top walkway that arcs gently above the arboretum’s canopy.
Botanical gardens in the United States
New York Botanical Garden
New York City
The Bronx’s best-known National Historic Landmark was established in 1891 by botanists Nathaniel Lord Britton and his wife, Elizabeth. Inspired by a visit to Kew Gardens, the couple founded their own botanical paradise on the north side of Bronx Park, close to an old-growth forest and the babbling Bronx River. Nearly 130 years and 250 acres later, that picturesque greenspace has morphed into the New York Botanical Garden, the largest city-based botanical garden in the United States. Its 50 specialty gardens feature more than a million plants and 12,000 species, including lilacs and magnolias.
Highlights of any visit include a stroll through the Victorian-style glasshouse conservatory, the impressive northeastern North American native plant garden, and what is widely considered one of the world’s most sustainable rose gardens. With that kind of cache, it’s no surprise the NYBG also books marquee exhibitions. (Alas, its biggest show of 2020—Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s Cosmic Nature—has been pushed to spring of 2021. )
Missouri Botanical Garden
St. Louis, Missouri
Established in 1859 by merchant Henry Shaw, this National Historic Landmark is America’s oldest botanical garden still in continuous operation. Its 79-acre spread is best known for the Climatron, a geodesic-dome greenhouse with a rain forest–like climate, dense tropical foliage, and a river aquarium teeming with exotic fish. More than 2,800 plants grow inside, including cacao and coffee. It’s also earned international acclaim for its comprehensive botanical reference library and herbarium with more than 6.5 million mounted specimens (the second-largest in the States). Other notable draws include the 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, one of the oldest in the nation, and an 8,000-square-foot glass butterfly conservatory housing more than 60 species of the winged beauties and 100 species of exotic flowering plants.
Desert Botanical Garden
Snuggled into the dusty red rocks of the Papago Buttes, the 140-acre Desert Botanical Garden has more than 50,000 arid plants and 4,482 species in its unique collection. Of those, 379 species are rare and endangered. In existence for 81 years, the garden has gotten creative with its programming, offering desert landscaping classes for homeowners and five themed hiking trails that are especially nice for families. Pick up the Sonoran Desert Nature Loop to learn how the region’s Tohono O’odham and Western Apache people used native plants, or hop on the Desert Wildflower Loop to see hummingbirds darting amid the cactuses.