If you visited a public garden this year, you’re among the 70 million people who give the green thumbs up to the members of the American Public Gardens Association every year. That’s more than the attendance of every major sport combined, with the exception of the NFL. Flowers may not trump football, but these days they’re the trendiest tourist attractions around.
Historical sites, theme parks and restaurants are always a draw, but what says more about a city than the way they celebrate nature? “Public gardens are living museums,” says Casey Sclar, Ph.D., executive director of the APGA. “They’re places where people can go to disconnect from the digital world and reconnect with sacred beauty.”
And they’re doing it in droves. The APGA is comprised of a diverse group of public gardens including botanical gardens, arboreta, conservatories, parks, urban greening associations and even cemeteries. And while large gardens only constitute about 10 percent of the membership, they bring in big numbers. Here are the five gardens with the highest attendance records and a snapshot of the features that make them spectacular:
Brooklyn Botanic Garden—Brooklyn, New York
With so many people and so many buildings, it’s hard to imagine that 52 acres in the heart of Brooklyn are dedicated to botanical gardens. But the BBG, founded in 1910, is an oasis for those without backyards. In addition to research, community education and prolific programming, they offer 13 gardens; three pavilions; a bonsai museum; collections of flowering cherries, lilacs and tree peonies; a composting exhibit, annual border and celebrity path, complete with stepping stones inscribed with the names of famous Brooklynites from Walt Whitman to Barbra Streisand. www.bbg.org
Chicago Botanic Gardens—Chicago, Illinois
Technically 20 miles north of Chicago in Glencoe, Illinois, the Chicago Botanic Gardens call themselves a “385-acre living plant museum” and that’s not even the half of it. Within those 385 acres are 100 acres of woods, 81 acres of waterways, 26 gardens, 9 islands and more than 2.4 million plants, plus art and photography exhibits and extensive entertainment and educational opportunities. www.chicagobotanic.org
Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
Though Pittsburgh and Philadelphia get top billing, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania is home to the real star of the Keystone State. Longwood Gardens began as a small farm bought by industrialist Pierre du Pont in 1906, and has grown into 1,077 acres that “elevate the art of horticulture.” The conservatory alone is home to 20 indoor gardens, plus 20 outdoor gardens, treehouses, fountains and the Terrace, a certified green restaurant that sources local ingredients from the Brandywine Valley. www.longwoodgardens.org
Missouri Botanical Gardens—St. Louis, Missouri
This century and a half old institution has everything from a butterfly house, children’s garden and herbarium to The Kemper Center for Home Gardening—the largest of its kind in the nation—and the Climatron. Let it not be said that the Gateway Arch is the only structure in St. Louis with a massive wow factor; the Climatron is a geodesic conservatory that allows for maximum sunlight for the 2,800 plants inside. www.missouribotanicalgarden.org
United States Botanical Gardens—Washington, D.C.
One of the oldest botanic gardens in North America, the USBG is more than George Washington could have dreamed of when he envisioned a space dedicated to plants in the capitol city. Founded in 1850, it is comprised of three major sections: the Conservatory, National Garden and Bartholdi Park, where you can often find Washingtonians getting away from it all without going far at the 30-foot cast iron fountain. usbg.gov
Each of the top five brought in approximately one million visitors last year, with Denver Botanic Garden and New York Botanical Gardens coming in close behind. Of course it takes a lot of green to keep those gardens looking good: The combined operating budgets of all 500-plus members of APGA members is more than $600 million dollars.
What does that buy? That’s for us to know and you to find out as you travel here and there. Whether you’re headed to Philly or South Paris, Maine, get a garden on your itinerary by using the public gardens locator at www.garden.org/public_gardens.