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Grand Central: Gardens

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Gardens

Fountains that spit water, butterflies that breeze past and a tram that glides through a sea of color help gardens engage visitors in the Grand Central states.

The Grand Central USA Gardens Galore itinerary also illustrates that flowers are more than just pretty to look at with interactive programs such as cooking demonstrations that explain the transformation of a seed to a plant to a meal on your dinner plate.

Some gardens in Grand Central stay true to their native plants with re-created prairie grasslands covered in wildflowers. Others reveal the wonders of exotic plants from around the world, such as the rootless tropical epiphytic bromeliads that must rely on their funnel shape to catch life-giving water.

Gardens in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas prove that the miracle of life emerging from dead soil never grows old.

Myriad Botanical Gardens 

Oklahoma City
As part of a major renovation project for downtown Oklahoma City, Myriad Botanical Gardens is currently getting a facelift, with outside gardens and the indoor conservatory receiving major renovations. Closed since last May, the gardens will reopen April 26, the first day of the annual Festival of the Arts in Oklahoma City.

“The future of the garden looks really bright,” said Allan Storjohann, manager of Myriad Botanical Gardens. “It’s getting new paint, new lighting, new pavement and all kinds of things. It will look just like it did when it first opened in 1988.”

The construction will also add a new children’s garden, interactive water features and activity spaces. Groups can take advantage of the new restaurant and visitors center.

The always-warm Crystal Bridge Conservatory houses Myriad’s indoor plant collections from every continent except Antarctica. Towering palm trees, exotic jungle plants and scenic waterfalls fill the 224-foot-long cylinder-shaped conservatory, whose space is devoted half to the dry tropical zone and half to the tropical rain forest zone.

Visitors can view the plants from winding ground-level trails or from a skywalk in the tree canopies, where tree blossoms not visible from below are at eye level.

“Everywhere you look there are plants in bloom that are just beautiful,” said Storjohann. “One of the things that most impresses people are our 400 to 600 orchids we have that bloom often.”

Missouri Botanical Gardens
St. Louis
Stone lanterns, gravel gardens raked into rippling patterns and white bridges crossing lakes filled with koi create a peaceful atmosphere in the Missouri Botanical Gardens’ Japanese Garden. The 14-acre garden’s design authentically represents a traditional Japanese garden, with four islands rising from lakes to form symbolic Japanese images.

“The Japanese Garden is a serene garden,” said Gene Peimann, tourism manager for the Missouri Botanical Gardens. “Everything here is hand-trimmed, including the pines.

“I always say this garden is like life because you never know what is ahead of you. You really can’t see the entire layout of the garden at any one point of the garden.”

Other garden displays within the 79-acre Missouri Botanical Garden also strive to stay authentic to their themes, displays such as the Turkish-themed Bakewell Ottoman Garden, the historic 1882 Linnean House greenhouse and the Victorian District’s well-manicured garden and hedge maze.

Groups who visit the famous St. Louis garden can tour on their own, choose a guided walking tour or ride in a private narrated tram through the entire garden.

“Spring is especially popular here, because we put in over 100,000 bulbs,” said Peimann. “The roses come in mid to late May, the irises in late May, and the chrysanthemums come in the fall.”

The garden’s 1849 Tower Grove House will reopen April 1 with renovations and new exhibits. The historic home tells the story of the garden’s 1859 founding by Henry Shaw with artifacts, authentic Victorian decor and an exhibit in which audio clips give first-person accounts of constructing Shaw’s garden.

Powell Gardens
Kingsville, Mo.
In April, the first of 100,000 daffodils start to blossom all over 915-acre Powell Gardens. The nonprofit botanical gardens highlight the natural beauty of the rolling hills and grassy meadows of the Midwest.

“One of the things that is unique about our gardens is its Midwest plant selection,” said Callen Fairchild Zind, director of marketing and events for Powell Gardens. “The gardens include even the wide-open spaces that speak to the spirit of the Midwest. This sets us apart from those that might focus on flowers from around the country.”

Businessman George Powell donated the land, originally a Missouri farm, to the Kansas City Area Council in 1984. It has since become a sprawling garden with a nature trail, sculptures and intriguing architecture.

In 2009, the Heartland Harvest Garden opened as the nation’s largest edible landscape. The 12-acre garden highlights 2,000 types of plants tied to food groups.

Visiting groups can see the different stages from plant to plate when they watch cooking demonstrations inside the Missouri Barn, where cooks use pomegranates, peaches, soybeans and a variety of other herbs, vegetables and flowers to teach visitors about edible plants.

The Harvest Garden also features a quilt garden that uses fruits, grasses and culinary plants to replicate traditional Missouri quilt patterns. By climbing the 45-foot-tall silo that overlooks the garden, guests can see how the colors work together to create intricate designs.

Other appealing attractions include interactive water fountains, a butterfly garden and an indoor conservatory.

Although April through September is the peak season, Zind said, “We try to design the garden so it has something of interest in every season. A group could still enjoy a stop for lunch and the conservatory, even in the off-season.”

Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs, Ark.
The gift of water plays a n integral part on a trip to Hot Springs National Park. Not only does water relax those who take baths in the park’s thermal mineral water, but it also nourishes the flora growing throughout the park.

Groups touring the park can see the well-kept gardens along the famous brick Grand Promenade and the wildflowers filling the surrounding Ouachita Mountains’ forests and glades.

“You will certainly get to see a lot of flowers, depending on what time of year it is,” said Diane East, concessions specialist for Hot Springs National Park. “In the spring, there are dogwoods, redbud trees and magnolias in bloom. Usually, in September and October, the trees are beautiful with reds, yellows and oranges.”

However, the most famous draw of the 1921 park remains the historic bathhouses. For more than 200 years, people have gone there to use the area’s hot springs for therapeutic baths to treat rheumatism and other ailments.

These Gilded Age buildings still invite guests to relax in the thermal waters along Bathhouse Row, a national historic landmark. Now used as a visitors center, the Fordyce Bathhouse displays exhibits about the park, including a short film on the its history.

The nearby Buckstaff Bathhouse offers visitors a modern spa experience. The Quapaw Baths and Spa, closed since 1968, reopened in 2008 and offers a traditional 19th-century bath.

Park rangers give guided walks along some of the park’s 26 miles of trails to educate groups on the area’s flora, fauna and thermal history.

Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens

Oklahoma City
Two female Asian elephants named Asha and Chandra will find themselves surrounded by botanical plants from their Asian homeland when their 9.5-acre elephant habitat exhibit opens March 10. More than four acres of tall grasses, bamboo, perennials and tropical plants will simulate the landscape the elephants would have experienced in the wild.

Similar re-created wilderness habitats appear at many of the zoo’s exhibits for the benefit of the animals and for the education of visitors.

“We probably have about 20 designated plant areas,” said Pearl Pearson, horticultural curator for the Oklahoma City Zoo. “We have a rock garden, cactus collection, bamboo collection and butterfly garden. At all of these collections, we have signage that talks about the significance of the collection, as well as plant labels.”

About 3,500 recorded plants bloom in the Oklahoma City Zoo annually. The zoo’s devotion to the plant side of the wild granted them accreditation as a botanical garden 11 years ago.

Guests can learn more about the zoo’s animals by watching them interact in re-creations of their native environments. For example, in the Great EscApe exhibit, gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees run around in a habitat that mirrors a tropical forest. Plants not hardy enough to withstand Oklahoma’s winter are transported to a greenhouse during the winter and taken back outside during the summer.

The zoo also grows many plants that feed the animals, such as banana leaves and sugar cane, two of the elephants’ favorite treats.

Botanica, The Wichita Gardens
Wichita, Kan.
Breathe in the smells of lavender, peonies and creeping phlox that fill Wichita Gardens with heavenly fragrances from April through September. Gardeners make sure that color can be found throughout the growing season with spectacular displays of daffodils, tulips, flowering shrubs, perennials and prairie wildflowers.

“Botanica is landscaped intimately so there are no vast expanses of walking between different areas where there is something to see,” said Mia Jenkins, director of marketing and communications for Wichita Gardens. “We have over 4,000 species of plants on display. Some are native to the Midwest, and some are new to the region. There are different surprises as the seasons change, with something always of interest to see here.”

Visitors can decide if a rose by any other name would smell as sweet in the Shakespeare garden display. A bust of Shakespeare looks lovingly over the garden, designed with the geometric landscaping that is characteristic of the Elizabethan era. Perennials and other flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s works grow around a new limestone fountain.

Among the other inventive gardens is an evaluation garden to test plants in the Kansas climate, a butterfly garden and the 35-foot-diameter Button Fountain, which has a flower shape when viewed from above.

Groups can tour on their own or take a guided tour to learn about the plants, the garden’s history and the sculptures found throughout the garden.

“In mid-June, we will be opening our 26th garden,” said Jenkins. “The first component of our expansion is our children’s garden, designed to be an interactive, educative and imaginative garden where families can appreciate the natural world. It’s very reflective of Kansas and our roots because the garden is based on farming plants.”