An Herb Lover’s Guide to Botanic Gardens

Beautiful gardens around the nation


Evergreen herbs and Lady Banksia roses greet visitors as they enter the Mercer Reeves Hubbard Herb Garden at the North Caro­lina Botanical Garden.

Photograph by Rob Gardner

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 Whether herbs are old friends or a new person, public gardens offer a sublime setting for an educational summer stroll. Here are a few of our favorite spots:

U.S. National Aboretum

This may be the nation’s largest public garden, but that doesn’t mean the folks at the National Herb Garden (NHG) are resting on their laurels. The NHG was the brainchild of the Herb Society of America, which spent fifteen years between 1965 and 1980 raising funds and working with the government to create it. The 21/2-acre site is located at the U.S. National Arboretum, a 444-acre research and educational center operated by the U.S. ­Depart­ment of Agriculture in the northeast section of Washington, D.C. Our mission is to conduct research and to grow, display, and teach about useful plants,” explains NHG curator Jim Adams. “Herbs are a great way to do that.”

The NHG’s Entrance Garden is dominated by a 25-by-50-foot knot made up of dwarf evergreens—cultivars of ­arborvitae, spruce, and holly. Roses in existence before 1867 (when the first hybrid tea was introduced) form the basis of the Historic Rose Garden.

The Herb Garden comprises ten specialty gardens, including a Dioscorides Garden (herbs used by the Greek physician Dioscorides about a.d. 60), a dye garden, a colonial garden, a Native American garden, an industrial garden (plants that are sources of fuel, oil, pesticides, fibers, and other products for modern industry), an Oriental garden, a beverage garden, a culinary garden, a medicinal garden, and a fragrance garden. The garden’s collection of chile peppers (eighty cultivars), salvias (some seventy varieties), oreganos, thymes, and rosemaries is especially notable.

Adams calls the NHG “the best in the world. It’s a wonderful marriage of beauty and teaching tool.”

U.S. National Arboretum, 3501 New York Ave., N.E., Washington, DC 20002; (202) 245-2726. Open daily except Christmas, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Zone 7.

New York Botanical Garden

A national historic landmark, the 250-acre New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the north Bronx includes sixteen specialty gardens as well as plant ­collections. The Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden, designed by the English landscape designer Penelope Hobhouse, displays more than 160 European and American herbs and other ornamental plants in the spirit of a medieval monastic garden.

“It’s a very contemporary garden, even if it is inspired by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century designs,” says Bob Bartolomei, director of outdoor gardens and Peggy Rockefeller Senior Curator at the NYBG. “What makes it so special is the design—the scale of it. It feels good to walk through a very intimate space. Visitors can sit on the benches and touch the plants.”

Herbs used for cooking, dyeing, fragrance, and medicine are planted in the 60-by-40-foot space among ornamentals such as coralbells, Madonna lily, columbine, compact Japanese holly, and butterfly bush. Masses of herbs highlight color harmonies and emphasize texture and fragrance.

Visitors to the herb garden will see some changes this year, including an underplanting of colorful alternanthera and new displays of alliums.

New York Botanical Garden, 200th St. and Kazimiroff Blvd., Bronx, NY 10458; (718) 817-8700. Open Tuesday through Sunday and holidays; November through March, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; April through October, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Zone 6.

Cleveland Botanical Garden

A mere five miles from downtown Cleveland lies the second largest herb garden in the United States. In 1969, at the request of the Cleveland Botanical Garden (CBG), the Western Reserve Herb Society had Elsetta Gilchrist Barnes design the 160-by-90-foot garden, which now ­includes 3,500 plants and remains privately endowed by the society.

Besides the herb garden, the CBG’s 7 acres contain a Japanese garden, a rose garden, a wildflower garden, and a shady reading garden. A raised terrace garden provides visitors with an overview of the entire herb garden: a knot and six specialty gardens framed by hedges of bayberry and hawthorn.

Low walls built with foundation stones from area barns form the ­garden’s bones. Its focal point is the sixteenth-century-style knot, a 34-by-34-foot ribbon of gray and green plants (dwarf boxwood, lavender, blue hyssop, gray and green santolina, and germander) winding around five large millstones, each 6 feet in diameter. “You don’t see one of this size and structure often, and it’s maintain­ed so beautifully,” says Herb ­Society chair Jan Hilty. “The colors really draw your eye through the space.”

Large sweet bay magnolias, boxwoods, and polyantha roses form the corners and entrances. Peonies, heather, lavender, roses, and scented geraniums fill the beds. In the herb garden’s southwest corner is the dye garden, containing dyer’s woad, madder, goldenrod, and marigolds. Antique roses line each side of the long walk at the western end. In the northeast corner, the medicinal garden contains old remedy plants such as birthwort, boneset, and feverfew, as well as foxglove, periwinkle, and monkshood.

Favorites such as dill, curry, lemon balm, mints, mustard, garlic, parsley, thyme, sage, and savory fill the culinary garden. Two beds are devoted to salad ingredients: parsley, savory, basil, sweet peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes. The trial and cutting garden is a hive of activity. “Right now, we’re studying salvias, yarrows, and thymes in one bed, and the other one is for our culinary herbs, which we harvest for our fall fair,” explains Hilty. “We’re also planting stevia this year and hope to try some drying.”

The herb garden has become the “jewel in the crown” of the CBG largely because of the Western Reserve Herb ­Society, Hilty says. Some 100 members devote 1,650 hours annually to the herb garden’s care. Every October, the group holds a one-day herb fair, and members conduct teas, tours, and classes.

Cleveland Botanical Garden, 11030 East Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44106; (216) 721-1600. Open daily, dawn to dusk. Zone 5.

Denver Botanic Gardens

For more than thirty years, Lanie Jackson has voluntarily overseen the Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) herb garden, constructed by the Denver Botanic Gardens Guild in 1965. Originally a culinary group, “we raised money by selling calendars and making herbal vinegars,” Jackson recalls.

At 23 acres, the DBG is one of the largest botanical gardens in the United States. The leading exemplar of Rocky Mountain horticulture includes a conservatory, a rock alpine garden, a Xeri­scape garden, major collections of roses, lilacs, peonies, irises, and daylilies, a 1.3-acre romantic garden, and a pavilion housing exotic orchids, bromeliads, and seasonal floral displays.

A 1974 expansion more than doubled the herb garden’s size to 60-by-80 feet. Today, it contains more than 300 varieties. When winter approaches, volunteers transfer the tender perennials such as lavenders and lemon verbena into the DBG greenhouse. “The DBG really takes care of us and helps us grow our annual plants,” says Jackson.

The original part of the garden is a bowknot with five interlocking brick pathways, a hawthorn-lined entrance, roses along one side, and a background of spruce trees. Plantings include butterfly-attracting plants, English lavender, French thyme, and wood sage. At the center of the bow is a circular bed heavily planted with evergreen junipers surrounding a statue, The Boy and the Frog, by Denver sculptor Elise Ward Herring. The knot also contains sweet marjoram, horehound, basil, mints, ginger, bee balm, and chives.

Red brick paths lead eastward through a grape arbor to beds of thyme, goldenrod, rue, feverfew, yarrow, artemisia, foxglove, ‘Red Rubin’ basil, and more. Arbors provide shade for American germander, golden chamo­mile, and wood betony.

Volunteers donate some 275 hours annually to planting and maintaining the herb garden. Jackson says the greatest challenge is keeping it tidy. “It has a tendency to get blowsy,” she says. Guild members like to try a few new plants each season—-this year it will be lavenders and a salvia—but finding the space is a problem.

Denver Botanic Gardens, 909 York St., Denver, CO 80206; (303) 331-4000. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Extended summer hours. Zone 5.

"When your goal is to bring to the attention of visitors the importance of plants in human affairs, an herb garden is a major hook." 

North Carolina Botanical Garden

The North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) in Chapel Hill grew out of a small pharmacy garden developed in the 1920s by University of North Carolina botany professor W. C. Coker. “In 1973, we became one of the first botanical gardens in the Southeast to commit to growing an herb garden,” says herb curator Nancy Easterling.

The resulting 1-acre Mercer Reeves Hubbard Herb Garden comprises about 500 varieties of herbs. An arched entrance welcomes visitors to the evergreen garden, a group of raised brick planters containing herbs. The planters buffer the knot garden with its latticework of espaliered trees. A central brick pathway divides the space into six specialty gardens: a medicinal garden, with herbs categorized according to the body system or disease they are used to treat; a Native American garden; a shade garden; a culinary garden; an industrial garden; and a toxic plants garden.

“North Carolina has humid, hot summers with periods of drought and unpredictable winters. We really have to focus on what we can grow,” Easterling says. The garden, a national rosemary collection site for the Herb ­Society of America’s national herb collection, has thirty-four cultivars and expects to add eleven more.

“The herb garden is such a wonderful teaching tool. It holds so many wonderful stories,” Easterling says. “We have herbal picnics for kindergarten students, fifth graders learn about colonial American herbs, and the Native American garden may soon add a sweat lodge.” Medicinal herbs are a hot topic—and a challenge. “We want to interpret without being misleading. We want to be responsible stewards,” Easterling says.

North Carolina Botanical Garden, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599; (919) 962-0522. Open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m; and Sunday, 1 to 6 p.m., during daylight saving time; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m., during eastern standard time. Zone 7.

Arboretum of Los Angeles

“Any real botanical garden has an herb garden,” asserts Jim Bauml, senior biologist for the Arboretum of Los Angeles County. “When your goal is to bring to the attention of visitors the importance of plants in human affairs, an herb garden is a major hook.” The arboretum regards herbs as so important that this summer it began a major renovation of the herb garden.

The herb garden sits in the southwest quadrant of the 127-acre arboretum, which contains more than 5,000 plants as well as a bird sanctuary. Plants are grouped by geographic origin: South American, Mediterranean, South African, Australian, and Asiatic–North American. Other displays include an aquatic garden, demonstration home gardens, prehistoric and jungle gardens, and a palm and bamboo ­collection. A flock of 200 peacocks, ­descended from a pair brought from India, parade about the grounds.

Visitors to the 11/2 -acre herb garden first encounter a large bank covered with rosemary, which surrounds a camphor tree. Near the flagstone entrance, a landscaped herb bed features a well-established ground cover area of thyme, proving its worth as a landscape plant. A knot garden with eight clipped bay laurels holds germander and lamb’s-ears; the Shakespeare Garden contains herbs mentioned in the bard’s works. Specialty beds include Latin American, Asian, sacred, beverage, sweet, tonic, shade, and California native plants.

California’s high summer temperatures and low humidity are ideal for Mediterranean herbs. “Not only can we grow thyme, oreganos, and marjorams to perfection, but the rosemary reseeds itself,” says Bauml. The arboretum also brought Mexican anise hyssop and Aztec sweet herb to U.S. gardens.

Arboretum of Los Angeles County, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia, CA 91007; (626) 821-3222. Open daily except Christmas, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Zone 9.

Laura Daily, a writer who specializes in food and travel, lives in Snowmass, Colorado.

Further reading

Harrison, Marina, and Lucy D. Rosenfeld, Gardenwalks: 101 of the Best ­Gardens from Maine to Virginia and Gardens Throughout the Country. New York: Michael Kesend, 1997.

Jenkins, Mary Zuazua. National Geographic Guide to America’s Public Gardens: 300 of the Best Gardens to Visit in the U.S. and Canada. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1998.