Great Gardens of the World

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Travel Features >> Great Gardens of the World

Great Gardens of the World

May 19, 2011

A garden is certainly a lovesome thing; flowers and green lawns are a panacea for most- if not all- ills. Good for a relaxing stroll, an even more relaxing nap, a day with the kids, a picnic lunch…any neighbourhood patch of greenery will do for those. But when we’re on holiday, we should head for the best and the brightest, shouldn’t we?
So here it is. The definitive list of the best gardens the world has to offer. The best planned, the most famous; the largest, the loveliest, the closest we can get to Eden.

The Keukenhof Gardens, Lisse, The Netherlands
Think Holland and you can’t help but think of tulips. And if you’re keen on tulips- and flowers, per se- Keukenhof is where you should be going: the world’s largest flower garden. Located in Lisse, just a short distance from Amsterdam, Keukenhof began sometime in the 15th century as a glorified vegetable patch(`keukenhof’ literally means `kitchen garden’). In the mid-20th century, a group of Dutch bulb-growers decided to showcase their products, and Keukenhof was the obvious choice. Today, 70 acres of land in Lisse are covered with flowers- some 6 million bulbs, supplied by more than a hundred flower companies, are cultivated here annually.

Deep green lawns offset the rainbow fields of flowers: hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, narcissi and crocus are all there, blooming in all the colours you could possibly imagine- and more. In special glasshouses are grown blooms you don’t often associate with the Netherlands: tropical orchids, for instance, are on permanent exhibition. Special theme parks, including a Japanese garden and a Historical Garden, are a part of Keukenhof- as are sculptures, windmills, walking trails, quiet pools and streams. Swans, leased annually and returned to their owners at the end of every season, swim along on the waters.

Keukenhof is `officially’ open only during the spring, from March to May, 8 am to 7.30 pm daily. It can be visited the rest of the year too, although that’s usually not recommended, as the gardens aren’t at their best.

The Water Gardens of Monet, Giverny, France
Tucked away in north-west France, just a short journey out of the city of Rouen, lies one of Europe’s most lovely landscaped gardens: that of Giverny. The gardens of Giverny consist of a flower garden and a water garden, but it’s the latter which really makes Giverny the big tourist attraction it is. Immortalised on canvas by the Impressionist Claude Monet, the water gardens of Giverny are every bit as tranquil, serene and beautiful as Monet depicted them.

Open from April to October, the water gardens were designed by Monet himself in the late 19th century. Created from a stream diverted from the river Epte, a tributary of the Seine, the gardens were inspired by the traditional Japanese garden. A series of pathways, including a pretty Japanese bridge, crisscrosses the ponds and streams of the garden, and cool groves of bamboo bring a little bit of the East into France. Purple wisterias and weeping willows droop darkly over gleaming pools of water in which fragrant waterlilies bloom throughout the year, and a grove of dense vegetation screens the water garden from its surroundings. Take a leisurely walk around the garden, have a cup of coffee at the local café and buy yourself some seeds at the garden’s shop- and take a little bit of art history home with you.
The water gardens at Giverny are open to the public from 9.30 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Sunday, through the summer. Walking through the garden itself isn’t allowed, but you can get excellent views from the side alleys which wend their way all around the gardens.

The Gardens of Suzhou, China
Tucked away in the lower Yangtze Basin in China is the city of Suzhou. Unlike Beijing or Shanghai, Suzhou is not known for its political or economic importance (although it was once the capital of the Wu empire); Suzhou is known for its gardens- the result of 1,500 years of mastery in the art of Oriental gardening. The classical Chinese garden, with its highly aesthetic combination of trees, plants, buildings and watercourses, reached its zenith here, in Suzhou. In its heyday, Suzhou boasted of some 200 odd gardens; today, the number’s much less- about 69- but it’s large enough to justify the city’s designation as a World Heritage Site. The most important gardens of Suzhou are The Cold Mountain Temple, The Lion Grove Garden, The Humble Administrator’s Garden, The Surging Waves Pavilion and The Lingering Garden. Of these, the Surging Waves Pavilion, which is surrounded by a river, is the oldest; it dates back to the Song dynasty and contains a delightfully quiet bamboo grove.

All of Suzhou’s gardens are in the typical South Changjiang River style- which translates into rockeries, tiny pools with goldfish and lotuses; curled-roof pavilions, moon shaped doors, floral windows and a prevailing sense of peace and solitude. Winding pathways meander through the gardens, and the pavilions are used for tea-drinking, reading and a little bit of quiet contemplation.

Japanese Gardens, Japan
Japanese haiku bursts with references to gardens- dwelling lovingly on the beauty of the first plum blossom in the spring, the shade of a bamboo grove, the rippling waters of a clear stream. The highly-developed aesthetic sense of the Japanese is, in fact, perhaps best expressed in the simple beauty of the traditional Japanese garden. A symbolic representation of a natural setting- such as a mountain or a valley- a Japanese garden is invariably enclosed by rocks, incorporating elements such as ponds, expanses of white sand, bamboo groves, stone lanterns, and bridges. Simplicity, starkness and a no-frills look dominate Japanese gardens. There are hundreds of Japanese gardens which are worth visiting; but the top three are generally considered to be Kenroku-en (in Kanazawa), Koraku-en (Okayama) and Kairaku-en (in Mito).

Kenroku-en was designed originally in 1676 as the outlying garden for the Kanazawa-jo castle, and was finally completed in 1822. Today, Kenroku-en (`the Garden of the Six Attributes’) covers about 25 acres, all conforming to the six qualities of a perfect Japanese garden: spaciousness, antiquity, broad views, artificiality, seclusion and water. Gnarled old maples, pretty plum and cherry trees, a large lake, stone lanterns and a series of tea-houses are scattered across Kenroku-en. The garden is open daily from 7 am to 6 pm, and from 8 am to 4.30 pm between October and February.

Koraku-en, in Okayama, was designed by a warlord, Ikeda, between 1686 and 1700, and you can see why it took all of 14 years- the garden’s truly lovely. An expanse of green lawn forms the centre of the garden, while a series of pools, cascades, waterfalls and streams stretches below shady trees. All of 16 acres in area, Koraku-en is best known for the beautiful `Full Moon Bridge’ which is its main attraction- the bridge, and its reflection in the water, combine to form the shape of a full moon. Interestingly enough, rice, wheat and tea are also cultivated within the garden. The tea is put to good use in the many teahouses which dot the area. The garden is open daily from 7.30 am to 6 pm, and from 8 am to 5 pm between October and March.

Kairaku-en, in Mito, is synonymous with Spring and the viewing of the flowering `ume’ plum trees which are the garden’s greatest attraction. 3,000 plum trees- of 100 species- cover 32 acres of undulating land. Come spring, and Kairaku-en is a mass of pink and white, a frothy and fragrant picture which is almost unbelievably pretty. Designed in 1841 by a Mito feudal lord, Kairaku-en is full of blossoming azaleas in the summer and Japanese bush clover in the autumn.

Kairaku-en is open from 6 am to 7 pm between April and mid-September, and from 7 am to 6 pm the rest of the year. Between late February and early March, a special Plum Festival is held in Kairaku-en; it’s the perfect time to visit the garden.

The Gardens of Paris, France
If there’s one city which has it all- palaces, museums, gardens- it’s Paris. And gardens there are aplenty in this city: acres of lawns, flowerbeds, gravel pathways, fountains and more. There’s the Jardin Atlantique, the Jardin du Bassin de L’arsenal, the Jardin des Champs-Elysees, the Jardin du Palais Royal- and of course, the two best known gardens: the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Jardin des Tuileries.

Jardin des Tuileries, designed by Le Nôtre, the chief gardener for Louis XIV, is the epitome of a classic Parisian garden. Well manicured, lush green lawns are dissected by avenues of trees and well-maintained flower beds, the symmetry of which is broken by strategically placed fountains and sculptures. Also a part of the Tuileries is a labyrinth and a small pond where children can sail on hired boats. Surrounding the Tuileries are some of Paris’ most spectacular buildings, including the Musée du Louvre, the Musée d’ Orsay, and the Egyptian Obelisk.

Jardin du Luxembourg is in the same league as the Jardin des Tuileries and is laid out in the early 17th century to offset the beautiful Palais du Luxembourg, built by the queen Marie de Medicis. Like the Tuileries, the Jardin du Luxembourg is also `typically’ French, with its orderly flowerbeds, its rows of trees and a central pool, surrounded by statues and urns. You can go for a stroll through the garden, admire the flowers or sit on a bench, feeding pigeons or watching people. The Luxembourg was, once upon a time, much frequented by artists- Gertrude Stein, Verlaine and Watteau were all keen admirers of this stretch of greenery. Today, tourists, children and students from the Sorbonne outnumber everybody else. Children, especially, can have a whale of a time in the Jardin du Luxembourg- they can sail a toy boat in the pool, ride ponies, or watch one of the puppet shows which are staged occasionally.

The Butchart Gardens, Vancouver, Canada
Way back in 1904, a resident of Vancouver, a Mrs Jenny Butchart, whose husband had made it big in the Portland Cement trade, decided to do something about an ugly old quarry which stretched across the family’s 130-acre estate. Debris, dust and pools of stagnant water were converted, over the years, into a patch of greenery that today draws admiration from the best gardeners in the world. One of North America’s most spectacular gardens: the Butchart Gardens.

The Butchart Gardens stretch across 50 acres of flowerbeds, statuary, pools, pavilions, rockeries and pathways- but wait on; this isn’t a merry jumble. Everything has carefully been designed to allow you to enjoy different gardening styles within one area. The old quarry itself has been converted into a beautiful sunken garden, where pine trees and azaleas alternate with stretches of green grassland. Further on, past a quiet lake, lies an English-style rose garden, fragrant and intoxicating, leading on to a serene Japanese garden. Last (but by no means least) is a classic Italian garden, centred around a lily pond.

And for visitors to the Butchart Gardens, there’s more: a gift shop amply equipped with seeds, flowerpots and other paraphernalia; and the opportunity to gorge yourself on an absolutely unforgettable high tea at the Butchart home, a part of the gardens. Believe us, it’s a fabulous way to fortify yourself after a tiring round of the gardens.

Yengo Sculpture Gardens, Mount Wilson, Australia
If you’re one of the larkspur-loving, aster-admiring gang, the Yengo Sculpture Gardens in Australia may not quite be up your alley. Because it’s not blooms and buds which hold sway here, it’s bronzes and beech trees.
Originally laid out way back in 1877, the Yengo Sculpture Gardens stretch across 20 acres of greenery in Mount Wilson, New South Wales, Australia. The Yengo gardens are divided into two sections: the original gardens, and the new gardens, the latter home to Yengo Lake, as well as a resident flock of peacocks. A vast spread of trees - including chestnut, giant thuja, sycamore, cedar, and more- line the paths which wend their way through the Yengo Gardens, and flowerbeds bursting with cool bluebells, golden daffodils and lovely hyacinths edge the walkways. Scattered across the gardens are fountains, pavilions, ponds, even a homestead, a walled garden, a tennis court and a croquet green- and of course, the sculptures for which the gardens are named. Crafted by the husband-and-wife team of Lloyd le Blanc and Judith Holmes Drewry, a series of exquisite bronze sculptures- of birds, animals and human figures- stand, sit and lie across the gardens. They’re spectacular, and there are more than 50 of them in Yengo.

The Yengo Sculpture Gardens are open every weekend from April to May and from September to the end of November. If you really like what you see, consider staying here for a while- the Yengo homestead is open for rental, and it’s the ultimate in cosy yet elegant accommodation; what’s more, it can be rented any time of the year.

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, England
The gold standard for botanical gardens lies a little outside London and an easy commute from the city by bus, by tube and by car. The park we're talking about here of course is none other than the Kew Gardens of England. Situated on the southern bank of the Thames, very close to the borough of Richmond, the Kew is famous for the enormous academic work that it supports. Boasting a collection that varies from the this-can-otherwise-be viewed-in-the-south Pantanal to roadside shrubbery, the 300 acres of these gardens are a brilliant place to spend a day if flora fascinates you.

The Kew Gardens were formed by combining the royal estates of Kew and Richmond 200 years ago. Today they are an amazing mix of great architectural monuments, up-to-date research work, and a site where plants from every kind of climatic zone are nurtured, studied and displayed. The Evolution House traces the journey of plant life on earth and includes such species as the Cooksonia, the first plants to adapt to life on land, the earliest ferns and a host of other such specimens, displayed in a high tech gizmo-snazz interactive environment. The Princess of Wales Conservatory has a range of simulated climatic zones so you get to see what grows in the Sahara under the same roof as what grows in the Amazon. Kew Gardens have the largest herbarium in the world but it is not open to public. But what are, are the fabulous Museum No. 1, the Marianne North Gallery where paintings by the artist of plants from around the world are housed and the Kew Gallery. The Palm House is the focus of all visitors; it houses an important collection of cycads, one of the most ancient plant species on earth, which is now threatened by extinction. Below the Palm House is the marine display at the Waterlily House. The Temperate House has a huge collection of subtropical plants, including a specimen of the of the Chilean wine-palm, the world's largest indoor plant.

To put it simply, the Kew Gardens is a collection that is as wide-ranging as it can get. There's no two ways about it though, this is not a stroll-in-the-park experience but an educative and engaging one. The gardens open for the visitor at 9:30 in the morning and closing times depend on the season; the glasshouses and exhibitions close earlier than the rest of the gardens. The Gardens are always closed on Christmas and New Year's Day. The standard admission price for adults is £13.90 for adults and £11.90 for senior citizens. Children under 17 years are free.

Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa
For those who like to get their facts right, the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa, is a reserve of Cape flora, of the botanical type known as fynbos. The fynbos is the smallest and richest of the world's five botanic regions, and is found only in a tiny portion of South Africa. And it has the world's largest concentration of indigenous plant species: around 1,300 species per 10,000 sq km. If that's got you interested, here's more: the fynbos consists of a total of about 7,700 species, including proteas, pelargoniums, gladioli, iris, and more grasses than you'd imagine. And the place to see the fynbos without having to haul on those boots and trek all over the Cape is the magnificent Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town.

Founded in 1913, the Kirstenbosch Garden spreads out across about 8.28 sq km, on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, the flat-topped peak which dominates Cape Town. Of the total area, less than a tenth is cultivated; the rest is protected forest. The Liesbeek River and two streams wend their way through Kirstenbosch, providing much-needed water to some 6,000 species of native fynbos plants.

Among the must-sees in Kirstenbosch are the Peninsula Garden; the Water-wise Garden (a neat patch of greenery which needs less water than other gardens); the Fragrance Garden; the Medicinal Garden; the Compton Herbarium, the fern-filled The Dell; the beautiful Protea Garden, and a historic avenue of camphor and fig trees planted by the famous Cecil Rhodes. Visitors are allowed- even encouraged- to walk along the many hiking trails which crisscross Kirstenbosch, and guided walks are, in particular, a great way to get close to the fynbos. If you're not quite up to so much exercise, relax a while at the local restaurant, or buy yourself a little souvenir from the Crafts Shop. During the summer, evening musical concerts are held in Kirstenbosch.

The Kirstenbosch Gardens are open 365 days a year, from 8 am to 7 pm (between September and March) and from 8 am to 6 pm the rest of the year. If you're keen on seeing the splendid proteas, which are really the stars of the show, time your visit for winter.

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