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When you want to give city life the slip, public gardens await. Watch koi swirl in a pond. See a rare lily bloom in a glassy pool. Find out what grows in the cool of a streambed. Learn a lot—or just sit a spell and soak in the calm.

By Teresa Woodard
April 07, 2021
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Central Axis Climatron Reflecting Pool Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden
| Credit: Kent Burgess/Courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden

Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis

Arrive at MOBOT's lily ponds in the morning to catch the awakening day blossoms and the close of the night bloomers. This floral changing of the guard has been going on here for over a century. Today, 225 varieties of water lilies grace six reflecting pools by the Climatron conservatory and the Linnean House. Look for platter-size Victoria water lilies (which can grow to 7 feet wide), as well as a collection of tropical specimens bred here by George H. Pring, father of the first yellow water lily—Nymphaea 'St. Louis'.

DID YOU KNOW? Named for the onions they mimic, Dale Chihuly's glass orbs in MOBOT's central axis reflecting pool are called Walla Wallas.

TIME YOUR VISIT In Missouri, water lilies start blooming in June and peak in August. Through October 10, Origami in the Garden brings 18 large-scale sculptures, including one that creates the illusion of 1,000 stainless-steel origami peace cranes hovering above a reflecting pool.

TRY THIS You can grow a water lily on your patio. Fill a water-tight container at least 18 inches wide with water and place a lily in its mesh pot on the bottom, so its stem is submerged and its leaves float. Try yellow 'Joey Tomocik', pink 'Tropic Star' or 'Wanvisa' in changing colors. Learn more at midwestliving.com/waterlily.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR May 7–16 Many botanical gardens offer plant sales, free admission or special tours during Go Public Garden Days. Learn more at gpgd.info

Garden in the Glen
Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha
| Credit: Courtesy of Lauritzen Gardens

Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha

Retreat to Garden in the Glen, a woodland arcadia within this 100-acre bluff-top property. A 300-foot stream meanders through a black locust grove and plantings of astilbe, ferns, Japanese maples and hostas. Kids, especially, fall under the spell of the Glen's rocky pools, gentle waterfalls and Turning Leaves kinetic sculpture (pictured, tucked away up the stream).

DID YOU KNOW? An official American Hosta Society Display Garden, Lauritzen has about 1,500 plants spanning 225 species. Several, including 'Ahamo Gold' and 'Aksarben', were bred locally during the '50s and '60s. (Read their names backward.)

TIME YOUR VISIT Early summer events include yoga classes, a warbler walk and guided garden tours. Lauritzen hosts its annual Antiques Show September 9–12.

TRY THIS AT HOME You're a Midwesterner—you probably don't need us to sell you on hostas. But perhaps consider diversifying your collection. A few Lauritzen Gardens favorites are 'Avocado', 'Blue Thunder' and 'Shady Choice'.

West Waterfall, Anderson Japanese Gardens Rockford Illinois
Anderson Japanese Gardens
| Credit: Courtesy of Anderson Japanese Gardens

Anderson Japanese Gardens, Rockford, Illinois

Wash yourself in the sounds of crashing waterfalls, singing birds and gurgling streams. The 50-foot West Waterfall is one of three at this Japanese garden designed by legend Hoichi Kurisu. What began as a private garden in a swampy backyard has grown into an immersive public showcase featuring 25 different Japanese maples, dozens of irises, winding paths, a koi pond, bridges, decorative gates and a tea hut.

TIME YOUR VISIT Once a month, June through October, you can register for Anderson Gardens' Gong Bath or Song Bath classes, meditative experiences using singing bowls, drums, gongs, and other instruments to surround participants in soothing rhythms and vibrations.

EXTEND THE TRIP Take a detour to nearby Laurent House, designed in 1949 by Frank Lloyd Wright, who called the location "my little gem."

TRY THIS AT HOME Install a pondless waterfall, such as a wall fountain or a recirculating stone stream along a patio, to enjoy the relaxing sounds of water. For a simpler project, just install an inexpensive bubbling fountain in a water-filled container, tucked among rocks.

Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park Japanese garden
Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park

Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan

To create The Richard and Helen DeVos Japanese Garden, Meijer Gardens tapped Hoichi Kurisu (yes, the same creative mind behind Anderson, opposite) to transform a wooded marsh into a zen paradise. The landscape includes 4,000 hand-selected boulders, four waterfalls, two bridges, pruned pines and a promenade of 60 cherry trees. Take a meditative stroll, tuning in to sensations—the smell of bamboo, the brush of a branch, the sound of gravel underfoot.

DID YOU KNOW? The curving shape of the central pond echoes the Japanese character for heart.

TIME YOUR VISIT Learn about the art of serving matcha by reserving a spot at one of Meijer Gardens' occasional tea ceremonies, held in the traditional teahouse, which was built in Japan.

TRY THIS AT HOME Plant a cherry tree for your own spring show. (Weeping Extraordinaire and Pink Snow Showers are great Midwest varieties.) Or try flowering natives: Serviceberries have white blooms followed by red and purple berries that help foster birdlife. Eastern redbuds offer clusters of magenta flowers and heart-shape leaves.

Water Garden, Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden
| Credit: Ivory House Photography/Courtesy of Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden

Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Des Moines

Because it sits along the Des Moines River, the half-acre pond outside the domed conservatory feels like a natural extension of the landscape. But it's actually a newer feature of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, with a boardwalk, two waterfalls, three islands planted with tropical species and a panoramic view of the skyline. As you marvel at Victoria amazonica's giant leaf pads (pictured) cross your fingers for a strong breeze: Their blooms smell like pineapple.

TIME YOUR VISIT On Thursday evenings June 17–September 30, the botanical garden hosts a Music in the Garden concert series.

EXTEND YOUR TRIP A few miles away, the free Des Moines Art Center has several outdoor sculptures. The museum's grounds merge with wooded Greenwood Park, which has a rose garden, peaceful pond and miles of hiking trails.

TRY THIS AT HOME For a tropical vibe (sans island) in your own garden, plant heat-loving canna lilies. Tropicanna or 'Phasion' are two favorites with bright orange leaves and rainbow-stripe foliage.

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