Botany is one of the most fascinating aspects of our planet. And yet, for so many of us, we extend our knowledge to the daffodils in our garden, lilies on the windowsill and oak trees we pass on the way to work.
Yet there are plants out there that can, among other wonderful things, dupe wasps into helping them reproduce, devour annoying insects, grow in any (and we mean any) direction, and even the odd one that serves as a water fountain for monkeys.
With so many weird and wonderful aspects of nature to see, there isn’t enough time in the world to see them all. We’ve identified the best botanical gardens in the world to help you start, as well as some of their most fascinating plants.
Kew Gardens, London
Founded in 1759 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, the 300 acres of land that make up Kew Gardens is one of the most naturally beautiful sites in the world.
The gardens came about in the 18th century when London became a magnet for cultural exploits. The aristocracy sought solace outside the busy, teeming thrust of the city and so it was that the Royal Family purchased Kew Palace.
Prince Frederick and Princess Augusta, parents of the future George III, started a garden which quickly grew in scale. It was in the Victorian Age, though, that the gardens really expanded – with the famous glasshouses being built.
Yet the history of the gardens may stretch back a little further than first thought. Indeed, it is thought Julius Caesar crossed the Thames at Kew on his first visit to Britain in 53 BC.
Among the highlights today is Evolution House which tells the evolutionary story of plants throughout the earth’s existence.
The Plant That Smells Like a Corpse
One of the most interesting aspects of Kew Gardens is the infamous corpse flower. Looking somewhat futuristic, the ‘corpse flower’ (Amorphophallus titanum) is so-called for good reason: it smells quite similar to a rotting corpse.
While this might put humans off having one of them in the back garden, the smell actually attracts beetles to pollinate it. The plant contains thousands of little flowers, which release oils while the centre gathers heat. This creates the smell that proves so alluring to beetles.
When in bloom, which is only every few years, it emits the smell of a rotting corpse, and its petals unfold revealing a colour often compared to raw rotting meat. The smell is caused by thousands of little flowers in the plant which release oils while the centre gathers heat. This scent then attracts beetles to pollinate the flowers.
Kew Gardens holds the first flowering corpse flower in cultivation, receiving it originally in 1889 only 20 years after it was first discovered. The last time it bloomed was in 2018, so you have some time to visit if you’d rather avoid the stench.
The Plant That Tricks Wasps To Reproduce
The Ophrys speculum is rather a sneaky plant. It mimics a female wasp’s body in order to have male wasps come and reproduce with it…
Female wasps are flightless, and so climb on top of plants like damsels in distress, waiting for the male to pick them up and reproduce with them during flight. This makes them an easy target for cunning plants.
Ophrys speculum mimics the female wasp’s appearance. The flower is hairy, with a blue spot on the lip that resembles the reflection of the sky on the wasp’s wings. Furthermore, the floral scent is similar to the mating pheromones of the female wasps, which ensures the male wasps become quickly stimulated.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
The founder of modern Singapore, the Brit Sir Stamford Raffles, was a keen naturalist. It’s no surprise, then, that he built a thriving botanical garden at the heart of the city-state.
Thanks to their British connections, rubber was imported from Kew Gardens in London. The garden’s director, the naturalist who came to be known as Mad Ridley, spearheaded rubber cultivation in the gardens, which thrived due to the Singaporean climate.
Today the Singapore Botanic Garden is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 2015. It is the first and only tropical botanical garden on the Heritage List. While there are many beautiful things to see, the National Orchid Garden is the main attraction, with a collection of over 1,000 species of orchid.
The Plants That Devour Annoying Insects
As well as over a thousand orchid, Singapore Botanic Gardens is home to the fascinating pitcher plant. This is probably one plant you wouldn’t mind having in the conservatory; especially if your house tends to become populated by insects.
Pitcher plants, like those found in the Nepenthaceae and Sarraceniaceae families, lure their prey to the cavity formed by the cupped leaf. The rim of the pitcher is slippery, and the insects slide down into the trap. Some carnivorous plants are happy to devour just about anything that comes nearby, from tarantulas to large rats.
Toronto Botanical Garden
Ontario’s foremost authority on gardening spans four acres, with 17 themed gardens. The story began in 1944 when Toronto businessman Rupert Edwards bought a large, weed-ridden area of space today known as the Edwards Gardens. He transformed the area to include a magnificent rockery and even a golf course.
When Edwards decided to sell, he ensured provisions were made for the space to become a public park. Opening in 1956, this taster of botany charmed the city; the Garden Club of Toronto fought to open a botanical garden nearby to rival the likes of Kew Gardens in London. From this was born the Toronto Botanical Garden.
Today the themed gardens thrive, including the Beryl Ivey Knot Garden, which demonstrates the art of pruning and shaping plants in wacky ways.
The Plants That Feed Hummingbirds
There aren’t many birds quite so elegant as the hummingbird. Quite fittingly, some of the plants they most frequently feed from at the Toronto Botanical Garden are equally as pretty.
The pineapple sage, Salvia elegans, produces brilliant red blossoms that the hummingbird can feast upon. Meanwhile, you might also see the busy little garden guest nibbling on the vibrant tubular flowers of the ‘black and blue’ Salvia guaranitica.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York
Opened in 1911, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden features a number of collections inspired by Asia. Featuring more than 200 cherry trees, it is one of the foremost cherry-viewing sites outside of Japan. The first of those trees were planted in the garden before World War I – a gift from the Japanese government. The Japanese Hill and Pond Garden extend on this theme.
Another interesting garden here is the Shakespeare Garden. The English cottage-style garden includes over 80 plants that are featured in Shakespeare’s plays and poems.
Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro
The 140-hectare Jardim Botânico lies at the foot of the Corcovado Mountain, in the shadow of the Christ the Redeemer statue. It was designed by order of the Prince Regent Dom João in 1808, as a sanctum of serenity. It continued to be a place of tranquillity.
The botanical garden’s tremendous lake is worth a visit alone. It beams with huge Vitória Régia water lilies and nearby sits an enclosed orchard garden that hosts around 600 species of orchards.
Jardim Botânico is home to over 6,500 species, with the tropical climate providing an excellent breeding ground for exotic plants.
Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh
A mile outside Edinburgh’s city centre lies 72 acres of scenic gardens. The Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh is world-renowned for its landscaped grounds but, more significantly, its collection of tropical plants. Their origins span 10 distinct climate zones.
The botanical garden is also home to the famous Rock Garden, often cited as one of Britain’s finest gardens. When the rock garden was initially built it was something of a pioneer of its type. While rockeries were popular, full-fledged gardens were something quite new in 1871.
The Mouldy Smelling Plant That Makes Tea
One unique plant in the garden’s collection is the Camellia sasanqua. Native to Japan, the plant might well look delightful, but its aroma gives off a different side – smelling of musty leaf mould.
An evergreen shrub, its pink flowers are strikingly attractive. Because of this, the plant is often associated with Yuletide and Christmas. But its long history in Japan is more commonly associated with practical cultivation. The leaves are used to make tea, while the seeds or nuts make tea seed oil. Don’t devour too much of this, though, for the tea oil is crazily high in calories.
- 1 Kew Gardens, London
- 2 Singapore Botanic Gardens
- 3 Toronto Botanical Garden
- 4 Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York
- 5 Jardim Botânico, Rio de Janeiro
- 6 Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh