Friday, January 3, 2020

Olbrich Botanical Gardens: A Midwestern Horticultural Treasure

Olbrich's rose garden; photo by Jeff Epping

On Saturday, June 25, Madison Fling attendees will have the pleasure of visiting a nationally recognized botanical garden. Among its many accolades, Olbrich Botanical Gardens was voted one of the top 10 most inspiring gardens in North America by Horticulture magazine, and it has received the American Public Gardens Association’s Garden of Excellence Award.

Sixteen acres of outdoor display gardens and an indoor, tropical conservatory offer plentiful opportunities for horticultural discovery. Outdoor gardens include a sunken garden, perennial garden, herb garden, meadow garden, rock garden, wildflower garden, rain garden, serenity garden, shade garden, hosta garden, event garden, and birch garden.

A sampling of roses

Another highlight, Olbrich’s rose garden, encompasses two acres and showcases a variety of roses blended with colorful perennials, ornamental grasses, shrubs, trees, annuals, and spring-blooming bulbs. This part of the garden is drawn together in a prairie-style design, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, with a 30-foot tower and fountains built into native stone.

The rose garden celebrates the beauty and adaptability of hardy and environmentally friendly shrub roses. This garden embraces the climate and gardening challenges of the Upper Midwest and creates a sustainable rose garden in all seasons. Some of these roses likely will be blooming during our visit.

The Thai Pavilion

Olbrich’s Thai pavilion was a gift to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the Thai government and the Thai chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. UW-Madison has one of the largest Thai student populations of any U.S. college or university. Amazingly, the pavilion is able to withstand Wisconsin’s winter weather with no protection because it’s constructed of plantation-grown teak and weather-resistant ceramic roof tiles. The gold leaf, however, is delicate and unable to withstand the oils of human hands.

The Thai garden surrounding the pavilion emulates a lush, tropical garden with Wisconsin-hardy plants. Ornamental grasses, some reaching up to 12 feet tall, and several hardy bamboos create a tropical look. Large-leaved shrubs and trees are pruned to emulate the appearance of plants in a typical Thai garden.

Butterflies in the gardens

Throughout the gardens, we’re likely to see pollinators of all types, including monarchs and other butterflies. Native plants, including host plant milkweeds, and nectar-rich annuals invite impressive numbers of monarchs to the gardens during the spring, summer, and fall.

Olbrich is a great place for butterfly sightings and counts, generally, and more specifically for viewing migrating monarchs in the late spring and early autumn.

Gravel garden

Another unique feature at Olbrich is its gravel gardens—inspired by designs by Roy Diblik, perennial plant expert and author, and Jeff Epping, Olbrich’s director of horticulture. Once established, gravel gardens require very few resources: next to no weeding, watering, or fertilizing. They incorporate native, drought-tolerant plants with deep roots that eventually reach down below the thick surface layer of gravel.

Olbrich has several gravel gardens throughout its property, including one at the entrance and another featuring pathways and all-weather Adirondack chairs. These are great locations to observe bees and other pollinators enjoying the plentiful, nectar-rich perennials.

As described in its vision statement, Olbrich Botanical Gardens is “a locally treasured and globally renowned source of beauty and education celebrating the importance of plants in a sustainable world.” Our visit during the Fling is sure to be a highlight of our event.