Denver Botanic Gardens Showcases the Best Of Western Design

If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-class garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best ones I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to wow. And impress me it did, with its grand spaces showcasing plants from all over the world.


Located at York Street in the heart of the city, the Denver Botanic Gardens covers an astonishing 24 acres. There are 17 arid gardens exhibiting plants from Colorado’s dry climate, plus internationally-inspired gardens, ornamental gardens, shade gardens and water gardens. And that’s not all – there’s an ornamental vegetable garden and countless garden ‘vignettes’ in between, enough to make your head spin with all the horticultural inspiration.

Following are some highlights of the different gardens.

The O’Fallon Perennial Walk

I love to meander, so we didn’t bother with the map and within moments found ourselves at the base of the O’Fallon Perennial Walk. Backed by a hedge of formally pruned juniper, the impressive border features many of the plants I use in my designs back East. There are generous drifts of colorful bearded irises, yarrow, hardy geraniums, lady’s mantle and amsonia as well as roses, boxwood and barberry shrubs, to name just a few.

Apricot Iris germanica


Aside from the beautiful plants, the Denver Botanic Gardens is a design mecca. The O’Fallon Perennial Walk is one such example. The hedges are angled so that the views from the north end make the south end appear farther away than it actually is. I also couldn’t help but notice that the plants were double the size I’m used to seeing – must be the dry Denver air!

The adjacent Romantic Gardens exhibit elements that are common to Tuscan style. At the Schlessman Plaza, rustic stone columns, stucco walls and a pair of brick and stucco pavilions are prominent features. The garden’s formal beds showcase perennials and shrubs typical of the region while bordering ornamental crabapple trees provide vertical interest. 

Schlessman Plaza

Ornamental crabapples at Schlessman Plaza


In keeping with the dry climate, the Fragrance Garden features raised beds of drought-tolerant perennials.  Achillea, dianthus, hardy geranium, monarda, nepeta and Love-In-A-Mist make up a colorful mix accented by silvery Buddleja ‘Argentea’ and Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. In the rear, a grey stucco wall provides a dramatic backdrop. 

 The Fragrance Garden

Rounding a corner, we stumbled on an elliptical garden centered on a brilliant red and yellow Chihuly sculpture. Entitled The Ellipse, the sunken garden features roses from the May-Bonfils Stanton collection. It also exhibits hydrangeas, lilies and daylilies chosen to coordinate with the jewel-toned glass (which looked a lot like a red hot poker).

The sculpture was specially commissioned for the Denver Botanic Gardens in 2014 and is called ‘Colorado.’

The Ellipse in honor of Nancy Schotters

Path bordered by Sweet Alyssum that encircles the Ellipse

Reflecting pool at the end of the Fragrance Garden


Located to the left of the Fragrance Garden, the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Herb Garden was designed for ‘health and culinary enjoyment.’  I’d say it was also designed for beauty. Maintained in collaboration with the Metro Denver Herbalists, it includes basil, thyme, oregano, lavender and lemon verbena and other Italian herbs displayed in a spectacular setting. Some of the plants are used in soaps and other herb blends available in the Garden Shop.

Herb Garden medallion made of Wooly Thyme

Close-up of the medallion


Adjacent to the Herb Garden is the Scripture Garden, a contemplative space filled with plants that originate in the ‘Fertile Crescent’; a region in the Middle East that was home to some of the earliest human civilizations. Many of the trees, shrubs and flowers figure in Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious stories. This includes a stand of olive trees native to the Mediterranean area.

The Scripture Garden

From this quiet area we headed to the Space Pyramid, a futuristic-looking grey and black mosaic pyramid located at the heart of the garden. The Pyramid is home to a 60-inch spherical globe that simulates how the earth looks from space.

Space Pyramid and fountain at the Denver Botanic Gardens


Adjacent to the Space Pyramid is the Ornamental Grasses Garden. Who knew there could be such variety? The beautiful garden encompasses a wide variety of traditional and ornamental grasses that demonstrate the epitome of sustainability. Included in the collection are Indian ricegrass, switchgrass, cutleaf staghorn sumac and compass plant, a native to the eastern plains of Colorado.

Ornamental Grasses Garden

The sculpture in the back called ‘So Proud Of My Children’ was created by Nicholas Kadzungara.

I loved the below garden space featuring a sheet metal sculpture by Alexander Calder entitled ‘Polygons on Triangles.’ It provided the perfect counterpoint to all the torch lilies.


A fun play on words, June’s Plantasia is the Denver Botanic Gardens’ hommage to the plants and planting traditions of Asia. Designed to mimic the flow of water, river rocks cover the paths and change direction depending on where you walk. 

River rock path in June’s Plantasia

Close-up of river rocks

Following are some other wonderful garden vignettes I spied at the Denver Botanic Gardens. 

Iris ‘Wake Up Call’


The Dwarf Conifer Garden displays the largest collection of Jerry Morris’ dwarf conifers in the world. Morris is internationally known for his groundbreaking work with conifers, including the development of species with more desirable traits like bluer foliage, longer needles and better disease resistance.

Jerry Morris Conifer Garden

A secluded spot nearby.


Compared with all of the greenery we had just experienced, the Rock Alpine Garden was a breath of dry air. One of a series of naturalistic gardens, this space features plants from high elevation regions around the world. The landscape includes over 2000 different plant species. Rugged rocks add to the garden’s appeal.

Rock Alpine Garden

The Gates Montane Garden was created in 1961 by S.R. DeBoer as a tribute to the late Charles C. Gates.  The design mimics the mountain setting of the Gates’ property in Bear Creek Canyon. The shady woodland path is a nice contrast to the Alpine Garden with its mix of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers.

Columbines in the Gates Montane Garden

The Plains Garden depicts what the landscape looked like prior to development of the Denver Botanic Gardens. The majority of the seeds came from within 30 miles of Denver and represent such signature plants as Blue Grama grass, Buffalo grass and Liatris punctata (spotted gayfeather.) This garden survives on precipitation alone.

Plains Garden


Water plays a dominant theme in the Denver Botanic Gardens through which it meanders, alternately taking the form of streams, reflecting pools, fountains and water courses. We stepped out from the Plains Garden to encounter a large paved space crisscrossed by water pathways. Known as the Monet Pool, the water garden features an impressive array of waterlilies, lotus and cattails.

The Denver Botanic garden is a world leader in aquatic gardening and variety and breadth of aquatic plants.

The Monet Pool

The Potager, or Kitchen Garden, is encircled by the Monet water pathways. The edible plants are arranged in ornamental patterns.

Le Potager

These gardens are only a fraction of what you can see at the Denver Botanic Gardens, which brings new surprises with each passing season.

At the time of our visit, the gardens were embellished by sculptures by Alexander Calder. For more information on the gardens, click here for the Denver Botanic Gardens website. And don’t forget to visit the Conservatory for more eye-opening experiences.