Doggin’ America’s Top Formal Gardens

Experienced travelers know there are attractions you drive right by with your dog’s nose pressed forlornly against the car window. Formal gardens are typically high on the list of places that do not allow dogs. But not so fast...turn that car around and give these a try:

National Arboretum (Washington, D.C.). 
The United States Department of Agriculture established the National Arboretum as a research and education facility and living museum in 1927. Dogs are permitted across the grounds, which include a mix of tree collections and formal gardens. The major trail system circles Mount Hamilton, at 240 feet one of the highest points in the nation’s capital. A paved road/path winds to the top where you can peek through the trees to the west and see the U.S. Capitoland the Washington Monument. On the southern and eastern slopes are over 15,000 hardy azaleas that can still see blooms into November.

Another area with footpaths is the Asian Collection where trees and flowers from China, Japan and Korea mingle above the Anacostia River. But you need not limit your explorations with your dog to formal pathways. You can wander on the grass through the Slow-growing Conifer Collection, the Holly and Magnolia Collection and the National Boxwood Collections.
Your dog can stroll through gardens devoted to perennials, to herbs and to energy-producing plants and across a meadow containing twenty-two sandstone Corinthian columns that once stood at the east portico of the U.S. Capitol.  

Jungle Gardens (Avery Island, Louisiana). 
Edmund McIlhenny’s world was being torn apart. Approaching Union troops during the Civil War forced the self-made banker of Scotch-Irish descnet to flee New Orleans in 1862 for the safety of his wife’s ancestral home on Avery Island in the Louisiana bayou. The McIlhennys’ refuge was short-lived. The family island yielded minable rock salt - the nation’s first salt mine is there - and salt was needed to preserve meat for feeding troops. The Union army reached Avery Island in 1863 and the Averys and McIlhennys fled to south Texas for the duration of the War.

When they returned, their house was plundered. their plantation in tatters. About the only thing that semed to survive the Yankee occupation was a patch of hearty Capsicum peppers that thrived in a kitchen garden. From these humble plants would sprout an empire.

Edmund McIlhenny chopped the peppers and blended them with vinegar and Avery Island salt. The fiery potion was left to age in wooden barrels. He portioned off the sauce into discarded cologne bottles and called it “Tabasco” for a river in southern Mexico because he liked the name. The spicy sauce was an immediate hit and McIlhenny sold millions of tiny bottles until his death in 1890.

His son Edward assumed control of the family pepper business in 1898. “Ned” McIlhenny was also an arctic explorer, naturalist and conservationist as well as a pepper sauce king. He expanded the family estate next to the Tabasco factory to more than 250 acres and decorated it with exotic plants from around the world. He took an open sand mining pit and converted it to a Palm Garden. A poor-draining gully became a Sunken Garden. His “jungle gardens” were graced with over 400 varieties of camelias and thousands of types of iris.
Ned McIlhenny opened Jungle Gardens to the public in 1935. A five-mile driving road snakes through spectacular live oak groves and around man-made lagoons. Most people tour the gardens in their vehicles but get out and walk your dog to truly soak in the sub-tropical atmosphere of the plantings (keep an eye out for alligators). Highlights include an 800-year old Buddha statue and Bird City, a private bird sanctuary started by Ned McIlhenny in 1895 to save the snowy egret that was rapidly being exterminated for its feathers to decorate ladies’ hats.

Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (Charleston, South Carolina). For Thomas Drayton and his son, Thomas, Jr., in 1675 it was Barbados or bust. They boarded the ship Willing Wind and left England only to arrive in what had become the most densely populated colony in the British empire. With all the choice land for a sugar plantation already snapped up the Draytons turned their attention to the new Carolina Colony.

Soon after arriving on the Ashley River young Drayton married Ann Fox and inherited the Magnolia Plantation in 1680. The young couple set about building a plantation house and at the same time planted America’s first estate garden, Flowerdale.

Through the Revolution and the Civil War and the end of the age of the gentleman planter the estate was ravaged but the gardens survived intact. In the 1870s, Magnolia Gardens opened to the visitors as one of the country’s oldest public gardens. Today the estate remains in the hands of the Drayton family and Flowerdale looks much as it did 300-plus years ago.
How dog-friendly is Magnolia Plantation? Not only are dogs allowed to walk the grounds but they can ride the tour trams and even go in the plantation house (if you carry the dog). And it is quite a treat - you are not likely to have a canine hike like this anywhere else. The prescribed path through the maze of walking paths stops at two dozen points of interest, crosses graceful bridges, looks in on 250 varieties of azaleas, skips through quiet stands of towering bamboo and wanders by 900 types of camellias. More hiking with your dog is available through the 60-acre blackwater cypress and tupelo swamp. Plus there are nature trails on the property.

The Drayton Oak, just off of Bridge Square and not too far from the site of the original Plantation House, was planted around 1680 by Thomas Drayton, Jr. at the time he and his wife Anne settled at Magnolia. If your dog acts strangely at this magnificent live oak it may be because he senses the ghost of Magnolia’s recently deceased owner, J. Drayton Hastie, Sr. When he died in December of 2002, his grandson and successor did place his ashes in the tree, and Thomas Drayton’s beautiful oak became home to one of Magnolia’s newest ghosts.

Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden (Stock Island, Florida). 
The Key West Botanical Garden began life as a 1930s Depression-era public works project. The equivalent of $10 million was spent to create a 55-acre experimental garden with flagstone walkways, stone walls and an aviary. Plants from all over the world were imported to learn which would survive in this tropical environment.

The early botanical garden was a tourist showplace but it declined during World War II as bits and pieces of the property were appropriated by various government agencies. By 1961 only seven and a half acres and no buildings remained. The neglect was stemmed temporarily when the City of Key West designated the garden as a permanent sanctuary but it would be another two decades before the Key West Botanical Garden Society organized to operate the garden as a family-friendly facility.

Today the Key West Botanical Garden is the only frost-free botanical garden in the United States. Your dog can trot along four self-guided nature trails under the lush leaves of tropical flora. Chief among them are the collection of palms, including saw palmetto and the Florida state tree, the Sabal Palm. Two freshwater ponds in the forest, reached by red arrows, are among the last in the Florida Keys.

Yellow arrows lead your dog along the Trail of Champion Trees. The Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden is home to two state champion trees and two national champions: the Wild Dilly and the Locust-berry. These trees ordinarily are found in low, shrub-like growth but here they have blossomed as full-blown trees.

Holden Arboretum (Kirtland, Ohio). 
Albert Fairchild Holden was born in 1866, the third of nine children born to Delia Bulkley and Liberty Holden. His mother was instrumental in founding the Cleveland School of Art, which later became the Cleveland Institute of Art. His father made a fortune in the silver mines of Utah and at one time was the owner of Cleveland’s major newspaper, The Plain Dealer.

After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Mining Engineering in 1888, Holden joined his father in the silver fields of Utah. He later bought his father’s mines and organized the United States Mining Company to consolidate his expanding interests. Soon he was smelting more ore than anyone in the country and founded the Island Creek Coal Company in West Virginia to supply his furnaces.

Albert Holden died of cancer in 1913. An avid botanist, he planned to endow the Arnold Arboretum at this alma mater as a memorial to his 12-year old daughter who passed five years earlier but his sister Roberta Holden Bole convinced him that Northeast Ohio deserved a first-class arboretum of its own. Thus was eventually born the Holden Arboretum on 100 acres donated by Mrs. Bole in 1931. Today’s “tree museum” has grown into one of the world’s largest, with more than 6,000 varieties of plants and trees spread over 3,446 acres.
Most formal arboreta do not welcome dogs so it is a rare treat to be able to bring your dog to these trails. There are more than a dozen here, ranging from garden strolls to meadow romps to mature woodland hikes for your dog. The trails curve pleasingly among the plantings, often visiting the edges of ponds. Energetic dogs will want to push to the park’s extremities on the sporty Pierson Creek Loop and Bole Woods Trail that explores a stunning beech-maple forest, designated a National Natural Landmark. In the southern region the Conifer collection is an embarrassment of evergreen wonder any month of the year. You may be distracted by the beauty of the place and not notice as you hike but your dog can get quite a workout in Holden Arboretum, with several hundred feet of elevation changes. A detailed color map comes with each admission. Did I say detailed? It even tells you how many steps there are on the trail staircases.

The Layer Rhodedendron Garden Trail was long home to two oaks that were growing before George Washington was born. A gnarly 375-year old white oak can still be seen seen on the edge of Oak Pond but a 275-year old red oak toppled in 2007. Woodcarver Dan Sammon spent five days with chainsaw and torch to create “The Guardians of the Garden” in the base and trunk of the fallen giant.

Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden (Fort Bragg, California).
This 47-acre garden, started by a retired nurseryman in 1961, is the only public garden in the continental United States that sits directly on the Pacific Ocean. And dogs are welcome to wander through the diverse plant collections that enjoy their damp, foggy perch above the waves.

The trail system flows from manicured formal gardens (many of the rose varieties were discovered along roadsides and abandoned Mendocino homesteads) through a hardy pine forest out to the Pacific breezes on the edges of a flower-laden coastal prairie. Spurs drop into wetlands and fern-crusted canyons. But don’t confine your dog’s explorations of the “Garden By The Sea” to the footpaths - step into the grassy areas surrounding the rare collections. The Heather garden, for instance, has been tabbed by the American Public Gardens Association as a Collection of National Significance.

The Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden is known for its spectacular rhododendrons. Tender species rhododendrons native to the cloud forests of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas thrive in the cool damp climate and are found in this country only in a narrow band along the northern California climate. Hybrid rhododendrons in reds, purples and pinks dwarf admirers when the burst into flower. Come in spring and winter and you can huddle with your dog in the Cliff House to watch annual whale migrations just off shore.

Boyce Thompson Arboretum (Superior, Arizona). 
Boyce Thompson was born in Montana, educated in New England, and made his fortune trading mining stocks in New York City but it was the desert landscape of the American southwest that captured his heart. After he purchased the Magma Mine in Superior, midway between Phoenix and Tucson, he moved to Arizona and built his Picket Post house. In the 1920s he established the Bryce Thompson Arboretum to study the plants of desert countries and invited the public to share in the research.

This outdoor museum of desert plants is interspersed amidst two miles of winding paths, which your dog is welcome to enjoy. The arboretum weds plants from the planet’s driest regions with enormous examples of native Sonoran Desert vegetation. Where water intrudes on the 320-acre garden in the form of a man-made lake or trickling stream the impact is startling. Shade-giving eucalyptus trees share space with majestic 200-year old saguaro cactus, Chinese pistachio trees are neighbors to spiky palo-verdes and Mediterranean olive trees compete for attention with spiny-branched ocotillo. All told, there are more than 3,200 desert plants on display. With such a variety, fragrant plants are in bloom practically any time during the year but, of course, your dog will be more comfortable strolling these pebbly paths from October to May.

North Carolina Arboretum (Asheville, North Carolina). Located at Milepost 395 of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the exhibition gardens of the North Carolina Arboretum are a prelude to the popular trail system of the Bent Creek Experimental Forest in the Pisgah National Forest. Wander to the trail system that flows from the Exhibit Center down the wooded hillside to Bent Creek. The flat, serpentine dirt Bent Creek Road is the main travelway through the Arboretum but if the cyclists are a nuisance jump onto the narrow footpath that parallels Bent Creek. Use this corridor to craft hiking loops with the other park trails, some of which are padded in paw-friendly wood chips. Ambitious canine hikers can pass through the arboretum gates onto the Bent Creek trail system of old logging roads and twisting footpaths. If you can time it, the Arboretum offers free admission to visitors the first Tuesday of every month.