DENVER – Snow mounded over and around the remains of 2017’s garden bounty, and koi floated nearly motionless beneath thin sheets of ice in a pond, seeming to seek the few rays of sun that penetrated the water.
It surely is winter at the Denver Botanic Gardens York Street, east of downtown Denver. Outside, the vibrant colors of spring, summer and fall blooms and foliage are absent, yet a serene promise of what’s to come permeates the grounds. A winter visit should be on any Denver visitor’s to-do list, especially plant and nature lovers. It offers a soulful break from the big city (i.e., traffic, shopping, traffic, theaters, traffic, conferences, traffic – well, you get the idea).
On a recent Saturday, the walks were dry, cleared of the snowfall from a few days earlier and so beckoned weekend visitors to the grounds as the sun played hide-and-seek behind clouds. Here’s where the tulips will blossom in spring, the roses in early summer.
Despite the January chill, dozens of people walked the paths, taking photos and reading the placards that identify the plants. Dry ornamental grasses turned golden when the sun peeked out, and the Chihuly sculpture, “Colorado,” at The Ellipse glistened. Geese congregated on a sunny slope in front of the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory seemed not to notice people circumventing their droppings on a nearby sidewalk.
When your hands or feet get cold, you can head indoors and immerse yourself in the tropics at the conservatory or in science at the Science Pyramid. Or, through Feb. 19, take in the stunning display of orchids in the Orangery and Marnie’s Pavilion.
Science PyramidDenver Botanic Gardens – both the York Street and Chatfield Farm locations – have a strong scientific foundation, and the Science Pyramid gives visitors a glance at what that entails. While small compared with many science museums, you could spend hours on just a couple of the displays.
A primary feature is the Colorado forests – shrub steppe, montane, alpine, piñon-juniper woodland, subalpine and shortgrass steppe – all laid out on an interactive, lighted map. Visitors can learn where they are and their importance to the environment.
Then there’s the giant interactive globe, where you can learn all sorts of things about the Earth, especially human impacts. See where air traffic is 24 hours a day or track storms and air quality over years.
An exhibit on water features a heartrending film by americanrivers.org about the Colorado River – “the most endangered river in America.” It shows the beauty and uses of the river, which is part of the watershed of seven states, two countries and nine national parks. And then the impacts of how it has been used for recreation, power generation and water supply, leaving it dry before it touches the sea. It’s not long – and worth watching twice.
Staff or volunteers are usually on hand during the busy weekend hours and often during the week, according to a volunteer. On our visit, he was displaying cards with photos of food and asking visitors to match them to cards showing water used to produce that food. Tomatoes won on the conservation scale, ground beef lost.
Boettcher Memorial Tropical ConservatoryOpen year-round, the pavilion is less steamy than in summer and rather inviting on a winter day. Filled with towering palms, ferns and other tropical plants, it’s an ideal place for strolling or sitting for contemplation or reading (always good to have a book or Kindle with you on such stops). One bench invites visitors to do just that: “Pause and reflect on our green inheritance,” reads the inscription on the back.
You can climb up (or take an elevator) above the foliage and look down – a good way to spot things you’ve missed from below. There’s plenty of informational placards to keep you busy, and sometimes surprised. Did you know vanilla comes from an orchid?
Speaking of orchids, in the adjacent Orangery and Marnie’s Pavilion (connected, so you don’t have to go outside), the annual Orchid Showcase will continue until Feb. 19.
The stunning blooms are arranged in planters along a glassed-in hall, with some dangling from pots above. The hall also features delicate citrus plants, including Buddha’s hand, that need protection from the cold.
And there’s moreThe Offshoots Café is in the main building, where you also can inquire about memberships and special events. Along with a variety of soups, sandwiches and breakfast items, the café has a full-service coffee bar and free Wi-Fi – so here’s another stop where that book or a laptop might come in handy.
A second restaurant out in the gardens is open during the summer.
Don’t miss the Gates Court Gallery (in the same building as the café), where the art exhibits always are interesting. Running until Feb. 11 is “Whimsy: Botanical Art & Illustration,” which is indeed whimsical. Interestingly, it includes a piece by Fort Lewis College art professor Amy K. Wendland that features a castoff from the Fort Lewis A&M College herbarium. The specimen was collected in 1963 according to the original note card that is part of the piece.
Next up in that gallery is “Naturally Artificial: Works by Jason DeMarte,” which runs Feb. 21 to March 20. Information on the exhibit describes it as “digital large-scale photographs juxtapose idyllic natural landscapes with the visual gluttony of consumerism.” Hmmm. Might be worth returning for – along with a chance to browse the gardens as spring begins to arrive.
Sue McMillin, a longtime journalist and former city editor at The Durango Herald, is a freelance writer and editor living in Victor, Colorado.