After a winter that was certainly more housebound than usual for most of us, spring feels especially welcome this year — an ideal time to get reacquainted with the outdoors in all its forms. Often overlooked, arboretums and botanical gardens intentionally connect people with plants and nature — living museums, of sorts, that aim to educate and conserve, and look good doing it. Far more than just parks, these are curated collections of trees and plants from around the world, offering an exotic-feeling trip to somewhere else, all within driving distance.
Plus, they’re not just fun for the whole family but good for everyone, too: Research shows that there are tangible benefits to being in nature — that even five minutes around trees or in green spaces may improve both mental and physical health for people of all ages, including boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, and improving sleep.
Here’s a guide to some gardens, arboretums, and other curated outdoor spaces of note in all six New England states. Bring the family or go alone; take a DIY walk, or sign up for a class. While many are open year-round, some are seasonal, so check websites before planning your trip.
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The deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum (781-259-8355, decordova.org) in Lincoln is a contemporary art museum on the former estate of Lizzie de Cordova and her husband, Julian, who in 1930 gifted the property to the town on the condition that it would become a public art museum after he died. When it opened to the public in 1950, the deCordova was the only area museum to focus on living New England artists and it has maintained a commitment to showcasing local talent. But the real draw is the museum’s 30-acre sculpture park, which typically contains up to 60 large-scale modern and contemporary works of art discoverable over lovely lawns, garden spaces, and woods.
In Boylston, the Tower Hill Botanic Garden (508-869-6111, towerhillbg.org) offers guided tours of its 17 gardens over 171 acres by foot or by golf cart, including the handicap-accessible Garden Within Reach, featuring multi-sensory plantings and a vertical green wall. But the perennial favorite is the garden’s signature field of 25,000 daffodils, which come into bloom in late April. This spring, Tower Hill will debut more colorful planting beds throughout, including an expanded succulent collection, as well as new flowers along their trail system to encourage meandering for hours.
On Martha’s Vineyard, the Polly Hill Arboretum (508-693-9426, pollyhillarboretum.org) in West Tisbury was started from a single seed by the legendary horticulturist Polly Hill, who cultivated 20 acres while preserving 40 additional acres as native woodland. Plants from around the world, like the monkey puzzle tree, set among stone walls, meadows, and fields, keep a primary focus on the floras of Martha’s Vineyard (including Hill’s famous North Tisbury azaleas), the Atlantic coastal plain, and eastern Asia. The arboretum’s plant sale lets guests take home trees, shrubs, and perennials especially picked to suit the island and Northeast climate.
Worth a mention for locals who somehow haven’t yet been, the Arnold Arboretum (arboretum.harvard.edu) in Jamaica Plain is one of the state’s most famous, founded in 1872 on lands deeded to Harvard University specifically for the study of agricultural endeavors. The arboretum is part of the Emerald Necklace park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and renowned for its collection of some 15,000 individual plants.
At Blithewold Mansion (401-253-2707, blithewold.org) in Bristol, the gardens and arboretum were designed by Rhode Island-born landscape architect John DeWolf, whose original notes outlining his vision of rolling lawns with wide borders of trees and flowers and several separate and distinct garden areas, are here on display. The property is especially well known for its exotic trees — many from Europe, China, and Japan — and other hard to find plants. Guests can also tour inside the mansion, furnished just as it was when the 45-room English-style manor house was featured in Country Life magazine in 1910.
In neighboring Portsmouth, visit the Green Animals Topiary Garden (401-683-1267, newportmansions.org/explore), the oldest topiary garden in the United States. Overlooking Narragansett Bay, it’s a family favorite for its 7 acres featuring 80 trees and shrubs shaped like animals, birds, and geometric figures from varieties that include English boxwood, yew, and California privet, as well as for its picturesque, and fully functional, vegetable garden. A white clapboard Victorian house that served as the estate’s original owners’ summer residence is also available to tour.
The mission of Dinosaur State Park’s “Arboretum of Evolution” (860-529-8423, dinosaurstatepark.org) in Rocky Hill is to grow plants and trees from the Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. These include more than 250 varieties of species such as cedar of Lebanon (part of the park’s extensive cedar collection), Persian ironwood, and Oriental sweet gum. Rare and unusual specimens in the East Asian Garden include yellow-groove bamboo and a weeping katsura.
In Stamford, the Bartlett Arboretum & Gardens (203-322-6971, bartlettarboretum.org), open year round, puts an emphasis on education with hyper-specialized tours — of pollinator plants and trees, for example, or one aimed at teaching guests about the effects of weather and erosion — as well as classes that include plant identification, professional landscaping, and master gardening. But just as fun is an afternoon spent wandering its 12 gardens, parkland, and hiking trails across 93 acres. In 2020, the arboretum added a Sensory Garden devoted to plants that emphasize the five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste, the last of which includes a bed of sugar snap peas and cherry tomatoes for sampling.
The Path of Life Sculpture Garden (802-674-9933, pathoflifegarden.com) in Windsor was envisioned as a walking tour taking guests through the circle of life — from birth to death and beyond — as represented by 18 sculptures nestled among features like a hemlock maze and stone labyrinth. A 5-mile trail network (groomed in the winter for dogsledding and snowshoeing) presents an opportunity for quiet reflection and contemplation in spring and summer when wildflowers abound. The garden sits adjacent to the Connecticut River, and visitors can opt to book a river tour by kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard followed by a self-guided walk through the gardens.
In Shelburne, the Shelburne Museum’s 20 lavish gardens feature lilacs, peonies (more than 700 in 25 varieties), daylilies, and an heirloom vegetable garden, as well as flowering fruit trees, all of which sprout among decorative garden ornamentation (802-985-3346, shelburnemuseum.org). The grounds include many themed gardens, such as the Apothecary Garden, which features plants and flowers for health and well-being, and the Hat and Fragrance Garden, which contains plants and herbs traditionally used for fragrances and dyes. The 39 architecturally historic structures that make up the museum, meanwhile, include barns, a lighthouse, a jail, a general store, and a steamboat.
The quirky Vermont Experimental Cold-Hardy Cactus Garden (802-388-3268) in Middlebury, a tiny amateur garden for cactus and succulents, makes for a fun pit stop. It includes an experimental attempt to test the hardiness of the giant sequoia, native to central California.
The seaside nonprofit Fuller Gardens (603-964-5414, fullergardens.org) in North Hampton take pride in being one of the last working formal estate gardens of the early 20th century, with formal rose gardens designed in the Colonial Revival style and commissioned during the late 1920s by Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller, who summered here. Some 125 varieties of roses bloom starting in late June. Catch color at the Japanese garden and dahlia display.
The Bedrock Gardens (603-659-2993, bedrockgardens.org) in Lee may be best known for its annual Fairy & Hobbit House Festival, which features children’s story time and a beekeeper show-and-tell (along with honey to take home). It also contains a three-quarter acre grass “painting” made up of green, red, and blue grasses; a wildlife pond; and sculptures made from salvaged farm equipment, kitchen tools, and car parts.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Fells (603-763-4789, thefells.org) in Newbury was the early 20th-century summer estate of diplomat John Milton Hay, who served as a private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and as secretary of state under Presidents William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. Forests and woodland trails surround the 22-room Colonial Revival house, set along Lake Sunapee in the shadow of the White Mountains, and are conserved and maintained under a preservation easement with the state of New Hampshire. Gardens include a heather bed that contains 20 varieties of heather, a rock garden where lichen-speckled rocks are shrouded by azaleas and Japanese iris, and the Perennial Border, a bed of early-to-late summer flowers like iris, delphinium, hollyhocks, and phlox set alongside a 100-foot-long stone wall built in 1926.
Augusta’s Viles Arboretum (207-626-7989, vilesarboretum.org) offers free visitor access to 6 miles of trails through 150 acres of fields and 74 acres of forest featuring more than 5,000 varieties of trees and shrubs — most of which are handily tagged and labeled. Highlights include extensive lilac, chestnut, and conifer collections as well as a collection of heritage apple trees. There’s also top-notch birding, and the arboretum counts the elusive warbler as among its many feathered residents.
In Boothbay, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens (207-633-8000, mainegardens.org) features close to 300 acres of plants native to Maine or other Northern coastal climates. The herbarium includes dried, pressed plant specimens from as far back as the 1840s and serves as a sort of living lab for students in the CMBG’s native plants and ecological horticulture and botanical arts continuing education programs. The gardens host art and sculpture exhibits throughout the season, as well as a program in horticultural therapy, a multisensory healing experience held in the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses, meant to let guests experience firsthand how plants and garden activities can improves their lives.
* Official COVID-19 guidance changes frequently. Check state and local regulations before traveling.
Alyssa Giacobbe is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.