Cool down this summer in these magical gardens
It’s summer, and prime time for a trip to the beach or the mountains. But it’s also the perfect season for a visit to the public gardens that brighten the landscape around Greater Boston.
Consider, for example, the Wildlings Garden at the South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell, a woodland, wildflower garden.
Head north to Long Hill, a 114-acre historic estate in Beverly owned by the nonprofit Trustees, that features “garden rooms,” a series of small gardens arranged on terraces.
Or visit The Gardens at Elm Bank, 36 acres of gardens in Wellesley owned and operated by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.
At the Wildlings garden on a sunny afternoon in late May, bees hummed, birds called, and the air was heady with the fragrance of Canada-mayflower when Chris Jacobs, the executive director of the science center, showed us around.
On the edge of the garden, two American beech trees formed a canopy, extending their leafy branches in welcome. Nearby, tiny white flowers hung bell-like from high bush blueberry plants, while the inconspicuous low bush varieties invited closer inspection.
Wildlings is a woodland wildflower garden dedicated to its creator, Winnie Lou Rounds, 96, a local volunteer who planted the beds 45 years ago.
There isn’t a growing season for native plants, although ephemerals bloom and die in a few days and others flower even when there’s snow on the ground.
But there’s always something new: By the time you start to miss one gem, another has caught your eye.
We noticed that the vibrant purple-blue Virginia bluebells, an Appalachian woodlander, were starting to fade. But we rallied when we saw the mayapples, their flowers hidden under umbrella-like greenery, the native bleeding-hearts, and other telltale greens announcing that in less than a month the lady-slippers and other forest jewels would take their places on the woodland carpet.
“It’s a specialized kind of garden, so subtle,” Rounds said during a phone conversation a day or two later. “You have to have someone to care about it.”
At Long Hill in Beverly, senior horticulturist Dan Bouchard greeted us outside the Federal-style mansion built more than a century ago.
“You can take a nice stroll through the gardens in one or two hours,” said our host. “Walk slowly. Sit for a minute. There’s so much to see.”
These are gardens where nature doesn’t hold back, where exotic plants coexist with native species, and showy and discreet species gathered from the nearby woods and imported from all over the world grow in easy proximity.
Outside the house, at the entrance where the tour begins, two mammoth copper beeches, grafted together, cast their shade. To the west is the North Lotus Pool, one of three water gardens. Beyond is the croquet lawn. Walking south, from inside the next garden room, we could see in the distance the pastel blush of a living carpet: clouds of blue forget-me-nots, pink azaleas, wisteria, and clematis, just coming up.
Bouchard says the gardens are in bloom 12 months a year, even in January and February when a Chinese hybrid of witch hazel, a native of Siberia called February daphne, and little white bells called snowdrops push through the frozen earth.
But on this spring day, the sweet fragrance of Scotch rose, white with a yellow center, hung in the air. Purple globes of ornamental alliums strutted their stuff. And colorful Japanese tree peonies, the size of dinner plates, dangled from branches.
We left the garden rooms and wandered along a woodland path that borders the nearby forest. We stopped by the Sargents’ weeping hemlock, a tree whose massive trunk and twisted branches hold a canopy of green stretching 30 feet from end to end.
We strolled east, past the Garage Garden and a woodland pool, toward Horseshoe Garden. Among the plants we checked off our list were doll’s-eyes, a white plant with a black Cyclops eye; Solomon’s-seal, broad-leafed with white bells; and handkerchief trees where white, cloth-like flaps dangle like flags.
At the Horseshoe Garden, there was a burst of color: azaleas in coral pink, salmon pink, pale pink, and white; English bluebells blooming in blue, white and pink.
“It’s a magical garden, really,” said Bouchard, who after our tour headed to the Long Hill nurseries to water the plants.
West of Boston, The Gardens at Elm Bank, owned and operated by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, sit on 36 acres that contain a dozen gardens, including the Trial Garden, one of 50 nationwide used to test varieties before they are brought to market.
There is also the Bressingham Garden, a collection of informal landscapes designed by English gardener Adrian Bloom, curated with perennials, shrubs, and trees; Weezie’s Children’s Garden, a pollinator garden that includes a row of birdhouses called Birdhouse Alley; and a formal Italianate garden designed by the Olmsted Brothers.
And there’s the Seed to Table Garden, which produces more than 4,000 pounds of food delivered to two local food pantries, one in Natick, the other in Wellesley.
On another May morning, Katherine Macdonald, president and executive director of MassHort, led us on a tour from the visitors center, beginning at the Trial Garden.
More than 180 species of flowers are planted here, and every week the show — color, shape, texture, and fragrance — gets better, Macdonald says.
Visitors can go inside the small greenhouse, where a display in late spring featured oriental lilies. And if they come back in late in the summer, they’ll be treated to an array of succulents.
For some visitors, it will be enough to see and smell, said Macdonald. But many will use the visit to further home gardening projects, knowing that whatever they’re looking for, the Trial Garden will probably have it.
South Shore Natural Science Center
48 Jacobs Lane, Norwell
Open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.to 4 p.m. Closed some holidays.
Members free, non-members $5, under age 2 free.
572 Essex St., Beverly
Open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Gardens at Elm Bank
900 Washington St. (Route 16), Wellesley
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (May 1 through Columbus Day)
Members free, general admission $10, children 12 and under free.