A Spring Visit to Denver Botanic Gardens
By John Andreula
Spring is in the air.
Sure, the recent cyclone bomb caused my brand new storm door to no longer align and shut. Now when it rains I am also treated to a loud dripping inside of my furnace’s exhaust pipe. However, for the most part, the cold is finished. Hallelujah!
Children can already be seen running around in shorts and t-shirts in the middle of the day.
Who am I kidding? They’ve been doing that all winter. I’m just no longer looking at them like there is something wrong with their brain or their parents.
What better time than when the seasons are changing to discover something new in our beautiful state of Colorado?
As it would turn out, this is exactly what I did with my family this past Sunday. We headed into Denver for our first visit to Denver Botanic Gardens. It was a fabulous experience.
I exited my Sunday morning martial arts class and picked up my phone for the compulsory call home. I was going inform my family that I was en route. Upon waking my cellular’s screen a text message was awaiting me.
A friend had sent an invitation for my daughter to accompany his family to Denver Botanic Gardens. They would be leaving Boulder shortly to head down to the park. I phoned my wife to inform her of the invitation.
My wife and I discussed the possibility of sending our young daughter down with our friends. We quickly decided we were not quite ready to send our little girl to a public park in the busy city of Denver.
We came to the conclusion that we would do what all needy helicopter parents naturally do when faced with a similar situation. We would ask if we could tag along.
My wife and I had never been to Denver Botanic Gardens before. Countless times previously, we had discussed venturing there, but had never made the journey.
Although my wife is patient and understanding with my busy, and somewhat self-absorbed schedule, she was already past the point where she may just go without me.
The place had always sounded like a fun experience. I had to take some action soon anyway or I would miss out.
So I imposed us on our friend’s invitation. I sent a message back seeing if we would be welcome to join them. I knew full well that if I was faced with a similar request I wouldn’t refuse.
As luck would have it, our friend was happy with the prospect of some adult company on his field trip. He was not going to be accompanied by his wife. She was predisposed for the day.
We left just under ninety minutes later. We were running about twenty minutes later than we had anticipated. Corralling a seven year old girl is much like convincing a cat to go for a walk on a leash. Occasionally, it goes smoothly. Sometimes they just lie down on the ground and resist.
We drove the family Subaru sedan into the heart of downtown Denver via US 36 and Interstates 25 and 70. There was heavy traffic for a Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t help but comment on how many cars were on the road.
I am abundantly aware that it was an infinitely better flow of traffic than we would have encountered during any weekday’s rush hour. Still, I felt it necessary to comment so much that I repeated it for added effect.
We passed City Park as we moseyed down York Street, the road that our destination was situated on. We came upon a couple large, modern apartment buildings and my wife’s Google Maps app informed us that we had arrived at our destination.
I had seen the entrance to Denver Botanic Gardens on previous visits to the Denver Zoo and the Museum of Nature & Science. On those hot summertime visits I remember having to park the car far from the respective entrances and having to hoof it.
I could easily recall how close the three destinations were to one another, so Google’s assessment of our current situation didn’t make any sense. The foliage surrounding the streets and the apartment buildings made me realize we were probably close, but this was surely not where we needed to be to gain entry to the park.
My wife fumbled with her cell phone app a bit more before eventually directing me out toward Cheeseman Park. We passed a building on the left that was labeled as one of the Gardens’, but there seemed to be nowhere in sight to park. Plus, the busy road’s orientation had us moving in the opposite direction.
I made a couple of lefts and headed in the direction of the building we had just passed. As we circled it on our left we came upon a parking deck that happened to be exactly where we needed to end up to meet our friends.
Perhaps it was due to it being before the official start of the spring, or maybe it was just pure luck, but we were able to park within twenty spaces of the entry to the Mordecai Children’s Garden.
After parking the sedan we decided which of our many accouterments that were necessary for walking around. Then we sauntered toward the entry. My eyes were immediately drawn to the skyline. A tall red crane sat against the backdrop of the crystal blue sky with a sprinkling of small puffy clouds. I ambled to the edge of the cement parking structure to snap a couple of photos for posterity.
Once close to the wall I could see the Botanic Gardens’ Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory just across the street from where I stood. This was a massive, almost Gothic, greenhouse. It had huge pointed windows and colorful plant-life held within. It was quite impressive to behold.
We entered the doors of the Mordecai Children’s Garden building to our right at the top of the deck. Once inside, I purchased our requisite entry tickets. I was happy to support what I would later recognize was a phenomenal business.
While waiting for our host family to double back to the entrance, my daughter and I read a large colorful display board that listed the rules of the Gardens. My seven year old impressively read each rule off the board. She and I exchanged “That one is talking to you.” with each rule she read. We got to the last line just as we were greeted by familiar faces.
Our friends led us into the Children’s Garden beyond a couple more doors. This outdoor exhibit was designed for the younger folks to have interactive experiences with plants as well as educating them as to how they fit into the natural world.
There were beautiful walking paths, a suspension bridge, a sandbox, various sized play birds nests, and more. It was too early for it in the year when we arrived, but there was also a stream that would be turned on in the upcoming hotter months.
The kids played around in the Children’s Garden before deciding it was time to move into the main section of the Gardens across the street. We retraced our steps, headed down the stairs of the parking deck and crossed the street to where we entered the actual Botanic Gardens.
The day became a blur from then on. My daughter, my wife, and I were joined by my friend, his son (also a classmate and friend of my daughter’s), his middle school-aged sister, and her friend.
Needless to say that keep the modest attention span of one seven year old can be difficult and taxing to keep pace with. That’s nothing compared to two seven year olds and a couple eleven year olds.
Their pace and energy was unbelievable. I cannot say for certain if any of the four youths paused for more than a half a second; except for the six seconds they stopped to look into the two Poison Dart Frog tanks. They broke pace long enough to find the little amphibians hiding amongst the foliage of their surroundings.
Despite the depressing nature of wild fauna being held in captivity, the colorful and shiny PDFs (as I heard our group’s older sister refer to them) were beautiful indeed.
It was overwhelming and stressful to behold the kids as they discussed where to go next, especially as it was immediately as they arrived to the place where they had just discussed venturing to. If I hadn’t allowed myself to relax and just go with the flow I may have had quite a negative and disappointing experience.
Luckily, the Denver Botanic Gardens is deceptively grand in scale. We were just exiting the icy and frosty winter season, so seeing so much during this moderately temperate day was a pleasant precursor to what I hope will become multiple return visits throughout the upcoming year.
The Boettcher Conservatory was even bigger on the inside then it appeared from the parking deck. Gingers, and orchids, and fruiting palms were interspersed with larger canopy trees. The temperature, humidity, and overall ambiance of the building had me thinking that I could sit and enjoy the scenery for hours. Obviously this wouldn’t be the case this day, but I could clearly imagine doing so.
We climbed some stairs in the center of the indoor arboretum and reached an overhead observation platform. This gave us a 360 degree view of the whole building. It was spectacular.
We commenced through more of the indoor exhibits. We saw flowering orange and clementine trees as well as pea vines and chard and an array of many other edible plants in the orangery. This lengthy room that housed these had the bottoms of the rolling doors open about a foot. The mixture of the humidity and the air made the conditions feel like literal perfection. I stated how I didn’t think there was anywhere better on earth at this particular moment.
A snack break in addition to the kids playing allowed brief respites for the adults to take in some of the amazing sights and flowers around us. There was a colorful, abstract sculpture on the ceiling. There was a bird nest fern that you could plainly see a large area underneath its fronds where a family of large birds might live and nest. I found a snapdragon that looked as if it had eyes.
There was a moment that I leaned over to my wife and exclaimed that we must return sans-kids to really take in the Gardens. She concurred and suggested that we consider purchasing a membership. I didn’t disagree.
We left the orangery and headed outside. The temperature was mild. There were only moments of cool wind. It was easy to tell that we had one foot ahead in Spring and one reluctantly stuck in the winter behind us.
Next we toured the grounds. In the sculpture garden the kids started getting a bit unruly. I suggested that they have a contest to see who could find the most interesting item in the park. They practically booed me.
There was a large waterway that runs through much of the outside parts of the Gardens, but like the stream in the Children’s Garden this one was shut down as well. There were some pools still covered with thin sheets of ice, but much of the ice had already melted in pathways that ducks navigated to find spots to float and bask in the sun.
We saw an empty Bonsai garden and an empty edible plants exhibit. All waiting for their turns to be planted or brought out for the year.
Our group made its way toward the Science Pyramid, a building with eerie similarity to the Legion of Doom’s hideout on the 1970s’ Super Friends cartoon.
We entered the Science Pyramid and I immediately realized that the inside of the building was just as out of place in the Gardens as its strange exterior architecture. The Science Pyramid housed the park’s technology exhibits. There were kinetic, as well as multimedia displays that the kids enjoyed.
I thought much of the technology exhibited was unnecessary, but I did enjoy the thermal landscape exhibit as well as the giant three dimensional globe. Park-goers could control the huge interactive globe viewers via a touchscreen setup in front. The children took turns controlling the rotation and tilt of the globe, as well as a variety of simulated affects, such as rising water levels, volcanic activity, and smog.
The Pyramid provided a nice indoor parlay before we resumed our outdoor exploration with a stroll through the more of the park. The children chased a squirrel through the amphitheater, so the adults and the middle school friend took another few minutes to relax and reflect on the day.
Much like Colorado’s vast outdoors, the Botanic Gardens displayed a wonderful multitude of shades of browns and greens. The exhibits, particularly those outside, were just a preamble to what visitors can expect in the upcoming months. Blooms, blossoms, and sprouts, encompassing the entire spectrum, await the remainder of the year.
My friend voiced his confusion as to why some people who visit Colorado just see brown and green. They fail to appreciate the subtlety or the nuances to it.
I thought for a moment and responded that there those people who are able to stop and enjoy the world around them. Those people move to Colorado, or at least talk about it.
Then there are those who arrive and say, “That’s nice. What’s next?” Those people will never get it. Ironically, it felt as if the children with us today may fall into the latter. I’ll just chalk their behavior up to young excitement and hyperactive imaginations for the time being.
Our restful interlude was interrupted by one of the kids coming up to us crying, clutching a bloody nose. Somehow they had gotten kneed in the face just out of our view. It became evident that certain members of our party were losing steam.
We considered taking a break and grabbing some food at the car to replenish our energy before coming back for another round of exploration. My wife and I decided to call it a day once we considered how close it was to dinner time and our young daughter’s impending bedtime.
Despite the belligerent youthful intensity that marked the tone of the day, we were able to see a lot of Denver Botanic Gardens. We certainly did not see everything.
Of the many highlights of the fast-paced day, I enjoyed the time-lapse video of Stinky the Corpse Flower. The corpse flower is one the rarest and largest flowers on the planet.
Corpse flowers get their name from the odor they emit as their petals open. The odor resembles putrefying meat. The smell attracts flies and beetles that pollinate the plant. Stinky is Denver Botanic Gardens’ corpse flower that bloomed in 2015 and again in 2017.
The video was amazing. I couldn’t help but consider that the strangest part of the image was not imagining the smell or watching the many people who had flocked to a plant that smelled like rotting meat, but the appearance of the flower itself. The spadix, or flower spike, resembled a woman’s legs sticking straight up out of the ground. It literally looked like a corpse.
Ironically, we missed the live corpse flower plant inside the Tropical Conservatory, either that or we didn’t realize we were looking at it due to the speed we had moved through the building. It’s another example of what I have to look forward to in a future trek down.
Continuing with the theme of morbid curiosities was another of my favorite exhibits of the day. It was the carnivorous plants. An extensive variety of Venus fly traps, pitcher plants, and sundews adorned a couple of glass cases in the entry of the Orangery. They were as magnificent as they were mysterious. They reminded me of the killer plants I’ve seen in horror movies and comic books throughout the years.
I explained to the children, in my very uniquely unscientific way, the various methods each plant employed to capture its prey. They either enjoyed my teachings and assumptions, or they did a fantastic job of humoring me in my musings.
As I stated earlier, a trip to the Denver Botanic Gardens was long overdue. I look forward to returning to see the many flowers and fruit progressing through their life-cycles. I portend to find the corpse flower plants on my next visit. Additionally I will check out the bonsais and the many other exhibits that were packed away awaiting warmer conditions.
I may even bring the whole family back next winter for the Denver Botanic Gardens‘ Blossom of Lights exhibition. For several weeks before Christmas, the Garden are adorned with decorative lighting to give the park one last burst of color and energy before the year’s end.
Denver Botanic Gardens provided a fantastic experience for my family and me, even considering that we had arrived before everything was really popping off, up, and out. I was delighted to share the day with good company and I anticipate being able to have similar experiences at the Botanic Gardens many times in the future. We were blessed with nice, albeit a bit windy weather. It was nice to finally be able to get outdoors for the day.
A special thank you to Erin Bird and the rest of the staff at Denver Botanic Gardens for allowing me to use the photos I took in this article. Thank you as well to Kodid for allowing me to use her pictures as well. She’s much better at capturing beauty through a lens than I can ever hope to.
Visit https://www.botanicgardens.org/ for details about the Gardens’ schedule and their amazing special events and exhibits.
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