By Melanie Radzicki McManus | Photography by Shanna Wolf
The crowds thin as summer departs in a final puff of heat, and autumn begins muscling her way in with a frosty kiss. But don’t think the impending cooler season means there’s nothing much to see at Olbrich Botanical Gardens. In many ways, fall is the perfect time to stop in for a visit.
Olbrich Gardens, tucked on Madison’s east side across from Lake Monona, contains 16 acres of outdoor display gardens. The free facility also features the indoor, tropical Bolz Conservatory. The bulk of the gardens’ annual visitors—some 300,000—pop in from April through September, when the gardens are a riot of color. While its autumnal palette is a bit more subdued, the gardens are equally stunning in the fall.
“Fall is definitely one of the most overlooked times,” says Katy Plantenberg, Olbrich’s public relations and marketing manager. “But it’s actually one of the best times for a visit.”
In addition to providing comfy temps for strolling around the gardens, autumn’s pleasing color palette, evident in the surrounding landscape as well as the gardens themselves, creates a stunning backdrop of gold, pumpkin and ruby. And while the gardens aren’t as verdant as they are in spring and summer, the lack of dense foliage means it’s easy for visitors to appreciate all of the tiny details that can easily be overlooked during the growing season. Like the intriguing peeling bark on the seven son flower, a large shrub akin to a tree. The shrub’s bark has an ash-color base with a caramel-toned topcoat that appears to be either painted on or peeling off in strips—something you probably won’t notice when the shrub is fully leafed out. But as fall nudges its leaves to the ground, the bark becomes strikingly apparent.
Although Olbrich Gardens is on the small side—the Green Bay Botanical Gardens is spread across 47 acres, for example, while the Milwaukee area’s Boerner Botanical Gardens has 40—it seems quite spacious, with winding paths that lead past 14 outdoor gardens, including a rose garden, perennial garden, herb garden, wildflower garden, hosta garden and sedge meadow. The two-acre perennial garden, which includes a 200-foot stream, three pools and a bog, is especially arresting in the fall, says Erin Presley, one of Olbrich’s horticulturists.
“A lot of the plantings there have been specifically chosen for their fall color or interesting berries or bark,” she says. “There’s an incredible diversity in the perennial garden, with things blooming up until it frosts, and some even a little bit after.”
Like the prairie dropseed, a showy, tufted ornamental grass whose wiry seed heads burst into a golden-toast color come fall. The plant also emits a pleasing, buttered-popcorn scent. Nearby, the white fall-flowering anemones provide snowy pops of brilliance against their deep-green leaves.
Another place where vivid colors await is the wildflower garden, says Presley. The common witch hazel found there, a native shrub, dons a yellow-orange coat come fall, honey-scented golden flowers fringing its leaves. The native eastern redbud tree also swaps out its greenery for yellow tones, only the redbud’s coloring is more intense, with leaves that glow like a spotlight.
A crowd favorite no matter the season is Olbrich’s Thai Pavilion, a gift to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the Thai government and the Thai chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. The pavilion, one of just four outside of Thailand, was created without nails or screws, and is intricately decorated with gold leaf etchings and a lacquered finish. Surrounding the pavilion is a garden filled with specially-chosen plants that emulate the lush, tropical environment found in Thailand: ornamental grasses, hardy bamboos, large-leafed shrubs and large Chinese junipers artfully trimmed a la “mai dat,” a clipped-tree art featured in Thai gardens since the 13th century.
As you’re walking through the gardens, don’t overlook Olbrich’s numerous planters, as their contents change with the seasons. In the fall, the yawning containers may be filled with plants such as violet asters, golden mums, deep-purple kale and a plump pumpkin or two.
When the weather gets a bit too chilly for meandering outside, you may wish to move indoors to the balmy Bolz Conservatory. The conservatory, fashioned into an eye-catching glass pyramid, features a 20-foot-high waterfall and a cozy year-round temperature of 65 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. More than 200 fogging nozzles ensure the interior stays delightfully humid. A stroll through the conservatory affords the chance to view more than 640 plants found in tropical and sub-tropical locales around the globe: orchids, vanilla, bananas and fishtail palms, to name a few. There are even some endangered carnivorous plants, such as the pitcher plant.
Just as appealing to many is the wildlife you might see in the conservatory. Sweet-voiced canaries, orange-cheeked waxbills, diamond doves and two types of quail fly freely inside, while toads, frogs and geckos hop and dart about wherever they wish. In the pyramid’s pond and stream, goldfish and koi are easily spotted swimming around.
Over in the Schumacher Library, a horticulture librarian or volunteer, likely a master gardener, will answer your gardening questions or help you research everything from landscape design to herb gardening. You can even receive assistance in finding a mail-order company that carries a particular plant you’d like to purchase.
Education is important at Olbrich, notes horticulturalist Presley. The library is a wonderful resource, but the gardens themselves are also a showcase in landscape innovation. “One thing people don’t realize, perhaps because we’re smaller, is that there are some really cutting-edge things going on here,” she says, citing Olbrich’s newer gravel gardens as one example.
With help from Roy Diblik, recognized for his expertise in Midwest native perennials and sustainable plant communities, the entire front of Olbrich’s visitor center now sports these gardens, also found elsewhere on-site. As their name implies, gravel gardens feature gravel, which is used as mulch. That might not sound pretty, but the gardens are lovely. Filled with native, prairie-type plants that are drought-resistant, the gardens’ plantings—once mature–create an explosion of different colors and textures that almost completely cover the gravel.
This autumn, when you’re ready to jump in your car for a fall foliage tour, remember it’ll be pretty hard to top the one waiting for you at Olbrich Gardens.
This garden was featured in the Madison: Autumn 2016 issue.
For more garden photos, visit the Gardens gallery page.
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