Alabama’s Botanical Gardens: Sanctuaries for Healthy Living
By Sarah J. Schmidt
Nothing heralds spring in the South like the burst of blooms that turn bleak winter landscapes into verdant paradise. Alabama’s seven public gardens, reaching from the Huntsville Botanical Garden in the north to Bellingrath Gardens in the south, are perfect places to marvel at seasonal colors. Now, science proves that these gardens do more for our well-being than just provide pretty landscapes.
A host of studies over the past decade have shown that spending time in green spaces produces consistent health benefits, including lower blood pressure and lower levels of cortisol (a hormone that suppresses the immune system). A 2014 Canadian study even found a decrease in the number of premature births among women who lived closer to green spaces. Scientists think the health benefits come from reduced stress and increased physical activity, along with exposure to sunlight (Vitamin D) and “good” bacteria that people generally experience in green spaces.
Aside from the physiological evidence, even more studies point to positive psychological benefits. A 2015 study published by the National Academy of Sciences found striking evidence of improved cognitive function in children who spent time in green spaces. Another intriguing study conducted in 2014 by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Virginia focused on 4,338 adult twins. Treating the twins as individuals and not as twin pairs, the study chronicled significantly lower rates of depression among those who were exposed to green spaces.
This means that a visit to one of Alabama’s botanical gardens is more than just a fun outing; it’s actually good for you too! Here’s where you can enjoy all the health benefits of Alabama’s botanical gardens this summer:
Huntsville Botanical Garden – Comprised of 112 acres, the grounds are landscaped with easy walking paths through an aquatic garden, fern glade, herb garden and more. The garden is also home to the nation’s largest seasonal butterfly house (disclaimer: my daughter, a former volunteer in the butterfly house, had a great time tending the turtles there last summer). A new visitor center, scheduled for completion in early 2017, will house a gift shop, café and additional amenities.
Birmingham Botanical Gardens – As Alabama’s largest living museum, the site is divided into 25 specialty gardens dotted with impressive outdoor sculptures, including the Japanese Gardens, a wildflower garden and a formal rose garden—all open free to the public. Walking paths (some level, some a little steep) traverse the grounds and connect the gardens to the Birmingham Zoo. The gardens’ enclosed conservatory is a great place to visit even on rainy days because it’s filled with leafy tropicals and blooming exotics.
Aldridge Gardens – This well-kept secret in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, is free to the public through a gift by its former owners, horticulturists Kay and Eddie Aldridge. Eddie patented the popular Snowflake Hydrangea, which he discovered and propagated. Walking trails take visitors around the centerpiece lake and along Kay’s woodland stream where—as one might expect—hydrangeas steal the show.
Jasmine Hill Gardens – This Greek-themed garden, once the home of mercantile magnet Ben Fitzpatrick and wife Mary, is located just a few miles northeast of Montgomery. The Fitzpatricks collected classical Greek statutes and art, which punctuate their ever-blooming gardens. Most impressive is the Temple of Hera, an exact copy of the original in Olympia, Greece, even down to the additional columns that archaeologists found in the 1980’s, which were then copied and added to the replica at Jasmine Hill.
Dothan Area Botanical Gardens – This gem attracts lots of visitors on their way to the Gulf Coast seeking a refreshing break from a long drive. With level walking paths through 16 different gardens (including a major re-vamp of the demonstration garden this spring) and a lovely antique greenhouse, the gardens offer a calm oasis. A unique feature at the gardens, the Lock Gate, recreates an ancient Chinese custom where lovers place ornately decorated locks to symbolize how their love is “locked” forever.
Mobile Botanical Gardens – Here, visitors can stroll 100 acres of tranquil beauty. Miles of paved walking paths meander through azaleas, rhododendron, fragrance and texture gardens and endless foliage. Additional earthen paths allow access for walks through deep woods and wetland habitats. The gardens are full of visual and sensual cues, such as the Japanese bridge and koi pond, which contribute to a memorable and relaxing experience.
Bellingrath Gardens & Home – As the former estate of Walter and Bessie Bellingrath, this site has been one of Alabama’s showcase attractions for 84 years. The azalea trail is world famous, attracting thousands of visitors each spring, but Bellingrath’s signature is the cascading mum, which has rightfully distinguished Bellingrath with the largest outdoor display of chrysanthemums in the nation. Best time to see the mums is November.