Spring is the loveliest time of year to visit a public garden. Cherry trees bloom, lilacs perfume the breeze and tulips color the landscape.
But many botanical gardens offer additional reasons to visit — art shows and exhibits you might normally expect to find in a gallery or natural history museum. Some events are held in winter, when there are no showy flowers to lure crowds. But many gardens host museum-quality shows in spring and summer — seasons when the grounds are at their most spectacular.
"These are also the months during the year when our visitors have the most time in their lives to make a leisurely visit, and it's when being outdoors is most enjoyable," said Atlanta Botanical Garden exhibitions manager Cathleen Cooke. "And, of course, what better setting could there be for sculpture than fresh air, blue skies, and a lush landscape?"
"Sometimes plants aren't enough," said John Sallot, spokesman for the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. "We have to give reasons for people to continue to come back year after year. We do want new people who've never been here before, and hopefully this gives us an opportunity to engage them."
Here is a look at a few gardens around the country and some of their art and natural history exhibits and events. Note that days and hours gardens are open often change as the weather gets warmer, so call ahead to check.
Atlanta Botanical Garden; 404-876-5859. "Sculpture in Motion" will showcase more than two dozen outdoor kinetic sculptures by 16 artists, May 3-Oct. 31. The works' moving parts are affected by natural forces found in the garden — wind, sun, water, sound and even human energy.
Cleveland Botanical Garden; 216-721-1600. "The Japanese Garden: Photographs by Haruzo Ohashi" is part of the garden's focus on "Zensai: The Horticulture of Japan," April 5-June 29. The 100 images in the show include pictures of historically significant gardens in Japan and different garden styles.
Desert Botanical Garden: Phoenix; 480-941-1225. Two years ago, the Desert Botanical Garden had an exhibit of botanical glass; last year it was Picasso ceramics. Right now, until May, the garden is hosting outdoor exhibits that are "very organic and tie in with nature," said Sallot. Patrick Dogherty's "Childhood Dreams" is a sculpture made from willow saplings, while Mayme Kratz's "The Breathing Room" is a living art installation of desert plants and flowers.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden: Coral Gables, Fla.; 305-667-1651. Through May 31, the garden hosts a show of works by sculptor Fernando Botero, pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and Dale Chihuly, known for his colorful glass art.
Frederik Meijir Gardens & Sculpture Park: Grand Rapids, Mich.; 888-957-1580. This garden has a permanent collection of indoor and outdoor art, including a 35-acre sculpture park. But it also hosts three major art exhibits each year. "Art of Africa" is on display indoors through May 4, "Degas in Bronze" opens May 30 in an indoor gallery, and "George Rickey Kinetic Sculptures" are on display through July both inside and outside.
Missouri Botanical Garden: St. Louis, Mo.; 800-642-8842. "Niki" is a pop-art-style show of 40 colorful mosaic sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle, from a six-ton head to a friendly alligator to a whimsical golfer, on display April 27-Oct. 31.
North Carolina Arboretum: Asheville, N.C.; 828-665-2492. Through May 11, "Dr. Entomo's Palace of Exotic Wonders" features live and mounted insects, from scorpions to tarantulas.
Portland Classical Chinese Garden: Portland, Ore.; 503-228-8131. An exhibit called "Hatching the Past," through June 1, looks at feathered dinosaurs and eggs while examining theories that dinosaurs and birds are related. Garden spokeswoman Joan Kvitka said the focus on dinosaurs is in keeping with "this wonderful sense of a timeless dimension to the garden" and coordinates with other dinosaur-themed shows in Portland - at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the Portland Children's Museum and the World Forestry Center Discovery Museum.