Red Butte Garden

By: Panayoti Kelaidis

Panayoti Kelaidis is a plant explorer, garden writer, and public garden administrator who is currently director of outreach at Denver…

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The Fragrance Garden tucks up against the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. Photographs by Eric Schramm

The Fragrance Garden tucks up against the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. Photographs by Eric Schramm

The last few decades have seen the creation of an astonishing number of new public gardens, particularly in the Midwest and interior Western parts of the United States. The latter mirrors the explosive population growth throughout the Sunbelt. Those who move westward, to regions subject to extreme temperature swings and drought, understandably seek out public gardens for guidance on what to plant successfully in their own home landscapes. I like to think that public gardens reflect the community’s commitment to sound environmental practices and stewardship of nature.

Many public gardens are planned within, or quickly surrounded by rampantly growing cities. Most are situated on flat, rectilinear spaces. Denver Botanic Gardens, a short walk from the towers of downtown Denver, is typical of such an intimate urban garden. Many—especially arboreta—are sited farther afield in suburbia or at the edges of campuses or cities. Some are truly rural; Filoli, near Woodside, California, is a superb example of this sort of country estate garden. Although I have visited dozens, perhaps hundreds of public gardens in my day, none has struck me as having as spectacular a setting as Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Conceived just a few decades ago, this remarkable garden has expanded rapidly in staffing, gardens, and programs. It seems to have combined the best of both worlds. Perched at the edge of the University of Utah campus, it encompasses acres of pristine wild land, from sagebrush steppe filled with Mariposa lilies and the occasional cactus, to lush montane woodland with mesic wildflowers including a few rare yellow ladyslipper orchids. All this in addition to created gardens. Garden designers urge us to borrow or “steal” vistas. Based on that metaphor, Red Butte Garden can be accused of grand larceny! High peaks of the Wasatch front are visible from almost any vantage point within the garden. As your gaze sweeps to the west, the entire Salt Lake valley lies below you; the city, the Great Salt Lake, and the Oquirrh Mountains constitute a tantalizing lavender silhouette in the far distance. Although located on the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range, Red Butte is a short walk to the campus of the University of Utah, and just a few minutes drive from much of the Salt Lake City metropolis.

Soft yellow flowers of rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) and red autumn foliage of Rocky Mountain sumac (Rhus glabra var. cismontana) highlight the foreground of the Waterwise Entrance Garden; the mighty Wasatch Mountains dominate in the distance

Soft yellow flowers of rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) and red autumn foliage of Rocky Mountain sumac (Rhus glabra var. cismontana) highlight the foreground of the Waterwise Entrance Garden; the mighty Wasatch Mountains dominate in the distance

A Pacific Horticulture Connection

There is a special link connecting Red Butte Garden, Denver Botanic Gardens, and Pacific Horticulture magazine that merits celebration this year. Richard Hildreth, a former superintendent of the UC Davis Arboretum in California, was president of the Pacific Horticultural Foundation when Pacific Horticulture was launched in 1976, thirty years ago. Shortly thereafter, he moved to become the first director of the Arboretum at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. In 1982, he was instrumental in having the University of Utah designate one hundred acres of dramatic foothill habitat as Red Butte Garden.

Richard’s father, Dr AC Hildreth, had been the superintendent of the USDA’s Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station (now an adjunct of Cheyenne Botanic Garden) for nearly thirty years. He was also the visionary director who launched Denver Botanic Gardens into its extraordinary half century of growth and development. How many families can boast two leaders who guided four great gardens in four different Western states?

Although only a few decades old, Red Butte already encompasses an enormous range of aesthetic achievement and burgeoning collections. The original arboretum consisted of numerous special and unusual trees on the University of Utah campus; these include many unique specimens, such as giant sequoia (Sequoidendron giganteum), otherwise unknown in much of the Rocky Mountain region. Especially noteworthy is an extraordinary oak collection developed by Walter P Cottam. His half-century of research was summarized in a fascinating book called Oak Hybridization at the University of Utah (WP Cottam, JM Tucker, and FS Santamour Jr, State Arboretum of Utah, 1982).

In 1984, the current site of Red Butte Garden began to be planted in earnest. Ten years later, a visitor’s center and a new complex of sophisticated gardens were opened that are now maturing into one of the most harmonious and dramatic public gardens in North America. Indeed, the only public gardens I can think of that begin to rival Red Butte’s spectacular setting are the South African National Botanical Garden at Kirstenbosch in Cape Town and the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

From a high point in the Four Seasons Garden, visitors can look back on the Visitor’s Center and the distant skyline of Salt Lake City

From a high point in the Four Seasons Garden, visitors can look back on the Visitor’s Center and the distant skyline of Salt Lake City

The Gardens

When visitors arrive at Red Butte Garden, they encounter the first demonstration garden around the parking lot. Rather than planting water intensive exotics against the reflective asphalt, the horticultural designers on staff have selected many of the finest native and adapted groundcovers, shrubs, and trees to demonstrate water-wise principles and set a tone for novelty and interest. I especially admire the gnarly evergreen mountain mahoganies (Cercocarpus ledifolius var. intermontanus) the wide sweeps of Rocky Mountain sumac (Rhus glabra var. cismontana), maples that blaze red against the azure autumn sky, and the bright yellow flowers of rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus).

Visitors enter the nearly twenty acres of developed gardens through a tall, modernistic visitor’s center. This rectangular, glass-enclosed building echoes the vertical thrust of much of the site and the natural surroundings. After climbing up through and exiting the building, the first of many gardens encountered is the Four Seasons Garden, a sweeping swath of greensward leading your eyes up to the buttes and colorful peaks that suggested the Garden’s name. The turf is flanked on both sides with massive mixed borders planted in bold sweeps of shrubs, perennials, grasses, and bulbs that provide color and texture in every season. In late summer, I was dazzled by the artistic drifts of unusual native grasses, such as misty blond clouds of Muhlenbergia capillaris, as well as familiar Eurasian grasses, such as Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’. Masses of the intense bronze orange sunset hyssop (Agastache rupestris) provide a vivid counterpoint to the grasses. Throngs of yellow rudbeckias and cultivars of succulent Hylotelephium (syn. Sedum) complement the brilliant autumn color of dogwoods and crimson maples. Initially designed by Environmental Planning and Development (now MTR, or Marshall, Tyler, Rausch) in Pittsburgh, the plantings have been constantly refined to show off more and more plants that are better adapted to Salt Lake City’s intense sun, summer heat, and dry air (Sunset zone 3A).

The Water Pavilion is a peaceful destination at the side of a large pond

The Water Pavilion is a peaceful destination at the side of a large pond

Landscape architect Herb Schaal, a principal of EDAW’s offices in Fort Collins, Colorado, designed a series of three vast terraces that comprise the Herb, Medicinal, and Fragrance gardens. Each of these Terrace Gardens combines intimate combinational plantings that gardeners can adapt readily to much smaller home gardens, while honoring the grand architectural setting. Views in all directions are framed, accentuated, invited. A soft buff sandstone, used in gently curving walls, walkways, steps, and arches, provides subtle continuity throughout. The plantings, the extraordinary setting, and the architectural features are all knit together with boldness, yet with no one element upstaging the others.

None of these gardens matched my mental image of an “herb garden,” or a “fragrance garden.” The Children’s Garden is not filled with Disneyesque paraphernalia that so often mar such gardens. There are many activities designed to lure and delight children, but the designer wisely realized the power of the plant kingdom to entrance people of all ages. Chlorophyll, not plastic, is the focus here. In the Herb Garden, plants are combined in semiformal drifts, much as they might grow in nature with just the occasional curved miniature hedge of box or shrubby thyme to direct the eye. All the classic herbs are here, but not in the regimented rows inevitably found in conventional gardens: why try to impose mathematical precision in such a glorious wild setting? The contrast in color and texture between silvery artemisias and dark blue green mints reminds me of the contrasts in the sclerophyllous shrub assemblages one finds in mediterranean chaparral and steppe matorral communities in nature. It is as if the Herb Garden is yielding to its inherent naturalism, under the sway of the surrounding vistas. A more organic algebra, in the gentle curves of the pathways and the walls, honors the lay of the land and echoes the curves of the distant hills and mountains. The gentle drifts and groupings of shrubs and perennials everywhere suggest the contours of the Great Salt Lake below; the landforms and plants settle into one another simply and elegantly, as if they had been there forever.

An entrance arbor frames the view into the Herb Garden

An entrance arbor frames the view into the Herb Garden

Older Gardens

Beyond the Terrace Gardens, paths lead westward, downhill towards a series of older gardens featuring larger trees and more established plantings. The pathway skirts a ravine filled with mature native Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii) woodland and riparian trees, including massive specimens of the spectacular native Wasatch maple (Acer grandidentatum). A wonderfully arched oak tunnel (little altered from prehistoric times, I suspect) thrills children as much as adults, demonstrating that many of the finest features of a garden may not be the result of deliberate design.

A series of platforms, perched in the oak canopy, have been built in another natural spot, designed for outdoor classrooms, meeting places, bird watching, and relaxation. The path drops down to a series of clearings surrounded by the oldest trees, planted at the start of the Garden’s history: fifty-foot spruces, white firs, and all manner of deciduous trees. A large pond flanked by a Water Pavilion provides a great spot to rest on hot summer days and enjoy the immense koi in the pond (with convenient fishfood dispensers nearby). The ponds are bordered on both sides with wide mixed borders coordinated with colorful perennials, annuals and shrubs to provide a long season of vivid summer color. From here, the Dumke Floral Walk leads back to the visitor’s center, while trails lead into the surrounding wild country.

I have made a point of returning to Red Butte Garden every few years since its inception; each time, the Garden has struck me as utterly different from the time before. This is a truly dynamic garden! As with most major botanic gardens in large urban areas, Red Butte has the full panoply of activities and events that so many gardens are adopting. In addition to the artistic horticultural display, the staff conducts research in the field, cultivating more and more of the rich native flora of the Intermountain region to test for ornamental potential. Situated between a bustling metropolis and a vast wilderness, the education program emphasizes appreciation and study of nature, as well as home gardening. There are many naturalist led tours up the canyon to study the surprisingly pristine landscape preserved here forever.

There are the inevitable social events and festivities that bring new audiences to the site, and help pay the bills. Live musical performances on the amphitheater garden lawn are valuable fundraisers at Red Butte, as they are at Denver and other public gardens. The generous plantings of perennials and grasses in bold drifts, and the varied scenic backdrops provide an especially stimulating context for frequent sculpture exhibitions.

Sculpture, events, education, and research notwithstanding, the poorly kept secret of Red Butte will always be the drama of the site itself, embellished with such a graceful pleasure garden, perched on the shoulder of the Wasatch with stupendous views in all directions. It provokes more than a little jealousy in those of us who are destined to garden on level ground.

An ancient tunnel of Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii)

An ancient tunnel of Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii)

If You Should Like to Visit . . .

The Red Butte Garden, on the University of Utah campus, is located at 300 Wakara Way in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Garden is open daily, except for Thanksgiving Day and from December 23 through January 1; during the summer months, the garden is open until 9 pm. There is an admission charge. For information about the gardens, educational programs, membership, and volunteer activities, call 801/581-IRIS, email information@redbutte.utah.edu, or visit www.redbuttegarden.org.