Bees threaded through spikes of lavender, drawing nectar from the plant’s fragrant purple flowers. I knelt down and leaned in close to breathe in the rich scent and listen to the hum of the pollinators.
It was a hot July day with shifting clouds that occasionally sprinkled down rain. My mom and I were wandering the Ecotat Gardens and Arboretum, a 91-acre property in Hermon that’s owned and managed by the nonprofit Ecotat Trust. Open to the public, it’s a lovely, quiet spot to learn about plants, both cultivated and wild.
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“I need to grow some of this in my gardens,” my mom, Joyce, said as we inspected the tall cluster of lavender. She’s always loved the scent.
As we walked from flower bed to flower bed, I used the mobile app Seek to identify the plants we didn’t recognize. Big purple balloon flowers and white musk mallow blossoms caught our attention, as did a coral honeysuckle vine, which sported hot pink and yellow flowers.
Ecotat also features a network of forest paths that total about 1.5 miles. There we found an area of the forest covered with little yellow flowers on tall, thin stems. I believe it was a plant called wall lettuce, which is a nonnative perennial that thrives in forests.
At the edge of the forest, a few small magenta flowers caught my eye as a species I’d never noticed before. Growing atop dark green, grasslike foliage, I believe it was Deptford pink (also known as grass pink), another nonnative plant.
In the forest and throughout the gardens, we found old, faded signs identifying a variety of trees. Of the 280 different types of trees on the property, the flowering American sycamore and weeping European beech were my favorites.
It can be argued that mid-July isn’t prime time to view flower gardens, but it depends on what you’re aiming to see. Vibrant lilies were in bloom when we visited Ecotat, as were astilbe, daisy and bee balm plants.
Flower gardens are perfect places to visit if you’re looking for an easy walk in the sun with plenty of color and beauty. They’re also good for learning about plants, getting ideas for your own gardens and spotting pollinators like bumblebees and butterflies.
Other public gardens I’ve visited over the years include Viles Arboretum in Augusta, Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, Asticou Azalea Gardens in Northeast Harbor, Charlotte Rhoades Butterfly Garden in Southwest Harbor, Merryspring Nature Center in Camden and Woodlawn Museum, Gardens and Park in Ellsworth. Several of these gardens include forest trails as well as a network of paths through various flower beds and orchards.
Of those places, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens is the largest, and it blows me away every time I visit. This past spring, my sister and I drove down to the gardens to see the new “Guardians of the Seeds” art exhibit, which consists of giant wooden trolls constructed by recycled-materials artist Thomas Dambo.
The trolls are scattered throughout the 295-acre property, which is filled with themed gardens and whimsical installations. You can either stumble upon the massive sculptures or use a map and follow a story to track them down. I suggest doing the latter. It’s a magical experience. (Yes, they’re still there. I don’t think they’re going anywhere. They really are quite big.)
Like hiking trails, flower gardens have their own rules for visitors. Be sure to do a little research ahead of time so you aren’t surprised. For example, many gardens do not permit dogs.
While garden strolling may not be an epic adventure, it’s still time spent outdoors. To stay comfortable, I suggest carrying drinks and snacks with you. Insect repellent and sunscreen would also be useful, and I don’t forget your camera.
Also, like the wilderness, public gardens are places that should be treated with care. Don’t pick flowers or otherwise tamper with the plants. Leave the gardens as you find them so others can enjoy them just as much as you did.
Another tip: Many public gardens host events and workshops, so keep an eye out for that. Viles Arboretum has a wild edibles plant walk scheduled for July 20. Merryspring Nature Center hosts weekly Free Family Friday events, with July 22 themed as a bug safari and July 29 as a tree identification walk. And the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has a calendar packed with family-friendly gardening events and camps.
I’d be interested to hear about any public gardens in Maine that I haven’t mentioned in this column. I know there must be many more. If you know of one, send it to me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always looking for a new place to roam.