Tropicals & more at Olbrich Botanical Gardens


Boy, was I surprised to see agaves in Madison, Wisconsin, at Olbrich Botanical Gardens on my recent visit. Well, sure, they’re in containers and must spend the winter in a greenhouse, but still it was fun to see these familiar faces out of context.


This border surrounds a shady patio with comfortable seating near the garden’s entrance, so I stayed to enjoy the view for a while.


Nearby, this water garden in a stone trough caught my eye. Simply beautiful.


Gigantic phormiums anchor a focal-point bed in one of the gardens. You never see these in Austin, but I admire them on the blogs of my California gardening friends. I’m not sure I like them paired with pink roses, however.


The afternoon sun lit them up.


Red cordyline looks especially pretty backlit too, especially juxtaposed with glowing chartreuse foliage.


And check out these elephant ears, nearly as big as their namesake.


Batface cuphea (C. llavea) was another surprise here. This one sure looks a lot better than the one struggling back from last winter’s hard freeze in my garden. Obviously it would be an annual in Wisconsin or else overwintered in the greenhouse.


There was plenty of wow power from less-tropical plantings too, like this winding river of Japanese blood grass. As it’s hardy only to zone 6, I’m guessing it must be replanted each year this far north? Experience on the ground beats Internet info any day. My thanks to Monica and Kim for letting me know that blood grass is hardier than I thought, at least to zone 5.


I like this simple focal point: a tan Carex (I think) on a pedestal, surrounded by a tapestry of green.


The precision of a knot garden surrounded by looser plantings of herbs and lantana


She’s doing what I was doing.


A pretty blue fruit dangling from a mystery tree or shrub. Sorry for the lack of IDs on some of these.


Every time I photograph the long stems of Verbena bonariensis topped with pretty purple flowers I tell myself I’m going to plant some. This has been going on for years. OK, this is the year I’m going to plant it.


I mean it.

For more from this jewel of a garden, see yesterday’s post about some of my favorite scenes at Olbrich. Tune in tomorrow for images of Olbrich’s stunning, authentic Thai sala and a tropical-style garden that surrounds it.

All material © 2006-2010 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

12 Responses

  1. Jean says:

    Lovely place. In that second photo it looks like a mulberry tree – could that be? Love that stone trough too. Please, please don’t buy any V. bonariensis – I will gladly give you some. I hope to make it to Austin sometime this fall but if I don’t, I’ll send some. You can plant it anytime of year.

  2. Cyndy says:

    Hi Pam, I’m surprised you don’t see phormium in Austin – I grow a couple, ‘Dusky Chief’ and ‘Pink Stripe’ in containers and they are irreplaceable focal points in the sunny border. I’m nursing along a contained agave ‘Silver Surfer’ that should get bigger eventually. Love the use of containers at Olbrich – absolutely stunning, as are your photos!

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Such yummy combinations. I am always wowed by those huge agaves in pots.

  4. Thanks for the trip and the great photographs! Who’d have thunk it in Wisconsin? I want to go now! I had that verbena for many years. It is lovely in its season.

  5. I’ve never seen so much Japanese blood grass in one place. Stunning. But about it only being hardy to zone 6 – I grew it very successfully in Michigan in zone 5 so I know it can go at least a little farther north than zone 6. Madison’s in zone 5 (I think) so I imagine it could grow quite well there, with perhaps a little winter protection.

  6. Denise says:

    Pam, that first photo is outrageously gorgeous, the colors, the composition. And I’m sure there’s plenty of bloggers than can send some V. bonar. seed to Digging. Let me know if you need any.

  7. Yay for Agave in Madison!!! And I really enjoyed your ‘grasses’ post too…

  8. Oooh. Whatever that gold-leaf plant/shrub is in the second photo… I want it! I love the color AND the unusual, modern-looking leaf shape.

    I’ll go a little further than Monica on the Japanese bloodgrass. I know quite a few people back home in Zone 5 who overwinter it with no problems, and they don’t get nearly the protective snowcover that I would imagine Madison sees every winter. So unless they have a particularly bad winter (meaning, cold AND little snowcover) I doubt that their bloodgrass skips a beat.

  9. […] I hope you haven’t gotten tired of Olbrich yet because I’ve got more to post. If, like me, you can’t get enough, see yesterday’s post about Olbrich’s ornamental grasses. Tune in tomorrow for tropical plantings and more at Olbrich. […]

  10. […] more, see yesterday’s post about tropicals at Olbrich. On Saturday I’ll post the last of my images from Olbrich’s various […]

  11. The Olbrich is a fascinating garden, Pam! The Japanese blood grass grew just fine in my former NW IL garden, and it really was zone 5 back then! If I’d seen batfaced cuphea for sale I’d have grown it as an annual.

    Here in Austin, a few friends have tried Phormiums and Cordyline but they don’t seem to survive our winters.
    Did you notice the white Cleome & Salvia farinacea in front of the other photographer? Along with Verbena bonariensis they were reseeding annuals in my IL garden. But they didn’t really get going until late summer…it looks like your early September visit was a perfect time to see an upper Midwest garden!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  12. Sara says:

    HI, noticed something about Lantana’s yesterday when i picked one. They have a very fragrant lemon balmy, citronellay smell. Just thought i’d share that. Have you ever noticed this.

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