Botanical Gardens Are Turning Away From Flowers

For the last quarter century, the Cleveland Botanical Garden went all out for its biennial Flower Show, the largest outdoor garden show in North America. With themed gardens harking back to the Roman empire, or an 18th-century English estate, the event would draw 25,000 to 30,000 visitors.

But in 2009, the Flower Show was postponed and then abandoned when the botanical garden could not find sponsors. This year, the garden has different plans. From Sept. 24 to 26, it is inaugurating the ‘RIPE! Food & Garden Festival,’ which celebrates the trend of locally grown food — and is supported in part by the Cleveland Clinic and Heinen’s, a supermarket chain.

‘The Flower Show may come back someday, but it’s not where people are these days,’ says Natalie Ronayne, the garden’s executive director. ‘Food is an easier sell.’

So it is across the country. Botanical gardens are experiencing an identity crisis, with chrysanthemum contests, horticultural lectures and garden-club ladies, once their main constituency, going the way of manual lawn mowers. Among the long-term factors diminishing their traditional appeal are fewer women at home and less interest in flower-gardening among younger fickle, multitasking generations.

Forced to rethink and rebrand, gardens are appealing to visitors’ interests in nature, sustainability, cooking, health, family and the arts. Some are emphasizing their social role, erecting model green buildings, promoting wellness and staying open at night so people can mingle over cocktails like the Pollinator (green tea liqueur, soda water and Sprite). A few are even inviting in dogs (and their walkers) free or, as in Cleveland, with a canine admission charge ($2).