A hidden world of exotic vegetation at the Riga Botanical Gardens

  • 2008-08-13
  • By Monika Hanley

GARDENS: This flowery paradise is a great place to spend a few hours smelling the roses and viewing exotic vegetation.

RIGA - Just behind a nondescript green wooden fence on the outskirts of Riga lies a bountiful and fragrant treasure that could easily go unnoticed by the casual passerby. The sprawling grounds of the botanical gardens are perfect for a relaxing stroll among rock gardens with fountains and ponds to banana trees and coffee plants.

With over 400 species of Latvian plants, you can get an idea of how big the gardens are. The overall collection houses around 6,000 varieties of plants from all over the world.
The botanical gardens don't just exhibit flora and fauna 's they've also maintained the original 18th- and 19th-century wooden buildings of the former Volfsmit estate. Since 1922 the gardens, an offshoot of the University of Latvia, have been cultivated on the 15 hectare plot of land.

After hopping off bus 37, cross the street and pay the 1.5 lat (2.13 euro) entry fee. At first it seems like there's nothing beyond the green gates, but turn the corner and the sight takes your breath away. You'll gape at the huge flower trees and sprawling lawns while a fragrant rose-scented breeze washes over your face.
Get a map, but don't use it at first 's just meander around the grounds and ooh and ahh over the interesting plants, then check out the various collections. My favorites were the poisonous and medicinal plant exhibits. The Latvian talent for horticulture really shows here, with hundreds of folk remedies still in use today, curing everything from sleeping disorders to vision problems.

To save the best (and most humid) exhibit for last, go to the greenhouses in the middle of the gardens. The four buildings house tropical and sub-tropical plants like palm, avocado and pineapple trees. Since this botanical garden is one of the oldest in Europe, visitors have a chance to see 80-year-old fig trees and giant palms. Scattered among the plants are amusing gnomes and other statues.
If the gardens fill you with the urge for exotic gardening, many of the plants in the greenhouses are available for purchase at moderate prices, and the helpful staff members are glad to talk your ear off about various techniques to get the best results.

I went with a friend to the gardens and was surprised to see how quickly three hours passed. Time flies when marveling at 950 types of perennials and 130 kinds of dahlias. It's truly a walk to remember.
The gardens were definitely impressive, but they're set to get even better. In 2007, various ministries and the Riga Council sponsored an international competition for creating a visual image of the gardens to meet new demands in research and education, as well as aesthetic appearance.  The university is using the winning designs to help shape the future of the botanical gardens.

The gardens are open from 9:00 to 19:00 from May through September and 9:00 to 16:30 October through April. Students and seniors get a discount, and the park is handicap accessible, which is uncommon for most sites in Latvia. Because the gardens focus on education, interesting 45-minute guided tours are available in Latvian, Russian, English and German. For reservations call +371-67450852