Arboretum? Botanical garden? Is there a difference? It appears that the answer is — yes and no.

According to merriam-webster.com/dictionary, a botanical garden is a “garden with greenhouses for the culture, study and exhibition of special plants.” It can have all kinds of plants: bushes, shrubs, bedding plants, flowers, vegetables, herbs, trees. Some of the ways in which plants can be arranged and featured include natural settings, fields, beds, around walkways, in ponds and in sitting areas. Greenhouses may be a part of the garden. They present opportunities to grow and display plants in climate-controlled areas so that exotic plants and plants that will not grow outside their native climates can be studied.

An arboretum is a specialized botanical garden that features trees and other woody plants but may also include other kinds of plants. According to thespruce.com, an arboretum is a “botanical garden containing living collections of woody plants intended at least partly for scientific study, but also to inspire curiosity and build knowledge about plants and wooded landscapes in order to enhance life, preserve nature, and advance sound stewardship practices.”

Although the concept of botanical gardening can be traced back to very ancient history, most of our modern botanical gardens have been influenced by gardens located in old European universities and monasteries. Their primary purpose was to study and produce medicinal plants for use in Europe. Over time non-medical and ornamental plants were introduced. There were also botanical gardens in the tropics created originally to collect economically important plants (spices in particular) and they, too, gradually became more varied in the plants they displayed.

Modern botanical gardens are usually park-based and open to the public. They are focused on beauty, education, research and the opportunity to observe and admire nature. Native plants and those that thrive in the local climate are featured. At least one employed professional and many volunteers help maintain the gardens. Educational goals are met through plant identification labels, lectures, tours and/or special events that the public can attend.

Arboretums, botanical gardens and nature parks can be found throughout East Texas. Tyler, Longview, Athens, Jacksonville, Nacogdoches, Quitman and Palestine are some of the towns that are home to public gardens open for your exploration. Find and explore them all!

The Smith County Master Gardener program is a volunteer organization in connection with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

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