Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Today’s post is 1140 words, 21 photos, an 5 minute read. Enjoy

Hi everyone,

This week we are staying local with an excursion to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens here in Madison, Wisconsin. The occasion for our visit was that a group we belong to, Friendship Force of Wisconsin-Madison, was hosting visiting ambassadors from Japan and Australia. Because of a flight delay and very late arrival for the delegation from Japan, the five ambassadors from the Tweed Valley of Australia and their hosts had the gardens to themselves. Let’s get started with our walkabout. Ordinarily there is a tram that transports visitors around the gardens, it was not running the day of our visit due to downed trees from a recent wind storm.

About Olbrich

The Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a sixteen acre outdoor garden with a large indoor conservatory. The public/private partnership is co-owned and managed by the City of Madison and the Olbrich Botanical Society. The gardens are located near the shores of Lake Monona on the east side of Madison. The gardens backup to the Capital City bike and pedestrian trail and the railroad tracks that run through the isthmus. On the other side of the tracks is the historic Graver Feed Mill, now a foodie and wellness destination as well as an event center.

Olbrich Gardens began when Michael Olbrich purchased land in 1921 near Lake Monona for the development of a park and flower garden. That same year, the City of Madison took title to the land and with the help of Olbrich and others, additional land was acquired for the proposed gardens. It wasn’t until 1933 that the first planting of flowers took place by volunteer groups. In 1952, the Madison City Parks Department allocated funds to construct the gardens. Over the years, additional land and features were added to the gardens attracting about 350,000 visitors per year. The admission to the outdoor gardens is free although donations are accepted. There is a $6.00 fee to enter the Bolz Conservatory.

The Gardens

Olbrich features 17 different outdoor gardens within its boundaries. As we entered, we veered to the right through the Tribute Trellis to the Sunken Garden, one of the first gardens made in Olbrich. It’s patterned after a formal English-style garden with hedges and local limestone features. It was there that I stopped to make several photos of the water lilies with their beautiful blooms.

We continued our walk past the Hosta Garden with its collection of hostas of all sizes, shapes, and colors and the Woodland Garden, stopping along the way to admire the landscaping and flourishing plants. The path led us though the Shade garden and Birch Walk that grow along Starkweather Creek.

The Royal Thai Pavilion and Garden

We were so disappointed to find that the bridge to the Thai Pavilion was closed. A couple of days before our visit, a tree fell across the bridge that caused enough damage to make it unsafe for public use. The best we could do is peer through the trees to view the top of the Royal Thai Pavilion.

There is an interesting story related to the Thai Pavilion. The Pavilion or sala is a gift from the Government of Thailand and the Thai Chapter of the University of Wisconsin Alumni Association. They presented this unique gift in gratitude for the many Thai students that have attend UW-Madison over the years. It was decided to site the Pavilion at Olbrich Gardens because of its garden setting and proximity to water. Water is important in the Thai culture for its tie to good health and prosperity. This Pavilion is one of only four located outside of Thailand and is one of two in the U.S., the other is in Hawaii. The surrounding gardens are lush with tropical plants that are winter hardy here in Wisconsin. You can’t see it in this photo but there is a reflecting pool located in front of the Pavilion. In the right light, the reflections of the Pavilion make for great photography. In my opinion, the Royal Thai Pavilion and Gardens are worth the stop at Olbrich.

The Rest of the Gardens

During our walk back to the visitor center, we passed these huge hibiscus flowers. While this deep red is hard to photograph because the color is often over saturated in the final result, the overcast day helped to tone down the color. Even the close-up of the pistil in the center of flower turned out ok.

In one of the gardens, there was a nice man-made water feature with lush greenery benefiting from the humidity.

These late summer flowers were in full bloom adding to the calming nature of our stroll through the gardens.


During our visit, we noticed there were several people setting up a light installation called Gleam. It’s an outdoor art exhibit created by local and national designers that use light to enhance the garden experience. I’ve been to Olbrich in the winter, it’s beautiful and interesting but never at night. Gleam is an annual event, so it’s on my list for next year.

Bolz Conservatory

When entering the Bolz Conservatory, one feels the humidity immediately rise, yeah it’s a steady 60% with temperatures maintained at between 70 and 80 degrees F. This supports the thousands of tropical plants packed into the glass pyramid building. In addition to the plants and flowers, there are birds such as canaries, waxbills, and a small breed of quail. There butterflies, fish, frogs, and even a few lizards and geckos that thrive in this ecosystem.

The Bolz Conservatory was constructed and opened in 1991 primarily with funds from donations and partial city funding. This addition has proved to be very popular with the public. It’s even available to host small parties or weddings. The orange glass feature was created by a Madison couple giving the Bolz a bright spot of color.

These clay lanterns also added to the decor of the Conservatory.

With the high humidity and warm temperatures, the orchids and other flowers flourish in this environment. Below are a few photos I took during our visit to the Bolz.

When I saw what looks like a tangle mess of flowers, I was determined to capture a photo knowing full well that it is a tangle. This photo reminds me that nature is not orderly although we often try to make order out of the disorder. That’s what is fun about exploring nature, the unexpected and the interesting shapes, patterns, and textures. 

While the above photo is disorder, the close-up of the leaf below is in almost perfect order. If we were to zoom back from this scene, we might see more randomness and the neatness would disappear. 

It was a pleasant couple of hours meandering through Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Plant connoisseur’s will enjoy visiting these gardens, I know I did. I’ll be back!

If you missed last week’s post on Elkhart, Indiana, click here.

Until next week, happy travels!