When your plants threaten to wilt with the surging summer temperatures, you might offer them an alternative: a cool respite on an arctic slope—tell them you know of a little spot 14,780 feet (4,500 meters) above sea level, in the Swiss Alps. If your hydrangea balks ("No plant could grow there! So high, so cold!"), mention the purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), a plant that grows quite happily in these high snowy peaks.
What's brighter than a peacock and shinier than a butterfly? A tiny, hard, fruit that grows in the forests of Tanzania, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and other African countries. According to biologists, the tiny fruits of Pollia condensata, a meter-tall perennial herb commonly known as the marble berry, surpass anything other living organism in their capacity to dazzle with a rainbow of iridescent light.
Vertical gardens have grown a lot since 1988, when French botanist Patrick Blanc first experimented growing plants without dirt—on a wall. Their popularity seems limited only by its design, which has been demystified as a fairly straightforward system of a water source, a frame, and a couple layers of felt or wool. Restaurants in Mexico and studios in Manhattan now grow walls of philodendrons, ivies, ferns, bromeliads, begonias, and hoyas. And they've been growing bigger.
Until the early part of the twentieth century, a town in southern Netherlands provided a passage for smugglers, who ported coffee, butter, and meat from adjacent countries. Today, the historic town is famous for a new attraction: Drielandenpunt Labyrinth, Europe's largest open air shrub maze. It was designed in 1992 by British landscape artist Adrian Fisher, who built the labyrinth with 17,000 hornbeam shrubs, and perhaps a nod to the smuggler—a metaphor for navigating the intricate maze.
"I wondered why so many gardens around the world focused on the healing power of plants rather than their ability to kill. I felt that most children I knew would be more interested in hearing how a plant killed, how long it would take you to die if you ate it, and how gruesome and painful the death might be." —Duchess of Northumberland, on curating the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle.
The first topiary sculptures were trimmed in 1st century Roman villas. By the 16th century, topiary had become an emblem of European landscape design, and it was embraced by colonial American gardens of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these Victorian-era menageries still grows today at an historic country estate in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. With its century-old living sculptures, Green Animals Garden is the oldest topiary in the United States.
One day a minister in Crossville, Tennessee was praying when, as he says, god made a suggestion. "If you build a tree house, I'll see that you never run out of material." And so Horace Burgess found a good tree, and began gathering wood. Today, 19 years later, the minister's treehouse is about 97 feet tall—the largest in the world, says Burgess, and probably the only one with a basketball hoop in the chapel.
The ultimate garden revival project is underway at the site of an ancient palace in modern day–Jerusalem, where scientists are reconstructing what was in bloom in the kingdom of Biblical Judah. The gardens at Ramat Rachel, they say, were designed with a wealth of exotic plants and native fruit trees—the origins of a horticultural tradition in Israel.